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These aren’t your grandmother’s GMOs

FarmTech: Scientists used to use a scattergun approach to genetically modify plants, but modern methods are extremely precise, says professor

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Of all the tools that plant breeders have at their disposal, a compelling story is perhaps the most important — and the most challenging to find.

“That’s one of the things in the modern breeders’ tool kit that needs improvement — our message out to the public and how it’s going to come across,” said geneticist Sean Myles of Dalhousie University. “We’re not good at it right now.”

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Scientists have faced an uphill struggle in sharing facts about genetically modified organisms with consumers, partly because of how they were created in those early days, Myles said in a presentation at FarmTech last month.

Traditionally, GMOs were created by putting “a little cassette of DNA” into bacteria and then putting those bacteria into the plant.

“You make a plant with this huge piece of bacterial DNA with all sorts of little pieces in it, and it inserts that into hundreds of thousands of places within the plant genome,” said Myles.

“You don’t really know where it goes, but hey, if the plant grows up and has the trait you’re interested in, bingo — we win. We’ve got ourselves a GMO that works.”

But through that process, geneticists were “significantly altering” the plant’s genome — and consumers didn’t like that. Amid protests over ‘frankenfoods,’ almost 40 countries around the world have banned GMOs, even potentially life-saving ones.

Golden rice is the perfect example of that, he said.

“We know that there are issues in the world like vitamin A deficiency — it results in one million to two million deaths a year,” said Myles. “It’s a very serious problem, mainly in very poor countries where rice is a staple.

“Since 2000, we’ve actually had a GM rice, called golden rice, that has been available. But because of regulatory hurdles, it has never really been introduced.

“People still suffer from vitamin A deficiency because they can’t get a hold of golden rice.”

Consumers think that GM crops are made by “big companies” that just want to make a buck — but that’s not the case with golden rice.

“This was developed in an academic lab in Freiburg, Germany, through a grant to develop a solution to vitamin A deficiency in the Third World.

“It’s freely available. There’s no IP (intellectual property rights) associated with this. It’s ready to go. And it can’t move because of regulatory hurdles.”

Tell a story

But the game is changing dramatically, he said. New technologies allow geneticists to edit the genome — or what breeders like to call “precision breeding.”

“The precision with which we can alter the DNA sequence of a plant and animal is orders of magnitude better than it previously was,” said Myles. “It’s not even the same concept. It’s not the same game at all.”

“There’s no off-target modifications to the genome. We can make single changes to the DNA sequence.”

Even so, “genetics is still a really bad word for some people.”

“The fact is they’re not listening to the details. They don’t want facts,” said Myles.

“You’ve got to be able to tell a story. You’ve got to be able to touch people’s hearts. You need to tell them something that’s going to connect them emotionally with what you’re talking about.”

And scientists are notoriously terrible at that, said Myles, who described the typical attitude as: ‘I’m confident that everyone can make up their minds for themselves because every human is extraordinarily rational just like me. And if I give them the information, they’re going to decide right.’

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You need to touch their hearts. And when you get that message across, it’s much more effective than saying, ‘Listen, trust me.’”

But the agriculture industry needs to strike a balance between facts and emotion, he said.

“You can’t just leave all the facts out,” said Myles.

“We need to describe that process and make it feel good to them. They need to feel good about that in order for us to make progress.”

And that’s the biggest challenge facing plant breeders right now, said Myles.

“No matter how many of these technological advances that we come up with, we’ll never achieve the goal without connecting with the public and the emotion of the consumer.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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