Fear of GMOs is Impacting Quality Food Research [Opinion]

A sweet corn GE research project succeeded in engineering sweet corn that blocks corn from developing aflatoxin, which has been shown to cause liver damage and to stunt childhood growth.

And like many similar research projects involving genetic engineering before it, its success did not guarantee continued funding.

A lot of things go into deciding which projects get funding for secondary research. Generally speaking, there are fewer slots available for that deeper level of research projects. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the first phase of the University of Arizona’s sweet corn research, told the Arizona Daily Star only 10% to 15% of projects do.

That said, the anecdotal information that researcher Monica Schmidt shared with the Arizona Daily Star indicates that when a group is trying to decide which research to continue with, the political firestorm that can surround genetic engineering has an impact on decision making. When presented with several strong research projects, most if not all of which were initially funded to benefit human health, why go with the one that has a potential for political fallout? 

Since taking on the role of Editor of American Vegetable Grower magazine®, I’ve talked with several researchers, suppliers, and growers about which issues are most important to the industry.

I met with a Penn State professor during the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA. He was hopping mad when we sat down. A keynote speaker that day had railed against those arrogant enough to think humans can have an impact on climate. My companion wasn’t necessarily angry about someone expressing a disbelief in climate change — that’s a common viewpoint in this industry. What really cranked him up was he saw the speech as just the latest evidence of a widespread disdain for science. (And he didn’t like that it happened at a conference where the quality of research and horticultural science presented was top notch.)

Then he started talking about the knee-jerk rejection of genetic research on food. To him, the greatest threat to our industry is a public that values instinctual opinion over careful research and the findings of experts who have dedicated years to their field of study.

I have to agree with him. No scientist claims to have all the answers. In fact, that kind of claim goes against the foundation of the scientific method. Research tests ideas. And if an idea passes a test, researchers come up with another way to test it again. If they learn something new, it is published in a journal where the researcher’s peers can jump in and tear it apart. Then those peers begin their own testing methods. For a concept to become accepted science, it has been beaten up every way scientists can think of.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be an ethical review of how genetic modification is handled. With the newer CRISPR technology, the need for guidelines is even more urgent. (Read Frank Giles’ excellent article on CRISPR to gain an understanding on its immense potential for the industry.) These are powerful methods that, used carelessly or without some real thought about the future ramifications, could have a negative impact on individuals or society. But they also can do great good. CRISPR has already shown it’s the first method that can cure muscular dystrophy in mice. The impact on future diseases like cancer, MS, and other genetically based illnesses is amazing.

The jury is still out on how CRISPR will be viewed by the public. Will they view it like they do GMOs, as an evil technology that will lead to the end of life on Earth as we know it? Or will they be willing to give it a chance to improve life, and to improve our fruits and vegetables?