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Sarah Peyok headshot

Why Are Americans Skeptical of Genetic Modification?

By Sarah Peyok
Americans are probably more familiar with genetically modified crops and foods than they realize, yet biotech companies have a long road ahead to overcome consumers' skepticism of this technology.

Americans are probably more familiar with genetically modified crops and foods than they realize, yet biotech companies have a long road ahead to overcome consumers' skepticism of this technology.

Americans are probably more familiar with genetically modified (GM) crops and foods than most realize. In fact, 60-70 percent of processed grocery store products contain some GM (also referred to as GMO or "GMOs") ingredients. Concerns about the safety of GM crops and foods have been festering for more than two decades. All the while scientific testing has been occurring and more supply chains in food production have begun to include GM crops.

Yield10 Bioscience, an agricultural technology company, is looking to introduce gene edited corn into the GM mix with claims that the crop is safe and good for the environment. Corn is the highest value commercial row crop grown in the United States. Optimizing crop yield is beneficial as this can reduce water and chemical use and produce hardier crops.

A crop is classified as genetically modified when its genetic makeup or genome has been tweaked using biotechnology. A lot of testing takes place to determine if a GM organism is safe for the environment and consumption. There are many ways crops and foods can be genetically modified, too.

The many sustainable approaches for altering the genome

Conventional breeding practices result in a wide range of crop varieties available today for purchase in grocery stores. Apples, including varietals such as Fuji, Honeycrisp and Red Delicious, are one example where particular seeds are bred together to create differences in taste, texture, size and color. The different varieties are the result of significant changes to the original genetic makeup of the fruit. This style of conventional breeding is called selective breeding, and it involves genetic mutation.

There’s also mutagenesis, a process by which the genetic information of an organism is changed, resulting in a mutation. This may occur naturally and spontaneously, or as a result of exposure to mutagens. Ruby Red grapefruits can be sold in the organic foods section, yet have also been called “frankenfruit” because this variety of grapefruit is the result of mutagenesis where scientists spent years testing blasting grapefruit with gamma radiation. Despite the extent of change caused by a mutation, mutagenesis is not classified as genetic engineering.

The most controversial approach for altering the genome is transgenic alteration. A GMO is transgenic when it contains a gene from a different species. In the article, “Are GMOs Safe?” by Michigan State University’s AgBioResearch department, professor Felicia Wu explains:

“Anytime you introduce a novel gene into an organism, you allow it to encode for a new protein. Proteins are rarely toxic and they are rarely carcinogenic, but they can be allergenic. Everything to which we’re allergic in our food or our environment is a protein. So a real concern when these GMOs first came out was that we were introducing new potential allergens into the food supply.”

Under Yield10’s corn development program, novel traits discovered by the company will be deployed in corn by a third-party agriculture company with proven biotechnology expertise. This portion of the development activity is expected to be completed in early 2020. Yield10 also has plans to engage another third-party company to conduct field testing of the corn to evaluate seed yield impact.

The yield traits included in the corn development program are C3003, C3004 and C3011, as well as the transcription factors C4001, C4002 and C4003. C3003, a gene found in algae, has produced encouraging improvements in seed yield in oilseed crops. The trait C3004 will also be evaluated in corn, based on encouraging seed yield results obtained in Camelina. C3011 is a new trait developed in Yield10’s GRAIN gene discovery platform. Yield10 has reported that the C4000 series of traits, which include global regulatory genes, or global transcription factors (“GTFs”), can significantly increase photosynthesis and biomass yield in studies utilizing switchgrass as a model crop.

How To Lessen Consumer Anxieties Surrounding Transgenic Crops

Roundup-Ready crops are involved transgenic alteration; and, in the sustainability sector and for many consumers, this does not bring forth feelings of comfort. Roundup-Ready “terminator genes” were developed to help farmers control weeds. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate. Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, which means it will likely kill most plants. It prevents plants from making certain proteins needed for growth. Roundup-Ready crops are resistant to Roundup. As controversy over Roundup causing cancer heightens, it is no wonder why biotechnology is highly scrutinized.

Biotechnology has rapidly evolved over the two decades. Altering genes creates a lot of controversy and anxiety. However, it should be emphasized that GM crops are produced under rigorous regulatory frameworks and extensively safety tested prior to commercialization. As with Yield10’s development program for its transgenic corn, companies that make transparent the biotechnology techniques in use are far more likely to gain the trust of consumers.

Image credit: Unsplash/Kimmy Williams

Sarah Peyok headshot

Based in Michigan, Sarah is passionate about sustainability, storytelling and bringing to light sustainability principles that can be threaded into business strategies and communications. Formerly an editor for CSRwire and freelance writer for many organizations forwarding the principles of corporate social responsibility and circularity, she is excited to be a contributor to TriplePundit. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Read more stories by Sarah Peyok