I hope that by now you have have arrived at the conclusion that I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Dan Buettner. The Executive Director of the Florida Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics does a great job of planning our meeting. We always start out with a motivational keynote to rev up the attendees. The last few years the week ends with a controversial session to keep everyone’s attention to the finish. And this year was no exception.
The general public has definite opinions about genetically modified foods (GMOs). Dietitians/Nutritionists are no different. This session was set up as a panel discussion. Let me introduce the panel:
- Michael Hansen PhD, scientist with Consumers Union. He received his doctorate in techniques of Integrated Pest Management.
- Martina Newell-McGloughlin D.Sc from U.C. Davis. She runs UC system’s biotechnology program.
- Gregory Jaffe, Director of the project on Biotechnology for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Before we get to the meat of their discussion, lets review some history of plant breeding. Surely we remember from high school biology class the work of Johann (Gregor) Mendel, the 19th century monk who experimented in hybridization of pea plants. In classical (or conventional) breeding exchange of genetic information can only occur between closely related species, like “peas with peas”. And this exchange can involve hundreds of genes. In genetic engineering (GE) a single gene or even a strand of DNA is transferred to impart a particular trait, to silence a gene or to get a plant to express an otherwise silent gene.
Plant breeders have a long history of using techniques to introduce variation into the DNA of a species to obtain varieties with desirable traits. Scientists have used chemicals to cause DNA mutations and then cultivated the organisms with the desired traits. Scientists have also blasted plant cells with radiation to cause mutations. In the United States we have long eaten types of wheat, rice and pink grapefruit that were created from radiation mutations. Agricultural scientists have been manipulating plant genetics for over 50 years resulting in fruits, vegetables and grains that may not otherwise be available.
But back to the lecture. Dr. McGloughlin was a bright and articulate speaker who kept my attention but struck me as a bit of a cheerleader for GE. Dr. Hansen was difficult to follow, and came across a bit like “Chicken Little” (the sky is falling!)
I was completely unprepared for what came from the third speaker on the panel, Gregory Jaffe. CSPI has the reputation of taking an alarmist view on just about everything. Do you remember their report and warnings about movie theater popcorn? Mr. Jaffe it seems was the most balanced of the three and had me at “hello”.
He believes that there can be benefits to GE farming:
- Pest-resistant and drought-tolerant crops provide a higher yield for the farmer.
- Farmers and farm hands have lest exposure to chemical applications on crops.
- The adoption of conservation tillage means less topsoil is eroded.
- Less chemical use means less chemicals in farm runoff to rivers and lakes.
- Consumers can get increased nutrient content and less exposure to chemical residues.
He also believes that approval of GE crops should be on a case-by-case basis. I think that many of us could agree with that.
There continue to be heated discussions surrounding the labeling (or not) of GE foods. Right now, the only way to be sure that you are not getting a GE food or a GE ingredient is to buy organic.
Post by Nadine