Researchers, Farmers and Journalists at UC Davis Symposium ask: Why such “Distaste” for GMOs?

corn-field_shutterstock_96328715By Leanna Sweha

The first annual UC Davis Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL) Symposium examined genetic engineering as a tool for sustainable agriculture and global food security. Participants discussed the best ways to communicate the potential benefits of genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Yvette d’Entremont, also known as SciBabe, opened the symposium with a talk on effective science writing. d’Entremont is a chemist and science blogger known for her scathing criticism of Vani Hari, a food activist also know as Food Babe.

d’Entremont said that the science news cycle often involves media outlets summarizing and interpreting each other’s reports, so that the actual research being reported ends up “muddied.” She noted that when readers search the web for “GMO,” the first page results contain mostly sites that misinform. Many readers accept the information on these sites without questioning. “The public has not necessarily been trained to be skeptical,” d’Entremont said. To better connect with audiences, she suggested that science writers be accessible, engaging, and use humor.

Pamela Ronald, Ph.D. , Professor of Plant Pathology and IFAL Faculty Director, gave her recent TED talk. Ronald is a geneticist who studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. She and husband Raoul Adamchak, Market Garden Coordinator at the UC Davis Student Farm, co-authored Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.

Ronald explained that flood-tolerant GMO rice varieties bred by the International Rice Research Institute are now grown by 3.5 million small farmers in Asia. These farmers get three-times the yield of conventional rice varieties with no additional inputs. The basis for flood-tolerance is the rice gene “Sub1” that Ronald and her colleagues isolated.

Ronald then discussed “golden rice,” a variety engineered with B-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. “Scientists predict that just one cup of golden rice per day will reduce blindness and the deaths of thousands of young children each year,” Ronald stated. “But golden rice has been virulently opposed by activists who are against genetic modification.” Health and safety studies on golden rice continue, and there is no anticipated release date.

Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Cooperative Extension Specialist in Animal Genomics and Biotechnology, described a GMO that can help meet the increasing global demand for fish. AquAdvantage® Salmon is an Atlantic salmon engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon, which gives it the ability to reach market size with less feed and in half the time of conventional salmon.

“You can’t save wild fish by eating them,” said Van Eenennaam, who won the Borlaug Council for Agricultural Science and Technology Communication Award in 2014.

AquaBounty Technologies, which developed the salmon, has spent almost twenty years and millions of dollars working to gain regulatory approval from the FDA. Government approval may come this year, making the salmon the first GMO animal approved for human consumption in the US. However, several grocery chains have announced that they will not sell the GMO salmon, which some critics have dubbed the “Frankenfish.”

Kevin Folta, Ph.D., Professor of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, described GMOs that may never be commercialized because of regulatory burdens and/or concerns about consumer acceptance. These include reduced-allergy peanuts, citrus greening disease resistant citrus, virus-resistant cassava, and Bt eggplant.

“These technologies can become available if we have the courage to support them,” Folta stated. “We just need to help people get over ‘Monsantophobia.’”

Folta blogs about agricultural genetics and GMOs at and just appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience.

Tom Muller, co-owner of Muller Ranch in Yolo County, talked about the sustainable practices he uses to grow almonds, walnuts, olives and row crops, such as integrated pest management and green manure cover cropping.

He noted that he does not grow GMO corn, only because “end users don’t want it.” Muller earns a $3 premium per bushel for non-GMO corn.

IFAL is a unit of the UC Davis World Food Center. Its mission is to be “the world’s premier resource for science-based information on food and agriculture” for consumers, journalists, policy makers and the general public.

Leanna M Sweha, JD, has been a resident of Davis for 20 years.  As a young molecular biologist in a USDA lab working to engineer Roundup-resistant corn, she grew interested in sustainable agriculture.  Fascinated with the legal and policy issues of agricultural genetics, she became an attorney specializing in agricultural and natural resources law.  She has worked for the California Resources Agency and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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  1. Tia Will

    Thanks again Leanna for an interesting overview of the IFAL Symposium.

    As I was reading through the various comments I was struck by what I see as a similarity in my field of medicine and the current field of  plant science. Many of my patients do not seem to discern a difference between the meaning of the word “natural” and the meaning of the word “desirable”.

    In my specific field, it is “natural” to die in childbirth. Women hemorrhage, they die of infection, they die when children present in positions that are not deliverable except by Cesarean. Now there is nothing “natural” about transfusion, antibiotics, or Cesarean section. And yet I have used all three countless times to save the lives of women who would otherwise have died during this completely “natural” process called childbirth without these human devised interventions. When phrased this way, it becomes clear to women and their families, that of course they want these “unnatural” interventions.

    I see this as very similar to the current controversy over GMO’s. Are we going to be open minded and look at the pros, cons and potential risks vs benefits of each intervention individually, or are we going to confine ourselves to that which is “natural” and allow deaths from famine based on natural occurrences, but also on maldistribution of resources, to continue as we have in the past due to manufactured fears about what might happen ?

  2. Miwok

    three dollars per bushel is quite a premium for corn.

    July futures for corn closed the week at $3.52 per bushel, a 0.8% decrease from last week. July soybeans ended the week at $9.26, a 0.4% increase from last week, and July wheat ended the week at $4.93, unchanged from last week. Year-to-year corn prices are down 24.3%, soybeans are down 38.3%, and wheat is down 20.5%.

    No comment in this article about the food content of corn for food, as I was under the impression they can manipulate that as well? Or is this just about rice?

  3. Davis Progressive

    i like this piece.  i was supportive of the ballot initiative because what’s the harm in full notification for people who care about such things.  but i have never seen the research to back up the idea that all gmo’s are bad.  regulation is important.  but in a world where too many people are dying from lack of food, it seems silly to be blanket against gmo’s.

  4. Roberta Millstein

    It sounds as though the symposium presented only one side of the issue.  It may be that the public isn’t trained to be skeptical, but there are some scientifically sound reasons to be concerned about GMOs.  I make the case here:

    (Note that I did not choose the photo that appears at the top of the article, which does not reflect the content of the piece).

    We’ll all be better off if we engage in genuine dialogue about these issues and not just listen to one side or the other.

    1. Matt Williams

      Thank you for adding your perspective Roberta.  Is it reasonable to think that the kind of genuine dialogue you advocate for can occur here in the Vanguard?

      1. Roberta Millstein

        In principle it is possible, yes, but it requires a commitment to avoid ad hominems and to focus on the issues at hand.  I’ve seen that happen on the Vanguard, but I’ve also seen discussions degenerate very quickly.

        It’s also very time consuming.  🙂

  5. tribeUSA

    Roberta–I agree absolutely; a balanced presentation and dialogue are essential, otherwise its just industry propaganda (scientific-sounding promotions/hype; where the complete picture is not presented) or well-meaning (but not always scientifically based) activist propaganda. This is a very complex topic; to sum up usually the risks involved are small but not zero; i.e. there is often a finite component of risk involved with producing, disseminating, harvesting, consuming and disposing of genetically modified organisms; depending on the organisms and modifications involved–unintended consequences can occur and indeed have occurred.

  6. debra

    There is a significant loss of plant diversity, farmers will not own their seed and there are no clinical trials on how the GMO foods affect the human body. They are not a form of sustainable agriculture. They create foods like the corn that is on the market today that may be of high yield but has absolutely no flavor and a significant loss of nutrients. That is probably why Mr. Mullers customers enjoy his organic non gmo corn over the stuff sold at Safeway.

    1. tribeUSA

      debra–yes, you bring out some of the significant negatives on how the technology is used today–many of these problems are not inherent to genetic modification, but due to the way the technology is employed by corporatized agribusiness. The reasons for sterile plants do have some legitimacy in terms of control of dissemination; however micro-organism assisted vector-mediated gene transfer occurs in nature, and some of these modifications may be transferred to closely related plant species in the environment, with unintended consequences.

      I would be interested in seeing results of a well-controlled study comparing nutrient levels of a GMO crop with its non-modified parent (this should not be difficult to do rigorously). My guess is some GMO grain foods may have less protein and more starch content, since it is easier to increase starch yield than protein yield–of course, not a good change for human health!

  7. Frankly

    I too like this piece.  I have mixed feelings having severe gluten intolerance and reading that it is more prevalent than ever.  I can’t help but think we might be taking things too far… not only with GMO but even with advanced hybridization.  Can we really strive to feed the entire world with GMO without causing other problems?  Should we even be trying to feed the entire world?  I don’t know.

    But I do know that “Monsantophobia” is a hilarious term.

  8. Tia Will

    Thanks to Roberta for the summary article n the link.

    I do want to weigh in on a very limited aspect of the debate. I am very much in favor of labeling GMOs for what they are and allowing the consumer to decide whether or not they want to use the product. Labeling a product is not anti scientific. It is the correct representation of the product. We have extensive labeling requirements with regard to nutritional content. We have very comprehensive regulation with regard to the risks and benefits labeling of FDA controlled drugs. Other than potential economic harm to the growers and sellers of the GMO labelled products, I see no harm in providing the public with accurate product labeling. I would further point out that any such loss of profit based on labeling is speculative since we simply do not know what people would choose. Some would probably avoid the labeled products, but many doubtless would not. And if any given product is indeed superior and harm free this will prove out over time.

  9. Debra

    Labeling would be great but that doesn’t address the harm to farmers . Cross pollination of GMO corn has devastated the heirloom varieties. Some farmers have been sued because of cross pollination into their crops that were not GMO.  The larger problem here is the patent of life that the GMO industry was given. It should never have happened and now that it has farmers lively hoods are in danger, the loss of plant diversity is is in danger and for what? So a large corporation can make a lot of money with food patents. We don’t know what these products can do to human health or the health of other life forms but we do know what it has done to small farmers not just in this country but in other countries like India. Just google it and you will see. A GMO product is not an organic product. It is designed to use a lot of chemicals, chemical fertilizer and a lot of water. Farmers not only have to buy the seed but they have to sign contracts about buying the seed.

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