The Nature Center on Highway 243 continues its new speaker series with Dr. Norman C. Ellstrand, University of California, Riverside, professor of genetics. Ellstrand, an expert on plant gene flow and hybridization, will present the talk, “When transgenes wander, should we worry?” Ellstrand is an international speaker, invited to contribute policy discussions on this topic from, in his own words, “Amsterdam to Havana.”
The core of Ellstrand’s presentation is how genetically engineered (transgenic) crops can influence the natural environment and food chain, whether consumers should be concerned, and, if so, about what.
In interview, Ellstrand stressed he is not an alarmist and that the discussion of genetically modified organisms should focus on “straightforward, scientifically based concerns dictating a cautious approach for creating the best choices for agriculture’s future.
“Let the science lead, to inform public policy regarding environmental risks,” said Ellstrand. “You have to look at whether the risks outweigh the benefits.”
The traditional arguments for creating genetically engineered crops are that they are more disease-resistant, require fewer pesticides that could harm the environment, can give foods stronger colors and longer shelf lives, and eliminate seeds. Some GMOs also can have higher levels of nutrients, such as protein, calcium and folates. These cited values can be particularly helpful in countries or areas with reduced agricultural production.
Cited negatives include potential allergic reactions and increased antibiotic resistance in some individuals. Because some GMO foods have had antibiotic features built into them to make them immune or resistant to certain diseases or viruses, ingesting those foods can leave antibiotic markers in one’s body and could potentially make antibiotic medications less effective. An Iowa State University study warned that ingestion of these foods, with regular exposure to their antibiotic content, could be contributing to decreased effectiveness of antibiotics in hospitals worldwide.
Ellstrand recommended looking at individual cases and specific geographical areas to weigh the pros and cons of GMOs. He cited use of transgenics in Hawaii that saved the Hawaiian papaya industry. “The Hawaiian papaya had no immunity, was vulnerable and threatened with extinction,” said Ellstrand. “Use of trans-genes made it resistant. This is one of the very few cases where a GMO not created by a company became commercialized.”
But Ellstrand warned that other GMO uses could be risky, such as using corn as a base for pharmaceutical research — placing GMO proteins into the natural environment where they can migrate into other crops consumed by livestock, causing epidemics such as mad cow disease. “The greatest concern is having genetically engineered compounds get into the food stream and cross borders. There are some really bad projects that could be moved across borders.”
Ellstrand writes of three areas where plant ecologists see the greatest risk of transgenic crops: “crop-to-wild hybridization that results in the evolution of increased weediness in wild relatives; evolution of pests that are resistant to new strategies for their control; and the impacts on non-target species in associated ecosystems [such as the unintentional poisoning of beneficial insects]. Also, crop-to-wild gene flow can create another problem. Hybridization between a common species and a rare one can, under the appropriate conditions, send the rare species to extinction in a few generations.
“The products of plant improvement are not absolutely safe, and we cannot expect transgenic crops to be absolutely safe either. Recognition of that fact suggests that creating something just because we are not able to do so is an inadequate reason for embracing a new technology.”
Unlike in Europe, there are no U.S. governmental requirements that GMO foods be labeled so that consumers know what they are buying and eating. In 2014, Vermont and Maine passed laws requiring labels on foods produced entirely or partially by genetic engineering. GMO labeling is pending in 28 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In May of 2014, the California Legislature rejected a bill that would have required GMO product labeling. It was the second time the Legislature had defeated a GMO-labeling measure.
Ellstrand’s presentation, at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, at the Nature Center, is free to the public.