GMO’s: This little seed went to market

We’re in episode 2 of our first series. In this episode we talked a few people at both ends of how a GMO seed gets from development to field. Wesley Bruce is a scientist at a company that researches how to make improved plants. He told us how all the steps that go into genetically engineered plant development. Joni Kamiya interacts with genetically engineered plants on a daily basis, but in a very different way. Her family works on a papaya farm that was saved from destruction by genetically engineered plants. This week we listened to their stories to understand how this little (GE) seed gets from idea to market.

Where to Find our Guests:

Dr. Wesley Bruce works at BASF and is a 2017 AAAS Fellow.

Joni Kamiya grew up in Hawaii on her family’s papaya farm. She has blogged about her experiences on Hawaii Farmer’s Daughter and was a 2015 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Fellow. Her Twitter handle is @HIFarmerDtr.


Here’s an article that talks more about the GMO chestnut trees that use a wheat protein to protect themselves. Or if you like listening better, here’s a show from WBUR.

Joni Kamiya writes a blog about her experiences as a papaya farmer’s daughter. She also has a few YouTube videos and even an interview by Dr. Kevin Folta (who we also talked to in this series!).

In my free time, I work on freelance graphic design. I turned our interview with Wesley Bruce into a sharable infographic that explains the process of going from plan to plant. Find it here!

Also, like we mentioned in our previous post, GMO Answers is a really helpful website where you can connect with professionals and ask the tough questions.

Unfortunately, Dr. Folta was recently questions about a possible conflict of interest. Since then, we have talked to Dr. Folta and the allegations that were made against him are false. Dr. Folta was in compliance with his university’s policies. Conflicts of interest are something that all scientists must manage, and therefore we double and triple-check conclusions against other published works. Below we have posted links and explainations for the science that was presented in this series to do our best to show you what is credible science. We understand this can be confusing and upsetting. Please get in contact with us if you have more questions and we will do our best to help. Here is the original post by Biofortified along with two posts written by Dr. Folta as a response (1) (2).

  1. What do we call GMOs? Speaking with precision is important, as Dr. Folta said. As someone who regularly works with plants, the definitions that Dr. Folta has used- “modify the genes of plants in the next generation by addition complimentary genes from a different genotype or different type of plant”- is a valid description of how plants are modified (see also “This little seed went to market”). Overall, this isn’t really science being presented, as much as it is a discussion about names for the same thing. Here’s a link to the USDA’s website on their new labelling laws.
  2. Is glyphosate safe? There have been several articles published that say RoundUp is found in lots of foods that we commonly eat and drink. In this article, they say RoundUp is found at ~2 parts per billion. And this article summarizes some other RoundUp testing in food. They conclude that RoundUp is in food that we would not expect, which is true, but they also show that in all but one sample (organic cage-free eggs) it is all under the limit set by the EPA. As of 2015, the limit is 0.5 mg per kg of body weight. In 2015, the EPA also said that RoundUp is not considered a carcinogen in the US or in Europe (which usually has more strict guidelines). Article linked here. However, studies from both parties (those who say RoundUp/GMO’s pose medical risks and those who do not) have both come under question. It’s a murky question with lots of strong opinions and conflicting studies. But, our whole life is made up of risks- will we get E. coli from our lettuce? Will we get melanoma from going outside on a sunny day? It’s about assessing those risks and making choices that you feel comfortable with.
  3. Do the plants work? Listen to Joni Kamiya in our next episode for an inside scoop. She’s a farmer’s daughter who’s family needed to switch to GM crops in order to save their farm. And it’s true that most of the crops in fields today aren’t meant to boost yield- they’re changed to give the plant a cutting edge in surviving non-ideal conditions. Hopefully, they don’t experience those, but droughts, heat, and insects are a reality and we want to protect our food sources. In this article, there is a list of 33 GE crops that are on the market and what the modification is supposed to do. Only 1 is marked as high yield. There are crops too- like the “Golden Rice” that are still being improved. It’s hard to get everything right on the first try, but we can identify the problems and make sure that these crops will do what we need them too.
  4. What about the matoke story? Here’s an update from 2017 on this! The motivation that Dr. Folta talked about, that we want to make solutions to help people, is well said. For me, as a scientist, it’s interesting to learn about new things, but it’s worthless unless it can go beyond the wall of my lab and actually help people. As for the pepper gene, the gene that they add helps the plant to “seal off infected cells”. It’s like giving the plant tools tools to quarantine infected areas so the bacteria can’t get any further and harm the rest of the plant.

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