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Why GMOs are still divisive

By Staff | Jan 8, 2016

DR. RUTH MCDONALD, chair of Iowa State University’s department of food science and nutrition, discusses biotechnology as it effects food production and consumers’ perspectives on GMOs during a Dec. 30 crop clinic in Iowa Falls.

IOWA FALLS – Despite repeated research by independent scientists and universities that find no proof that GMO food poses any harm to human health, some consumers are still uneasy about eating them.

Dr. Ruth McDonald said she understands the mistrust, although maintains it’s unfounded.

McDonald, the chair of Iowa State University’s department of food science and nutrition, said that GMOs are considered a risky proposition by some consumers.

“Rock climbing is far more risky than eating GMOs,” McDonald said, “but food is something you take into your body.”

McDonald was the keynote speaker at the annual North Central Iowa Crop and Land Stewardship Clinic in Iowa Falls on Dec. 30

DR. RUTH?MCDONALD tells farmers that although GMOs help them in producing higher yields, that’s not important to skeptical consumers who don’t see a direct benefit to them.

She said agriculture “has been messing with genes since we left the days of hunters and gatherers.”

In the 21st century, she said, plant genetics can be edited, or silenced, accomplishing what nature does naturally, in shorter time.

“This is a field that’s not standing still,” McDonald said, “and it’s confusing to consumers.”

Since researchers have employed recombinant DNA to develop medicines since the 1980s, McDonald said, “What’s the difference in using it for food?”

Recombinant DNA are DNA molecules formed by laboratory methods of genetic recombination (such as molecular cloning) to bring together genetic material from multiple sources, creating sequences that would not otherwise be found in the genome.

GMOs and ag

McDonald listed what GMOs accomplish for farmers including herbicide tolerances, insect and virus resistances, delaying ripening, amino acid composition, improving plant quality increasing yields and quality and, in some cases, improve nutrition.

“But none of this is important to consumers,” McDonald said. She said the perspective is, “If there is no benefit to them directly, then the risk is not worth it.”

Noting that the U.S. has an abundant food supply, she said hardly any fresh fruit or vegetable available today, whether a GMO or not, does not exist in nature without human having tinkered with genetics for color, size, taste or variety.

“The spinach and broccoli as we know them today,” she said, “do not exist in nature. They are manmade.

“How do you think we got 52 varieties of apples?”

Digesting GMOs

One of the biggest worries among consumers is consuming food with altered DNA, not sure if it will interfere with their own.

Recalling high school biology lessons for her audience, McDonald said people have to remember that all plants and animals have DNA and proteins.

Consumed food are digested into basic units – DNA to nucleotides and proteins to amino acids.

“These units are absorbed into the body to make human DNA and proteins,” McDonald said. “GMO DNA and protein are digested like all other sources. They break down and go away.”

In addition, 70 to 80 percent of all food are processed with GMO ingredients, McDonald said, mostly after oil and meal has been extracted from GMO grains.

“Most people think the GMO follows through the processing in all components,” she said, “but they don’t.”

After 30 years

McDonald quoted from a comprehensive study by the University of California-Davis that tracked the human and animal safety record over the last three decades since GMOs entered the food system for humans and as animal feed.

Studying GMOs for livestock feed, it found “no changes in health, growth or reproduction” in any domesticated animal studied.

GMOs for humans, the study is classed as “the largest epidemiological study ever completed” and found there was “no reported illness or negative health effect” and “no allergen risk.”

In dependent studies throughout the U.S. and Europe, McDonald said they “found no safety concerns.

“Major health organizations support GMO safety,” she said. “Yet in the back of consumers’ minds there that little voice that says, ‘but, but, but …'”

GMOs vs. organic

Consumer perception is again the difference in this argument between GMO and organic food products, McDonald said.

“Once the label organic came out,” she said, “it set a dividing line, that somehow organic was more healthy and safe.”

She said the organic market has exploded into a $39.4 billion market in 2014. Iowa is fifth in the U.S. in farmers growing for the organic food industry.

“Most Iowa farmers do it because there is a premium for the products,” McDonald said, “but organic does make food more nutritious.

“Organic is only a production system”

Consumers, McDonald said, say their biggest concern is chemical residues on food grown in conventional farming.

She cited a study printed in 2011 in the Journal of Toxicology that said “finding conclusively demonstrate that consumer exposures to the 10 most frequently detected pesticides … are at negligible levels.

“Our findings do not indicate that substituting organic forms of commodities for convention forms will lead to any measurable consumer health benefit.”

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