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Are GMOs Harmful to Us?

Genetically modified organisms: Is it time to change how we develop new wheat varieties?
Are GMOs Harmful to Us?

Are GMOs Harmful to Us?

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Show 1413: Are GMOs Harmful to Us?
Air Date: March 30, 2014



Rob McClendon: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us here on “Horizon.” Well, biotechnology is nothing new. It permeates our lives from the medicines we take to the clothes we wear, even the food we eat. Yet when it comes to biotech foods called GMOs, which is short for genetically modified organisms, GMOs are where most concerns are raised when it comes to biotechnology, and interestingly enough, not in this country. From Europe to Asia there’s a strong reluctance to eat foods whose genes have been modified. So much so that the wheat industry here in the U.S. has been reluctant to use GMOs, yet a recent editorial in The New York Times questions that policy and sparked a debate among some in the agricultural community on whether it is time to change how we develop new wheat varieties. Joining me now with more on that story is our Andy Barth.

Andy Barth: Well, Rob, wheat breeding is a science that goes back not decades, not even centuries, but thousands of years. Wheat has been called the staff of life because diets around the world are so dependent upon it. So when an Oklahoma agricultural economist penned an editorial promoting increased use of genetic modification in wheat, it began a debate that has ramifications for both the agricultural industry and consumers around the world. It’s the backbone of Oklahoma’s agricultural industry – wheat, a crop that while grown here in the southern Plains is shipped around the world. Today, Don Schieber is elbows deep in wheat flour --

Don Schieber: Kind of getting a little pre-mix here.

Andy: -- cooking cinnamon rolls for members of the American Farmers and Ranchers at their annual conference. Schieber is the past president of the U.S. Wheat Associates, the international marketing group for wheat growers around the country. And he says he understands why the industry has been slower to adopt GMO technology.

Schieber: My firm belief is that we won’t see GMO in wheat in my lifetime. But if we do, it’s going to be because we need it, not because some company wants to get rich over it.

Andy: And one reason GMO wheat is not on the market yet, Schieber says is due to international trade concerns.

Schieber: There’s just too many countries around the world that are not in favor of it at this time. A lot of ’em will say, “We don’t want it. We can’t use it.” But you go behind the camera, behind the closed doors and they’ll say, “We know it’s coming, but we’re not ready for it yet.”

Brett Carver: GMOs or GM crops or GM technology is not without risk or disadvantages.

Andy: Brett Carver is a professor at OSU, specializing in wheat breeding and genetics, and says while genetically modified technology is a valid resource, it’s not one OSU plans to utilize right away.

Carver: We’re looking at the GM option as something that we can, again, access novel genetic variation. But we’re going to do that as a last resort. It’s a tool. It’s a tool in that toolbox. And it’s going to be a tool that we currently are exploring. But it will be a tool used along with other tools, or maybe we would use these other tools first.

Andy: And Schieber says when GMO technology does appear in wheat he wants farmers to still have a say.

Schieber: We still want the farmers to have the choice, GMO or non-GMO. And I think if we have GMOs, and they will make money and will be safe, and it will work for everybody, I think the farmers will use it.

Andy: And while other commodities have embraced GMO technology, Carver says traditional wheat breeding is still cutting edge.

Carver: The concept is wheat lags behind these other crops. So the whole theory can’t be supported. Wheat is not lagging behind those crops. We have the scientific data that shows that. And even in those crops that have the GM technology, the introduction of that technology did not cause a sudden acceleration of genetic progress.

Andy: Advancements that Carver says is still an ever-evolving process.

Carver: Science is not that simple that’s all I can say.

Andy: Well, now both Carver and Schieber agree that the cost of a single genetically modified wheat trait will cost in the hundreds of millions. An expensive program that will undoubtedly face a lot of scrutiny worldwide. But Schieber tells us that the U.S., Canada and Australia have signed agreements stating they will release GMO technology in wheat at the same time to prevent a single nation being scrutinized alone.

Rob: A couple of quick questions for you, Andy. I’ve been told that the wheat genome is particularly complex and subsequently hard to modify genetically.

Andy: It is, Rob. In fact, scientists say wheat has about 17 trillion various sequences, which is five times the amount of DNA that humans have. Still, an international team of scientists has done a complete analysis of the full genome.

Rob: So if the science is there and we have an international agreement among the major wheat growing nations, what’s our hold-up?

Andy: In one word – exports. Fully 35 percent of the world’s 7 billion people depend on this staple crop for survival. And what that means for growers in this country is that almost half of every bushel they harvest will be heading overseas.

Rob: All right. Thank you so much, Andy. Now if you’d like to learn more about international attitudes over GMO crops, we do have a story I did a few years back, talking to both European scientists and consumers over their skepticism of biotechnology. Just head to and look under this week’s value added section. Now when we return, I sit down with the Oklahoma ag economist who’s advocating a change in policy toward genetically modified wheat.