In the last 10 years, the GMO (genetically modified organism) debate hasn’t changed much. Despite a robust chorus of mainstream publications breaking down GMO myths and at least one former anti-GMO activist making a very public reversal, non-GMO certifications are growing fast and customer behavior sfeems to be cemented, if not always based on science.
Recently in the Wall Street Journal, a former anti-GMO activist wrote that though he had changed his views, his campaigns to alert the world to the perceived danger of GMOs have had lasting impact. “There’s no denying the remarkable worldwide success of our campaign,” wrote Mark Lynas.
Whether or not you put stock in the most common complaints about GMO technology and its seed products, right now, those with concerns are successfully pushing the food industry, and therefore to some extent agriculture, away from transgenic technology.
That being said, scientists and seed companies have far from abandoned GMOs as a subject of research and development, and some new approaches using GM technology could address the more pervasive consumer concerns.
“A lot of the folks in the industry now are thinking of what things could they do with traditional GMO that might not have the baggage of GMO — to do it in a different way,” said Brad Fabbri, chief scientific officer at Kansas-based agtech venture development organization TechAccel.
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Genetic modification is often defined as the introduction of foreign DNA into an organism’s genome to manifest certain traits and characteristics. Though most criticism of the technology is pitted at GMOs on the whole, it’s important to note that criticisms and concerns focus on how the technology has commonly been applied: to create crops that can withstand common pesticides and insects. As the entrance of new GMO crops onto the market shows, other applications of the same technology may not be met with the same concern.
Some of the main criticisms around GMOs include:
- Pollen Drift: When GMO genetic material is unintentionally spread to neighboring fields by the wind, vehicles, insects or other means
- Resistance: When pests and weeds evolve to survive the treatments designed to kill them
- Safety: According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 39% of Americans believe that GM foods are worse for one’s health — 48% believe they are just as healthful as other foods. When given the options of choosing “not sure” on the same question, the percentage believing that GMOs are “worse for health” drops to 33%.
Here are some GMO technologies that could ease the scare-factor of these criticisms.
GMO pollen drift has been a major concern for farmers since the 1990s and eventually, consumers caught wind. Pollen from GMO plants like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola, for example, can easily drift by wind or bees into fields nearby or even miles away. This is not exclusive to GMO plants, but in the case of GMOs with non-GMO neighbors, it becomes a much bigger problem.
Lawsuits about GMO drift go back as far as 1999 — and probably farther — and display a range of complaints flowing in both directions from farmers to seed companies and the reverse. Organic farmers have often complained, in and out of court, that genetic drift has caused them to lose organic certifications or prevent them from getting one. Monsanto has sued farmers for growing their Roundup Ready crops without paying the proper fees, while the farmers claim that the crops ended up on their land because of drift.
Remedying this problem would go a long way in removing one of the major criticisms of GMO seeds, and their biggest proponent Monsanto — now Bayer — and a St. Louis company run by former Monsanto employees may have the answer.
Plastomics is working to shorten the pipeline for developing new seeds with multiple transgenic traits, increasing the speed and lowering the cost of designing new seeds. But, unlike other GM methods, these traits are not carried in pollen.
Seeds today are altered by inserting the desirable traits into the nucleus of a cell. The chloroplast of a cell, where photosynthesis takes place, offers another place to put new traits, but it’s no simple task. Plastomics is working to develop a standardized process to use chloroplast engineering in corn.
Apart from adding speed and decreasing cost, using chloroplasts to introduce new traits instead of the nucleus of the cell is also advantageous because chloroplasts do not exist in pollen, which essentially makes it impossible for the genetically modified material to be spread by pollinators or wind.
“With current transgenic plants, the traits are actually carried in the pollen. The pollen could drift someplace where you don’t want it and could give transgenes to a plant on a neighboring field. This completely avoids that,” explained Fabbri back in February when TechAccel announced its investment in the company.
“Plants are really good at evolving and gaining herbicide resistance even way before there were any GMOs,” explained Fabbri. In other words, weeds (and pests) are always adapting to survive the methods farmers use to kill them. Scientists are concerned, in fact, that humans may not be able to innovate their way out of this problem, such is the speed of weeds’ adaptation.
For most farmers, pest and weed problems are controlled with an input of some kind, though crop rotation and certain cover crops can be effective as well. Monsanto’s answer to growing glyphosate resistance has been dicamba, an additional herbicide added to combat it along with a seed resistant to both herbicides.
The result has been controversial as dicamba drift damaged neighboring fields not planted with the dicamba-resistant seed. In many states, strict regulations — and in some cases outright bans — have been put in place.
RNAi is the technology that proponents claim could change the game and stop the cycle of resistance, at least for pests.
One such company working on a scaled application for RNAi technology is Massachusetts-based Greenlight Biosciences.
Greenlight’s technology targets pests’ RNA, the material that DNA employs to communicate what proteins to build, so that essential proteins are not manufactured, causing the death of certain insects and other pests. Because the pesticide, which is made of double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA), is so targeted, it only affects the intended organisms and does not affect the plant or those that consume the plants.
The US Environmental Protection Agency approved a variety of genetically-modified corn embedded with the pesticidal RNA for use in June, but Jeffrey Nee of Monsanto told New Scientist that the company would likely not launch the product until the end of the decade.
RNAi technology and other biological pesticides won’t necessarily change the dynamics of GMO seeds on the market today, but if their efficacy and price can match the chemicals in use now, they could shift the priorities of seed developers away from herbicide and pest resistance toward other traits that may be more palatable for consumers.
“I think there is a need to [develop new tools in the area of resistance] but I hate to see technology focused on that because that gives consumers no benefit,” says Vonnie Estes, an agtech innovation consultant and the 2017 recipient of Rosalind Franklin award for leadership in biotechnology.
Since the best known and most widely used GMO seeds are engineered to withstand applications of the pesticide glyphosate, there is a common perception — if not misconception — that this leads farmers to apply the pesticide with reckless abandon causing these chemicals to get into waterways and degrade soil health.
“No farmers is going to do that. Anything that can save farmers money, they do. They’re not going to put more on then they need,” said Estes.
But knowing how much pesticide is needed is where it gets tough.
Though prescriptions for applying fertilizer are more common than prescriptions for pesticides, many digital agriculture technology companies offer variable rate pesticide maps and application recommendations using all manner of data inputs to do so.
Ceres uses multi-spectral imaging from airplanes to provide farmers with insights about their crops including disease prediction along with irrigation and pesticide recommendations. Mavrx, recently acquired by Taranis, also uses publicly-available satellite imagery, and in some cases, ultra-high-resolution imagery from planes, to helps farmers assess potential problem areas and prescribe pesticides and other products.
Gamaya is a drone sensor and analytics platform that uses a combination of space-borne and proprietary drone-based hyper-spectral imaging data, along with the corresponding historical climate and weather records, to provide farmers with alerts about pests and disease, yield predictions, and prescriptions for input application rates.
Blue River Technologies “see and spray” robot uses a different method to reach a similar outcome. The company claims that this precision application of inputs — in comparison to the broad-based application of fertilizer and chemicals that traditional equipment allows — will reduce the amount of chemicals used in agriculture by 90 percent.
Bayer and Syngenta also have their own offerings in this vein.
Adopters of these technologies are still in the minority on farms globally and in the US, but Estes said that the players are making progress, however painful.
“As farmers start integrating these technologies, they are going to be so much more precise, but they are not adopting as fast as we would like them to because there’s not one single screen that can tell them everything. We’re in the very early stages and that’s frustrating a lot of people,” said Estes.
These technologies can address some of the major consumer grievances with GMO, but no environmental or farmer benefit is going to help overcome the perception that GMO food isn’t safe to eat. With more than one-third of Americans convinced that GMO food is less healthy, Estes says that attempting to convince or convert non-believers is not the best route.
“I don’t know that the facts will make an impact. We’ve had facts. We have 20 years of real data and all the top scientists in the world. We have lots of facts that GMOs aren’t harmful but that doesn’t seem to matter,” said Estes. “If there are products that come out that actually give consumers something they want, that has a higher likelihood of acceptance.”
Both Estes and Fabbri offered the Arctic Apple, which is genetically engineered not to brown, as the beacon of hope that consumer behavior can change when the incentives are right. Arctic Apples hit stores in late 2017. The brand is the first GMO crop to obviously and directly benefit consumers, and so far it seems to be proving the hypothesis that consumer benefit is the secret to public approval.
“To say Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc’s latest product has been extremely well received might just be an understatement,” said the company that owns the Arctic Apple in a June 29 release. “Following their debut to US consumers this March on Amazon.com, Arctic ApBitz dried apples quickly became the number one new release in both the snack and dried fruit categories,” it continued.
“If you don’t have commodity corn and you have something like an Arctic Apple, you can go label up the wazoo and make sure that the consumer has absolute choice and knowledge of what it is. It’ll get people over the illogical fear,” said Fabbri.
Estes also mentioned that GMO could be used to boost the nutritional value of crops – an issue gaining more awareness among consumers.
“I think there are a lot of things that could be done in pathways of different nutrients so that they would not break down over time as we continue to ship food far afield,” she said.
Conspicuously absent here is any mention of gene editing — often positioned as an alternative to transgenic techniques. Gene editing involves cutting into the genome of a plant to remove or edit existing DNA — certainly changing the DNA of the organism, but not adding any foreign genetic material.
While gene editing is one of the most exciting developments in food today, it’s not a wholesale replacement for GMO technologies and products. The same limited scope that has led gene-editing to be unregulated by the USDA, places limits on what the technology can do.
“If you’re working in corn and soy and you’re not trying to produce a non-GMO product, it’s a valuable tool. You can’t do everything with gene editing that you can do with GMO,” said Estes.
Despite seemingly intractable public opinion, Estes is still hopeful that change is possible; it just may have more to do with a shift in the generation at the center of purchasing power and not the changing of individual minds.
“This is my hope; I don’t have data, but my daughter is more interested in technology and the sustainability of food and that is going to drive her to ask the questions. Younger generations have just been around technology more and aren’t as afraid.”