Coburn explores successful examples of genetically modified plants
Riverton – “The first generation of genetically modified (GM) crops were focused on farmers, making it easier for farmers to produce more by controlling weeds better, losing less of the crop to insect damage, etc.,” said Carl Coburn, a plant sciences graduate student at the University of Wyoming.
In Riverton on Feb. 12 at Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, Coburn discussed common misconceptions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Roundup Ready sugarbeets were introduced in 2008,” he stated.
Sugarbeet yield rates have increased steadily since the 1950s, with a much sharper increase after the introduction of the Roundup Ready variety.
“It would not be completely true to say that this yield increase is only due to genetic modification, but it would also be really naïve to think that it has nothing to do with it,” commented Coburn.
Before Roundup Ready sugarbeets were introduced, farmers used multiple applications of pesticides in their fields each year to control unwanted weeds.
“When we can spray Roundup on the beets and they are genetically modified to resist this chemical, we are reducing injury to the crop, and we are getting better weed control and less competition,” he explained.
Bt cotton is also a GMO designed to deter pests.
“Bt toxin is produced by a naturally occurring bacteria and it is very specific to killing certain pests,” Coburn noted.
By growing cotton that already contains the toxin, farmers do not have to spray as much insecticide over their fields.
“Bt has been used for a very long time, and it is actually an organically approved pesticide. Organic growers can spray Bt on their plants,” he added.
Throughout history, humans have selected crops for preferable traits. GMOs, according to Coburn, are a focused realization of this practice.
“We are talking about something that is very random, human selection over tens of thousands of years versus what we are doing in science today with genetic modification. It’s very specific, and it’s very precise,” he commented.
None of the food crops we eat today look like their ancestor plants.
Brassica oleracea, for example, is the parent plant of multiple vegetables that we eat today.
“To get cabbage, people selected for the terminal buds. To get kale they selected for leaves. For broccoli they selected for stems and flowers, and for cauliflower they selected for the flower clusters,” he explained.
In the future, Coburn expects to see more genetic modification geared toward consumers, such as the innate potato, which has been approved by the USDA.
“When we cook potatoes at a high temperature, they start forming acrylamide, which is a known carcinogen. The JR Simplot Company developed innate potatoes that produce a lot less acrylamide when they are cooked at high temperatures,” he noted.
Coburn also mentioned blight resistant trees that have been developed through genetic modification.
“Chestnut trees used to be the dominant tree in the forest all up and down the East Coast,” he said, discussing tree blight that was introduced to the area. “By the 1950s, we had a virtual elimination of chestnut trees.”
By creating a variety of tree that contained a gene from wheat, a resistant tree has been created that could be used to repopulate the native species.
“Blanket statements for or against GMOs are over-simplistic. Each GMO is different, and they all go through a testing process,” he stated.
Coburn believes that scientists need to improve communication to the public, so that positive aspects of genetic engineering are included in public conversation.
“When we are talking about growing food, we need as many tools as we can get,” he noted.
Responsible science, he said, is being hindered by activists who are against technology, no matter what that technology is.
“Whatever the application of genetic modification is, they are against it no matter what. I think that is very dangerous, and it could actually be costing people their lives,” he said.
Studies show that many scientists support the use of GMO technology, but consumers are not as accepting.
“Thirty-seven percent of U.S. adults think it is safe to eat GMOs, whereas 88 percent of scientists say that it is safe to eat them,” he said.
Although he admitted the technology is not a silver-bullet solution, Coburn expressed concern about scare tactics and sensationalism fueling public misconception.
“A lot of people that may be a little bit misinformed have some very strong opinions. I like this quote by Mark Twain,” he said. “‘I can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.’”
Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.