Stop the Food Fight

At first glance their partnership might seem a bit perplexing, at least in the context of discussions about food: Karthik Aghoram, associate professor of biological sciences, whose passionate interest in the technology of engineered foods has led him to develop a summer course for high school teachers on the subject; and Bill Landis, professor of food and nutrition, who used a sabbatical to create an organic garden on Meredith’s campus.

But at a time when Genetically Engineered (GE) crops, frequently called GMOs, have come under fire by citizens’ advocacy groups and the media, Landis and Aghoram advocate a different approach. They argue that we no longer have the luxury of fighting over GE foods, that such an attitude has become a dangerous distraction at a time when we need all of the tools at our disposal if we are to address the worldwide need for nutritious, safe food.

It’s a view that is gaining momentum as awareness grows that our world is facing a very real food crisis in the coming years. Aghoram and Landis are ahead of the curve, having taught an undergraduate seminar called “The Great Food Debate” at Meredith several years ago. And while Aghoram is a stronger proponent of GE technology than Landis, they both see value in the technology and call for a reasoned and informed discussion of the topic.

What is genetic engineering?

Some of the confusion and bad press may stem from inaccurate language that is used in discussions of genetically engineered crops. The term most frequently found in popular media is GMO, which stands for “genetically modified organism.” A GMO is a plant, animal, or microorganism produced through genetic modification. GE is an acronym for “genetically engineered.” Though GMO and GE are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences in their meaning.

Both involve an alteration of an organism’s genes through human intervention. However, genetic modification includes conventional plant breeding techniques, such as pollen transfer and chemical mutagenesis, and is usually limited to changes to genes within a species. In contrast, genetic engineering refers to the introduction, modification, or elimination of specific genes using transformation, which means that a gene from any species can be inserted into an organism.

In Aghoram’s view, modern agricultural biotechnology represents a natural progression from its simpler roots of natural selection and artificial selection that have evolved through the history of agriculture.

“The fact is that humans have been genetically modifying plants for more than 10,000 years. If growers happened upon a particularly beneficial crop, they would try to replicate that plant. From these humble beginnings came the ability to study, select, experiment, identify, and create beneficial crops,” said Aghoram. “Today we can generate them by placing a single desired trait and can replicate that many times over.”

Two traits are found in the majority of genetically engineered crops produced today.

The first is herbicide-tolerance, widely known as “Roundup Ready®” for its ability to withstand treatment by glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide sold as Round-Up. Such plants allow farmers to treat their fields to kill weeds while leaving the crop-plant unharmed, and to use less toxic herbicides. Glyphosate will not persist in the environment for more than a few days, so it has less effect on water and soil.

The second trait is called Bt, for a bacterium. Plants that are transformed by inserting a gene from this bacterium produce a protein that is harmless to humans but lethal to certain insects. So, for instance, planting Bt corn allows farmers to significantly reduce the amount of insecticides sprayed on corn. (Interestingly, organic farmers use Bt sprays.)

Other traits include pathogen resistance, found in Hawaiian papaya, which rescued Hawaii’s papaya industry; drought and flood-tolerance, found in rice and maize; and enhanced nutrition, found in “Golden Rice,” which was developed to help prevent vitamin A deficiency among children in the developing world.

A growing need for sustainable solutions

Our world population will grow to 9.6 billion by the year 2050. That means we’ll need to feed two billion additional people in the next 35 years.

This increased demand comes at a time when climate change is expected to create greater challenges for the farmers tasked with meeting this need, particularly in developing countries where the margin for error is so much smaller. Widespread drought, heat waves, and more extreme weather will continue to become the norm, which will make current farming techniques less effective.

Proponents of GE crops argue that they offer precisely the kinds of solutions that will be needed to help farmers adapt to changes in growing conditions. For example, where flood tolerant rice varieties have been used, farmers are seeing their crop yield increase by 300% when compared with conventional varieties.

Those who favor GE technology argue that such techniques are compatible with sustainable agriculture. For instance, Bt corn is found to have significantly reduced the amount of chemical insecticides applied to crops, while the use of herbicide tolerant crops has allowed farmers to substitute less toxic herbicides.

Why are GE crops viewed so negatively?

Landis thinks the technology got off on the wrong foot initially because of a lack of science education and knowledge among the general public – the technology was new and people didn’t understand it.

“It just takes a slight twist to make it sound scary and unnatural, particularly with the genetic piece. The term ‘frankenfoods’ paints a picture of a mad scientist putting together food from different parts,” said Landis.

In addition, much of the difficulty with GE foods to this point has been their association with industrial farming, which is where their implementation has primarily taken place. Aghoram agrees that early association with “Big-Ag” companies helped shape public perception of GE technology.

“I think that when a much-vilified agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation became the face of this technology, it carried a lot of weight and set a negative tone – in some cases, justifiably. GE crops were just starting to enter conversations in India in early to mid-90s, and even back then I used to get a sense that a ‘big bad multinational’ was coming to India,” said Aghoram.

In Landis’s opinion, the problem goes beyond mere association, as most current GE crops are designed to support industrial farming systems. Such systems have significant problems in terms of things like ground water pollution and soil erosion. Further, industrial farming is ultimately not sustainable in terms of fossil fuel use, accounting for 18% of all fossil fuel use in the U.S.

Finally, Landis notes that the very nature of food makes its production a deeply personal issue.

“Food is such an integral part of our everyday lives. We ingest it and chew it and swallow it, as do our kids. And you have to eat to survive,” said Landis.

Are GE crops safe?

Google GMOs and you’ll find a slew of articles about genetic engineering – little of it coming from valid scientific sources. If GE’s association with big agriculture was the origin of its troubles, “science doubt” ensures that even the latest studies on the subject make little difference when it comes to public opinion.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans recognize the value of research conducted by scientists. In fact, 79% of adults said that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about its impact on the quality of health care, food, and the environment.

In contrast, when it comes to genetically modified or engineered foods, 88% of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, while just 37% of U.S. adults agreed. This gap represents the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists in the survey.

At this point, the opinion of the scientific community seems clear on the subject. All of the major scientific bodies including the AAAS, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association have concluded that GE crops are safe to eat.

What is less clear is the impact of GE crops on the environment. Because they have been so widely adopted on such a large scale, their potential impact is significant. Critics argue that GE crops initially held great promise with regard to environmental benefits, but that 30 years later, the technology hasn’t delivered. To the contrary, they contend that early benefits are now being reversed as farmers must use even greater amounts of herbicide to combat resistant weeds (a problem that’s not unique to GE crops, but occurs any time herbicides are used).

GE supporters point to environmental benefits such as an increase in no- and low-till farming, which reduces erosion and protects fertile topsoil, a direct result of using herbicide-tolerant crops. Another environmental benefit frequently cited by the pro-GE camp is a reduction of chemical pesticide use worldwide.

Taking a worldwide view in the discussion of GE crops is particularly important to Aghoram, who was born in India.

“The use of really harmful pesticides in India is down by 40% since they started planting Bt cotton.”

“I always speak from the perspective of the developing world,” he said. “Seventy percent of India is stuck in farming because they don’t have the yield. I don’t feel it’s morally right for me to restrict their choices because there may be something in this technology that we don’t know about.”

How GE crops can be used with sustainable farming

Landis argues that genetic engineering must be used in conjunction with additional sustainable agricultural techniques.

“It’s one tool in our tool bag for food production, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the main tool. When it comes to sustainable farming practices, we’re still figuring out how to do that really well. It shouldn’t be one or the other – either organic/sustainable or just industrial with genetically engineered seeds. If we take that perspective, we’re going to lose. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by not merging the two.”

Landis confirms that the way genetic engineering has been implemented is contributing to the resulting problems. When, for instance, Roundup Ready crops are used on millions of acres year after year, the result is pest or weed resistance. If its use was more carefully integrated, he argues, we could stave off some of that resistance.

“It’s best not to build the entire food system around it, but use biotechnology to augment a sustainable approach to farming,” said Landis. “It’s all about our food system. If we did eat more locally, we wouldn’t have to rely on technologies the way we are.”

Aghoram would like to see GE technology made available to more people, such as smaller companies and university breeders who currently can’t participate because of the costs associated with regulation. He observes that under the current system, the regulatory burden is so onerous that it’s virtually impossible for small genetic engineers to bring a trait to market because they can’t afford to take it through the five to ten-year regulatory process.

“I have a friend who is a rice farmer in India. He would love to collaborate with an academic researcher and develop rice that meets his needs,” said Aghoram. “The large corporations probably love the regulatory hassle because they can afford it. So the public pushes for more regulation, but more regulation keeps the big corporations in business. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Local efforts to communicate

How are Landis and Aghoram addressing this issue? Because they are faculty first and foremost, their primary focus is on education.

Aghoram recently had an Op-Ed about GE crops published in an online journal. For the past several years, he has taught a summer biotechnology workshop to high school science and agriculture teachers in North Carolina schools. The week-long workshop is designed to demystify the technology and make it more accessible.

“The environmental science teachers in particular come in with a huge dose of skepticism about the technology,” said Aghoram. “We present all sides and have a good debate – I bring organic and conventional farmers into my class. Once people have seen, touched, and felt DNA, they approach the technology with a different perspective.”

Landis is the director of the Master of Science in nutrition program at Meredith, where students can choose to focus their research on sustainable food and agriculture. In 2005, he started The Meredith Community Garden, which demonstrates how to produce plants and food in a sustainable manner. It’s used for student teaching, and also supports Campus Kitchens, a service initiative at Meredith that helps address food insecurity. Landis also produced an original short film, “Seed,” which follows the development of a single organically-grown tomato plant from seed to market.

Both agree that clear communication about GE crops is essential – and that fear-mongering is getting us nowhere.

“As a global society, when we look for ways towards sustainable agricultural technology that will feed 9 billion people by 2050, we must not eliminate any technology for reasons other than good science,” said Aghoram.

And, if you’re looking for things to worry about regarding the food we eat, Landis observed that there are plenty of other aspects of food that can make you sick.

“Fifty million people are food poisoned each year, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. From a food safety perspective, GE foods are last on my list.”


Karthik Aghoram has a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology with a specialization in plant molecular biology. His research as a graduate student, postdoctoral scholar, and faculty member has focused on gene discovery for agronomic traits, especially drought stress. He teaches cell biology, biochemistry, and a GMO-foods class to undergraduate students. In his free time he enjoys gardening and cooking.

Bill Landis has a Ph.D. in foods and nutrition. His interests and research background include local and organic foods, sustainable diets and methods of food production, vegetarianism, and sports nutrition. He is the program coordinator for the food and nutrition program, and is the director of the M.S. program in nutrition.

Melyssa Allen

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