PHYLLIS JOHNSON: Politics, not science or health, calls for GMO labeling
GRAND FORKS -- I have to reluctantly agree with Bruce Gjovig's endorsement of national standards for the labeling of food containing genetically engineered ingredients, but only because it is better than a state-by-state patchwork of laws that wi...
GRAND FORKS - I have to reluctantly agree with Bruce Gjovig's endorsement of national standards for the labeling of food containing genetically engineered ingredients, but only because it is better than a state-by-state patchwork of laws that will be expensive and confusing for consumers and food companies alike ("Gjovig endorses national labeling for GMO foods," Page A1, March 7).
My strong reluctance to endorse national GMO labeling is because I really am opposed to any GMO labeling at all. Such labeling in large part panders to widespread scientific illiteracy in this country.
The lack of understanding of what is involved in any sort of genetic modification has led many people to be fearful of eating GMO foods. In fact, the weight of evidence for the safety of GMO foods is overwhelming, and major scientific societies around the world agree that GMO foods are safe.
In conventional plant or animal breeding, when two organisms breed together, their genes are
re-sorted, so that for any given trait, the offspring have some genes from one parent and some genes from the other. We see this all the time when children look like their father in some ways and their mother in other ways.
This re-sorting of genes is a random process, so for traits such as crop yield or disease resistance that are controlled by multiple genes, it can be necessary for tens of thousands of offspring to be screened after a genetic cross in order to find the ones with the best combination of traits.
This is why breeding new crop varieties can take so long.
Another problem is that undesirable genes often are "linked" to the desirable ones because they are close together on a strand of DNA, so that they are re-sorted together. This can result in the introduction of unwanted traits that interfere with crop production or that are toxic or allergenic - in conventionally bred foods.
Even conventional breeding has resulted in potatoes with toxic levels of glycoalkaloids, celery with high levels of psoralens that create susceptibility to sunburn, and allergens in kiwi fruit.
So, just because a food is conventionally bred is not a guarantee that it's safe.
Genetic modification is a scientific process that allows the desired genes to be precisely targeted so that they show up in the offspring but the undesired genes don't. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made it clear that it considers GM foods to be equivalent to conventionally bred foods and safe to eat.
GM foods are subject to all the same food safety requirements as conventional foods and often are tested more for safety than are conventional foods.
And after more than 20 years since the first GM foods were introduced into the marketplace, there is no evidence of health risks.
As for what happens to this "scary" DNA that is inserted into a GM food - it's digested, just like the DNA that's in all the food we eat.
None of us start looking like strawberries or carrots just because we consume strawberry or carrot DNA when we have supper. The same is true for the DNA in GM foods, including whatever gene has been inserted.
The bonds that hold the nucleotides in DNA together are broken first by stomach acid and further by enzymes that the pancreas produces specifically to break down DNA. The resulting individual nucleotides are used by the body.
For instance, adenosine, one of the nucleotides in DNA, is critical for energy metabolism in every cell of the body.
Occasionally, DNA from a different species can be used to insert a desirable gene into a target plant or animal. Again, that gene still is made up of the same basic nucleotides that all DNA is made of, and it's digested the same way.
There also are ethical reasons for not opposing GM foods and for not buying into that opposition by supporting food labeling. When I was the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center near Washington, I had visits from leaders of many African governments. They recognize that GM technology is a critical tool for them to be able to feed their people.
For example, GM technology can protect against a virus that is wiping out cassava, a basic food for millions.
These leaders argued that if the United States or Europe opposed GM foods, how could they convince their people that GM foods were OK for Africa?
With global population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, requiring a 70 percent increase in food production, GM technology will be a critical tool to address hunger.
Johnson retired in 2014 as vice president for research and economic development at UND.
Earlier, she also had served as a research chemist and research leader at the Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks and as director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.