I recently received an email from a sister-in-law who asked about my views of GMO. This sister-in-law, who has spent many years helping out people in Africa raising food, has a doctor’s degree in agricultural economics from MSU. Her email started me thinking about my own views of GMO and I would like to share them with people who are kind enough to read my blog.
First, I want to sum up my thinking and my position on the matter. In the Plantae Kingdom (plants) but not necessarily in the Animalia Kingdom (animals) it is appropriate to transfer genes from from one organism to another AS LONG AS THEY ARE IN THE SAME FAMILY! For example, when it comes to Roundup Ready corn, which is resistant to the glyphosate herbicide, GMO is OK. Here, in fact, genes were taken from the same species, which is corn, Zea Mays (Genus: Zea, Species: Mays) and transfered to the same species. I also believe it is OK to transfer between different species and genus, as long as the are in the same family. As an example here of the meaning of species, genus and family let’s look at the tomato and potato. First, they both belong to the same family, which is nightshade (Solanaceae), However, the tomato belongs to the Lycopersicon genus while the potato to the Solanum genus. However, I do believe there are reports of the two crossing naturally, although that is rare. I do know you can graft a tomato plant on to a potato plant. Because of this, I don’t feel there is a problem taking, say the late blight resistant gene from a potato and splicing it into a tomato variety.
Now lets still discuss the potato and what I see is bad GMO.
Potatoes have a big insect problem–the Colorado Potato Beetle. They can devastate a crop if something isn’t done. About 20 years ago Monsanto developed the New Leaf potato which was a GMO since they took a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt, and stuck it into a Russet Burbank potato.(By the way, bacteria are not only in a completely different family, they are in a completely different kingdom, the Eubacteria Kingdom!) This gene produced a protein that worked in some insect’s gut, like the Colorado Potato Beetles, to kill it. It did work and I even tried it out. The problem I discovered was that my tummy didn’t feel good after eating the potatoes–they seemed to just sit there. I wasn’t alone. Michael Pollan who wrote a best selling book “The Botany of Desire” reported similar digestive problems. Well, after a few years, when McDonald stopped buying Bt potatoes, the New Leaf was no longer being bred. Obviously Michael and I weren’t the only ones who reported this.
While they gave up on Bt in potatoes, it is still going big in corn–including sweet corn. I must tell you right off — we don’t use any GMO in any of the fruit or vegetables we grow and sell. However, much of the sweet corn in the market, especially from down south where corn earworm is a huge problem, is Bt corn. Also, Bt field corn is relatively common but since European countries won’t buy it, it hasn’t completely taken over the market. One interesting note among dairy and cattle farmers. It has been reported from some of them that if a Bt field of corn is planted next to a normal field of corn and animals are let loose in them, they won’t touch the Bt corn until all the regular corn is gone!
I know all of this makes the issue of GMO corn more complicated than ever, but if you think about it, it does make sense.