A learning experience

I attended the morning sessions of the Great Plains Land Expo in Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 20 and learned some new things about big bad GMOs.

The word is scary and groups that oppose genetic modification of foods have been successful in drumming up panic across the U.S. The term conjures images of petri dishes containing artificially produced chemical compounds that will be injected into our food. But biotechnology can include the improvement and incorporation of native genes, too.

Simplot is working to roll out a new biotechnology-engineered potato brand called Innate. Kerwin Bradley, the company’s commercialization director, told his audience at the expo that the potato will include favorable genes already present in potatoes naturally. The technology in the new brand will keep the potatoes from browning (sounds like a preservative to me), as well as reduce a chemical compound called Acrylamide. Acrylamide is produced from the starch in potatoes when they are baked or fried. It’s in our French fries, potato chips, coffee, nuts and more. It’s a known carcinogen and California has legislation requiring all foods containing it to be labeled.

Bradley said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will most likely approve Innate soon and it will be available for sale next winter. Simplot also will improve upon the genetics in the coming years for phases two and three.

But besides his sales pitch, Bradley shared some information that took me by surprise. A 2012 survey by the International Food Information Council found that only 2 percent of Americans said biotechnology is their main concern when it comes to their food. Disease and contamination was No. 1 at 29 percent.

I find that hard to believe. With all the fuss raised over GMOs, I would have thought that percentage would be much, much higher. But Bradley didn’t share the methodology of the survey, so I don’t know who was surveyed or where they lived, etc.

And 70 percent of the food in our supermarkets is GMO, outside of the produce shelves. That seems believable, since 100 percent of the country’s canola is genetically modified, 93 percent of corn and 98 percent of soybeans.

Bradley says wheat is next in line for genetic modification and commercialization. But I wonder how that will work, after the debacle with the rogue GMO wheat found in Oregon that temporarily halted U.S. wheat exports to some Asian countries that outlaw GMO foods. I doubt we will forget about that any time soon.

So Simplot will work on its Innate potatoes and expects about 10 percent adoption by the fourth year they are available commerically. Bradley expects 50 percent adoption by 2020.

I am not completely anti-biotechnology, but I do think we need to be careful. There’s a reason much of the foods we can buy from our grocery stores in the U.S. are banned in many European and Asian countries. But then again, the one scientist who loudly led the global anti-GMO parade for years has backed off, acknowledging he took it too far and that genetically modified food is absolutely essential if we want to feed our ballooning population in the coming years.

I’m torn. We have elevated bacteria concerns, cancer seems to be getting more stubborn and taking over, and I heard recently that human bodies are taking longer to decompose than they used to because of the enormous amount of preservatives we consume in our food.

Yikes.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if enough research has been done to determine long-term effects of consuming GMO foods, but we have to figure something out to feed ourselves.

We can follow both sides of the debate, but that doesn’t always give us a firm grasp on either side, or the truth that lies somewhere in the middle.

But I hate chemistry. So you won’t find me putting on a lab coat and goggles to do the dirty work. Like most of you, I just want someone trustworthy to tell me what the right answer is. The real answer, not tainted by bias or greed, and backed up with sound, thorough research and investigation.

It’s hard to tell who, if anyone, has that answer anymore.

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