3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent
HICKORY, Pa. — Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, have been around for more than 40 years but are still a source of much debate within the farming, scientific, conservation and consumer communities.
Lee Stivers, a Penn State Extension horticulture educator, spoke on this topic at the Washington County Farm Bureau’s recent annual spring meeting.
“The first recombinant DNA molecules were produced back in 1972,” she said, “with human insulin being synthesized using GMOs by 1977.
“The first outdoor field test of a GMO followed in 1987, when Frostban bacteria were tested. Those were strawberries that were frost resistant,” Stivers said. “Advances in the technology have continued to be made, and we now have over 165 million acres of GMO crops planted annually in the United States.”
GMOs, also known as biotech or genetically engineered seeds, are made when genes from one plant are extracted, isolated and copied before being put into another plant cell.
They can be added to the new cell either by “infecting” the plant, which means another organism like a bacteria or virus containing the isolated genes are introduced to the plant, or by being shot out of a “gene gun” directly into the plant cell.
“Once the extracted gene is in the plant cell, the cell is cultured in a petri dish,” Stivers said. “Once the plant grows, it is reproduced using traditional breeding techniques.
“Twenty years or so ago, only scientists and the most elite college students were working with these types of projects,” she said, “but the process has been worked out well enough that high school students are doing it as science projects now.”
GMOs have been made to be herbicide resistant, insect resistant, disease resistant and nutritionally superior.
“A GMO called Golden Rice’ has been made to be higher in Vitamin A,” Stivers said. “It is hoped that in poorer countries, where rice is a dietary staple, that the added vitamins will provide better nutrition to hungry peoples.
“Other products, including what are known as Roundup Ready’, are designed to withstand the application of glyphosate shortly after the plant emerges from the ground, allowing for rows to be spaced closer together, providing more yield per acre, even as farmers are able to implement low-till and no-till planting techniques,” she said.
Despite numbers suggesting that more than 90 percent of soy, cotton and canola, and 85 percent of corn acreages in the United States are now planted using GMO varieties, GMOs are not accepted by everyone.
“A lot of consumers don’t take issue with the use of GMOs, while others say they understand the technology or don’t trust the science behind them,” Stivers said. “Some say that they don’t trust the government or the regulators, and others ask why their use is not listed on package labels if there is nothing to hide. There is not always a warm, fuzzy feeling associated with their use.
“The same mixed feelings are associated with other groups involved in the GMO debate,” she said. “For example, some environmentalists say that insect-resistant seeds kill butterflies, or that GMO use is risky for the environment and causes the loss of genetic diversity.
“Other environmentalists believe their use has helped limit the agriculture footprint by increasing the use of low-till and no-till farming methods that reduces soil erosion and assist in areawide pest control,” she said.
Even farmers have failed to come to a consensus on GMO use.
“Even some farmers are adamantly against the use of GMOs,” Stivers said. “For example, many organic farmers, who can’t use GMOs, believe their use will drive them out of business from being unable to compete with prices and yields produced by their nonorganic counterparts.
“Other farmers are encouraged by the increased yields managed through use of GMOs, because they help them produce more crops from the same amount of acreage,” she said. “This makes farming a more viable option, while at the same time increasing the abundance of available food and helping to maintain food prices at reasonable levels.”
Stivers advised those attending the meeting to keep reading and learning about GMOs.
“There are already additional technologies being worked on that may further revolutionize agriculture and other industries,” she said. “We also have a growing world population and a changing climate to consider.
“If GMOs can help us deal with all of those challenges,” she said, “should we use them?”