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Digging Deep With A
GMO Food Expert

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Brian Nadon, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics.
Image supplied by Brian Nadon.
University of Georgia Doctoral Student Brian Nadon Sat Down With Modern Times Magazine To Discuss Genetically Modified Foods

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By Clipper Arnold
Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 22, 2016 — There’s a lot of incendiary rhetoric that gets thrown around regarding genetically modified foods (more commonly referred to as GMOs or GM foods). Public backlashes have presented roadblocks for their introduction or use in many countries, and there’s a lot of speculation about their safety.

A lot of this rhetoric focuses on how “natural” the process is and whether these “chemicals” are safe for human consumption. However, humans have been modifying their agricultural practices since the Neolithic era, and certain chemical pesticides are actually still permitted to treat organic and conventionally grown varieties, according to federal regulations.

I sat down with Brian Nadon, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics (who works with companies that make GM soybean, switchgrass, and more) in an effort to discuss this complicated subject.

Modern Times Magazine: Is there any evidence showing GMOs to be more dangerous to the populous? Are there potential health hazards as are often claimed?

Brian Nadon: So, I’m going to start by saying GM foods are safe. They are safe; they have been proven safe. They are as safe or safer than non-GM foods. There are about, by my last count, about 2,000 studies contributing to the body of evidence that GM foods are as safe or safer than non-GM foods. But, it’s a common meme to be repeated that “GM foods are understudied,” and this is just not true. GM foods are actually one of the most thoroughly-studied areas of science ever. They’re so thoroughly vetted to be safe that it would be at best disingenuous, at worst outright false to say that GM foods are unsafe. They are safe and the safety of GMO foods is one of the most studied subjects in all of science.

MTM: Isn’t there, in fact, a potential for more nutritious food to be grown with GMOs? How common of a practice is this as it’s currently applied?

BN: That’s a great question. I really like this question. So, the main example of this right now is golden rice. This was expected to be deployed in Asia, where rice is a staple of the diet, especially in Southeast Asia, in the poorer countries specifically, because they’re the ones who might need this the most. And the issue is, their rice-staple diet doesn’t give them a lot of Vitamin A. So there are a lot of deficiencies with eyesight and blindness out there. So there was this idea to make golden rice, which had this transgene with Vitamin A, to help people see better, to supplement their diet. The problem is, this came under scrutiny for many of the reasons you cite. But, to answer the actual question, golden rice is an example of one thing that uses GM technology to make food more nutritious. However, because GM technology is actually really expensive to develop and deploy, right now, the only GM traits we really have out there are traits that we might describe as “defensive,” traits that make the plant easier to grow or more efficient for the farmer to grow.

MTM: Is there an argument to be made that GM foods are “less nutritious”? BN: I would say no, in general. That depends on how you define this question. Who decides what’s nutritious? The main person in the food chain of our current farmer-to-consumer pipeline, or “who grows what,” is the farmer. The farmer is more concerned with making money year-to-year. Farming is a difficult business, especially, nowadays, the margins are very thin. As an unfortunate side effect of the market-oriented system we have, it’s often not very profitable to grow the most nutritious food, but rather the food that will give you the most money out of what you put into your field.

MTM: Right, like tomatoes that are plumper, or longer-lasting and won’t get crushed in transit?

BN: Absolutely, that’s what I was going to say next. One of the first, and, if I’m not mistaken, the first ever transgene on the U.S. market was the “Flavr Savr tomato,” which, as you described, was a tomato that had a longer shelf life. This was really valuable to growers and distributors because that meant that the food they were making got out to market.

MTM: What threats to global or local agricultural practices are there? Things like suicide seeds and monocropping are often cited as potential hazards that are introduced by or exacerbated by GMOs or the agriculture industry.

BN: When you say “suicide seeds,” are you talking about the proposed terminator technology by Monsanto?

MTM: Yes, the idea that Monsanto would have these seeds which would grow a single crop, but wouldn’t be able to produce more seeds, so the idea is that it makes more difficult for individual farmers to purchase or plant.

BN: Well, there’s a few things here. The first main point, I mean, as it stands now, farmers do not save seed in general — not even in developing countries. It’s typically not worth it. Typically the seed is the product. In corn, in soybean, even in cotton. These are three of major crops in the United States, which I’m most experienced with. Most of these are GM, typically, maybe about 95 percent, there’s obviously some organic alternatives. In these crops, the seed is the product and it’s actually more efficient for farmers to just buy a new bag of seed every year. For those crops specifically, for most crops, and for most farmers, they don’t save seed anyway. It’s just not efficient. If we’re talking about subsistence farmers in very impoverished countries and areas, yes, they will be saving seed. But, like I implied before, you won’t really get a lot of use, if you’re a poor farmer, out of buying GM seed to grow on your farm because you won’t have the inputs you need to really extract the extra profit that those would give you. So, essentially, these poor farmers wouldn’t use these things anyway. They won’t use them, they don’t want them. Their agriculture isn’t at a level where that would help them.

MTM: And monocropping? Does that present a potential hazard to global farming practices in so far as burning out soil or what have you? BN: So soil erosion is indirectly related to monocropping or monocultures. To make it clear, soil erosion is not a direct result of monocropping. It has to do with other factors such as tillage. Monocropping can contribute to that in so far as monocropping tends to be related to other ways of farming, but to make it mostly clear, it doesn’t contribute to soil erosion. Some people have put forward the argument that monocropping is bad for biodiversity. If what you mean by this is that it reduces the amount of species on your plot of land, then of course it reduces biodiversity. But, most of the land on earth is not arable. If we put monocultures on these areas, it doesn’t affect overall biodiversity as much as some people might purport. Furthermore, if you plant in a multi-crop environment, and there are some areas in which we do this, I’ll explain momentarily. But, if you decided to not monoculture or say “I don’t want to do this, I think it’s better for the environment if I don’t,” then you can’t mechanize your production. You’re going to lose a lot more of your crop to disease, you’re going to lose a lot more of your crop to harvest times. It’s not really worth it to do this, it’s not really worth your while. You can’t mechanize your production on a field that has all of these different species on it. It’s much easier to say “okay, I’m going to plant a field of soybeans here, and a field of corn here, and a field of cotton here.” To finalize some of this, multi-cropping is sometimes used for forage systems for cattle-grazing. You’ll have different types of feed for them side-by-side throughout the year, but those don’t really count in what we’re talking about here. Monoculture is efficient. It’s an efficient use of land. If we didn’t do it, we’d lose a lot more food and a lot more people would go hungry.

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