Innovation Hub: A Genetically Modified Menu

People have been cross-breeding their food for thousands of years—but modifying food in a lab is still relatively new and has ignited serious controversy.

We recently talked with New York Times science reporter Amy Harmon and genetics professor Pamela Ronald about the opportunities presented by genetically modified foods, and the myths that surround them.

(This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit WGBH’s Innovation Hub.)

Kara Miller: If I eat the average American diet, do you have any sense of what percentage of my food has been modified in some way in the lab?

Pamela Ronald: Virtually everything we eat is genetically altered somehow, and that includes organic produce.

Amy Harmon: Only a handful of crops have been genetically engineered in a laboratory: corn, soybeans, canola, some squash, and some papaya. That’s it, so far. But 80 percent of packaged foods, like cereals, chips, and salad dressings, have some ingredient that has been genetically modified.

KM: Pam, when you’re mixing genes, are there any potential unintended consequences?

PR: There’s always a risk of unintended consequences, but it’s important to keep in mind there’s no unique risk to genetic engineering compared to other methods of breeding. In fact, genetically engineered crops have been planted now for nearly 20 years, and there’s not a single case of harm to human health. The USDA just reported that corn that has been genetically engineered for pest resistance has reduced insecticide spraying tenfold over the past 10 years. That’s a really big advance for farmers, farmworker safety, and human health.

KM: Where do you see genetic engineering going when you look to the future?

PR: It’s a very exciting time in plant genetics. It used to take many, many years and millions of dollars to sequence a single plant genome. Now, the same projects can be carried out in 2-3 minutes for about $100.

AH: I think the jury is still out concerning consumer acceptance of genetically engineered food. It takes a lot of resources, effort, and scientific ingenuity to make a genetically engineered crop that does what you want it to do. There’s the question of whether we’re going to want to invest that money as a society in these crops. We have the tools to try it, but whether we will use it is not known.

Mikaela Lefrak contributed to this piece.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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2 responses to “Innovation Hub: A Genetically Modified Menu”

  1. LabelGMOs108 says:

    Pamela Roland works at UC Davis, which is heavily funded by guess who, Monsanto!

    Genetic engineering is neither safe nor precise.

    It is impossible to guide the insertion of the new gene. This can lead to unpredictable effects. Also, genes do not work in isolation but in highly complex relationships which are not understood. Any change to the DNA at any point will affect it throughout its length in ways scientists cannot predict. The claim by some that they can is both arrogant and untrue.

    GMO techniques bear no resemblance to traditional breeding techniques. The government’s own Genetic Modification (Contained Use) Regulations admit this when it defines GM as “the altering of the genetic material in that organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination or both”.

    Traditional breeding techniques operate within established natural boundaries which allow reproduction to take place only between closely related forms. Thus tomatoes can cross-pollinate with other tomatoes but not soya beans; cows can mate only with cows and not sheep. These genes in their natural groupings have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution. Genetic engineering crosses genes between unrelated species which would never cross-breed in nature.

    Substantial equivalence is a legal concept invented by the biotech industry. The industry claims that a GM food or food supplement is “substantially equivalent” to, or the same as, the non-GM version and therefore does not require labels or extensive testing.

    Regulators have blindly accepted the substantial equivalence doctrine without backing up their belief with independent scientific research.

    For an eyeopening education on the harmful effects of GMOs, see —

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