When you want to know more about how your food is grown, you have a few options: Wade through a sea of conflicting articles, try to untangle truth from rumor in fiery comment-thread debates — or ask someone with actual expertise yourself.
But that’s easier said than done when just 2% of Americans still work as farmers. So, as a family farmer-led non-profit ourselves, we thought we’d help out.
A Fresh Look asked our online audience what you want to know most about GMO Farming and your food. Now, our panel of independent experts — farmers, moms and one Registered Dietitian Nutritionist — is answering your top questions.
In this first installment, you asked: Which crops are GMOs and why mess with their DNA at all if they already evolved through natural selection or traditional breeding?
Michelle Miller: Farmer, “The Farm Babe” Columnist
“In the US, there are ten commercially available crops that are considered “GMO.” They are: alfalfa, corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and a small percentage of squash, papaya, apple, and potato. But, everything we eat today has been modified by humans at some point in time — so technically anything could be called “a GMO”. (Just google “ancient vegetables” to see what your favorite veggies looked like before we started farming them.) What’s new is that modern breeding methods like GMO and CRISPR techniques allow us to improve crops much less invasively than before, giving scientists and farmers the exact desired outcome — like saving crops from disease, fortifying them with more nutrients people need, or allowing farmers to use fewer or safer pesticides to protect our harvests.”
Liz Bingham: Farmer, Mom
“Farmers face pressing issues every day, like how to prevent crop diseases, and we need solutions as fast as possible.
Modern genetic modification can make specific changes in a plant’s makeup that present solutions in the very next generation of the crop. That’s a fast response! It’s how we saved the Hawaiian papaya from a virus that threatened to wipe out the whole industry, and cut pesticide use at the same time. Formerly, farmers had resorted to pesticide sprays to target the insects that spread the virus, but this GMO solution was pesticide-free.
Crop improvements like the papaya’s are safe, sustainable and proven, and they’ve revolutionized our farming practices for crops including corn, squash, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, soybeans, apples and potatoes.”
Jennie Schmidt: Farmer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Mom
“Genetic engineering is a more precise breeding method than any other breeding methods currently used. It allows researchers to bring specific traits into a plant rather than cross-breeding it with an entire different plant and getting all kinds of unintended changes. If anything, what we can do now is the opposite “messing” with DNA, since GMOs are so targeted and predictable.
As for why farmers need these improved crop varieties, it’s the same set of reasons humans have always modified and cultivated specific traits in our crops. Take summer squash and papaya: GMOs help us protect them from devastating viruses. With apples and potatoes, we edited out the enzyme that causes browning to help reduce vast amounts of food waste. And for potatoes, we actually made the food healthier by removing a natural, but potentially dangerous, chemical. Another great example was introducing insect resistance to certain vulnerable crops using a protein known as Bt, which organic farmers use as an insecticide spray. Crops with this natural Bt protection are able to selectively target specific insects, so we don’t have to spray a broad spectrum insecticide that would kill both pests and beneficial insects.
Here’s the full list of the ten crops that have been genetically engineered and commercialized: sweet corn & field corn, soybeans, summer squash, papaya, alfalfa, cotton, apples, potatoes, canola, and sugar beet. That doesn’t mean all soybeans, all corn, or all of any of these crops are genetically engineered, only certain varieties.”
If you liked this post, check out the rest of our One Question, Three Voices series:
This post is sponsored by A Fresh Look, a 501(c) (6) organization, whose mission is to provide trustworthy research-based info to consumers about the benefits of GMO Farming methods.