Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Digging for seeds of truth in GMO debate

By some estimates, 80 percent of all processed foods -- cereals, baby formula, canned soups and more -- contain at least one GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism. But whether GMOs are safe and whether they should be listed on the label has led to a very big food fight. Our Cover Story is from Barry Petersen:
Delan Perry's papaya farm on the Big Island of Hawaii may be a bit off the beaten path. But it's smack in the middle of a worldwide debate about one of life's essentials: the very food we eat.
His papayas, like almost all those now grown on the Big Island, are GMOs -- genetically-modified organisms.
"I'm sure their first question is, 'Is it safe?'" asked Petersen.
"We say, 'Of course!'" laughed Perry. "Been eating it, my kids have been eating it for 20 years now."
Twenty years ago, the Big Island's papaya industry had been thriving; growers were shipping 60 million pounds of papayas a year. But then insects began spreading a devastating virus called ringspot to nearly every papaya tree on the island. In about three years, the trees were dead. Fields were barren. The industry was literally wiped out.
But a Hawaiian-born plant pathologist, Dennis Gonsalves (then a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York), came to the rescue.
"We had a technology that could help develop a virus-resistant papaya," he said.
Gonsalves and a team of scientists pulled off a remarkable feat of genetic engineering: they took a DNA strand from the destructive papaya virus and inserted it into the DNA of a papaya seed. Just as with a vaccine for a human, the papayas became immune to ringspot.
One of the final field tests was on Delan Perry's farm in 1997. Photos show the dead and diseased trees surrounding the healthy, genetically-engineered trees.
"It grew beautiful, absolutely beautiful," Gonsalves said. "And even to this day, there has been no breakdown of resistance."
Today, American farmers grow about 10 different GMO crops, including more than 92 percent of all corn and soy. Most are engineered to ward off insects, or to resist weed-killing herbicides (or both). That means farmers can dramatically reduce insecticide use. And when they spray for weeds, the herbicide won't kill their crops.

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