UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Winter 2014

Past Issues

Busting GMO Myths

UC Riverside scientists Norm Ellstrand and Alan McHughen address misconceptions about genetically modified organisms and the processes that create them

By Konrad Nagy and Lilledeshan Bose

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — are a hot topic all over the world. There are questions about production, safety and regulation. Are they safe? Is the technology our way into food security for the planet? Will they harm the environment? Two UCR scholars — professor of genetics Norm Ellstrand and biotechnology specialist and geneticist Alan Mchughen — clarify common beliefs about GMOs.

The technology behind the creation of GMOs makes it unsafe.

 False. The technology that creates GMOs is a tool of science. In the 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences declared that the process of genetic engineering is not inherently hazardous. “Harms are always caused by things, not by processes,” Alan McHughen says. “It’s the final product that has to be assessed [for safety]. It’s possible to use genetic engineering to introduce toxins into a food crop that doesn’t traditionally carry those toxins. But if the technology is used instead to, say, increase vitamin A in the food, then that’s probably a beneficial product.”

It’s no big deal that crop genes get into wild populations.

 False. Crop genes in the wild can cause trouble — not all the time — but on occasion. Ellstrand maintains there’s no fundamental difference between genes transferred from genetic engineering and genes that are transferred by other means, such as traditional breeding. Europe’s “weed beet” that has cost its sugar industry over a billion dollars in lost product is the result of natural hybridization between a wild beet species and (non-GMO) sugarbeet.

We need to regulate GMOs for food safety.

 False. Food safety with approved GMOs is not an issue. “We have a huge issue in food safety with lots of other things: contaminants, E. coli, salmonella, listeria, arsenic. But if genetic engineers were to develop a rice plant or a potato with, say, an increased vitamin A content that was so high it would cause a problem, it would never get on the market. There’s a very strong regulatory structure in place in the United States and that’s what they check for. We’ve been eating GMOs since the mid-‘90s — almost 20 years now — and there’s still not a single documented case of harm to humans.” McHughen says.

“We shouldn’t just arbitrarily lock away certain tools such as genetic engineering. We just have to be mindful of how we use those tools.”

Norm Ellstrand

All GMO crops have been wonderful successes.

False. Ellstrand cites the flavr savr tomato and the low-nicotine tobacco as examples. Both these products were developed commercially but were marketing failures due to a variety of reasons. They — and many other similar products — are no longer on the market. “Some advocates of biotech crops say they’re all wonderful, they’re all perfect, but they’re not,” Ellstrand says.

GMOs will ruin our existing food systems

 False. McHughen believes the production of GMOs is best way to provide food security for the planet, particularly in poorer countries. “If Europe and the United States banned GMOs outright, it probably would not cause a huge impact, apart from an increase in the price of food. (A lot of U.S. farmers would also get pretty annoyed, since 90 percent of them who can grow GMO crops do so.) Poorer countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, won’t get by without GMO technology,” McHughen says. Products such as drought-resistant seeds would provide a huge benefit to these countries.

All GMO crops create some kind of problem.

 False. Ellstrand gives the example of the genetically modified, virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya: “It not only saved the Hawaiian papaya industry but also saved the non-GMO Hawaiian organic industry by reducing the incidence of the viral disease.”

You need a label on a food product to tell you whether it contains genetically engineered products.

 False. “You just look at the label of ingredients,” Norm Ellstrand says. “If it’s not labelled organic and one or more of the ingredients include U.S.-grown corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed oil, papaya, beet sugar, or alfalfa, there’s a 90 percent or better chance that it’s genetically engineered.”

“Harms are always caused by things, not by processes.”

Alan McHughen

Gene transfer via genetic engineering is unnatural.

False. Genes naturally move between kingdoms of organisms due to viruses or bacteria, and while it’s rare, it does happen.

In Europe, GMOs aren’t allowed into the food supply.

False. It’s true that very few GMOs are cultivated by farmers in Europe. “In fact, they really only grow genetically engineered corn — and only in a few countries,” McHughen says. “However, Europeans have plenty of food in the markets that are from genetically modified plants, which are imported from abroad.”

Above all else, the controversy involving GMOs is about technology.

 True. Most anti-GMO activists won’t admit it, but their real concern is that the technology seems to be controlled by a handful of multinational corporations, McHughen says. “They don’t like the idea of something as visceral and basic as the food supply being controlled by companies. That’s a fair issue, and it’s a very good question for society to discuss,” he adds.

“Is it appropriate in our multicultural, democratic society to have the food supply controlled by a handful of companies? That it’s an opportunity for discussion that gets sidetracked by the safety issues because people are much more concerned about safety than they are about these socioeconomic issues.”

Ellstrand adds, “We’ve got a lot of problems in the world; we shouldn’t just arbitrarily lock away certain tools such as genetic engineering. We just have to be mindful of how we use those tools.”