On April 21, Becton College and the SGA presented a Hot Topics event related to Earth Day, focusing on genetically modified food.
The moderator for the event was Brian Olechnowski, assistant professor of biology. The three panelists, Erik Baard, Edith Myers and Caitlin Hartmann, each gave a presentation on a particular topic related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to a nearly full Lenfell Hall.
Olechnowski introduced the topic by giving the audience general background information on GMOs and gave insight on some environmental issues the world is facing. He began by saying that genetic modification is a multidisciplinary issue, involving the environment, health, politics and the economy, among other things. He explained that 12 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.
He then went on to connect this to historical context. In the late 1960s the population of the world drastically grew. The Green Revolution also took place during this time period, when modern agricultural technology, like pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer, was brought to the developing world.
Olechnowski also mentioned the pros and cons of genetically modifying food. Some of the positive impacts of GMOs are increased food production and decreased famine.
However, there are still negative impacts of this process. Some include degraded soils, water pollution, resistant pests and increased fossil fuel usage.
Another issue it causes is the creation of monocultures, which leads to decreased genetic diversity.
He made it a point to say that over 75 percent of processed foods contain GMOs.
Olechnowski concluded his section by driving home the potential benefits as well as the concerns of GMO usage.
The benefits he discussed included decreased fertilizer use and lower energy needs, while the concerns included unpredictable genetic and ecological effects, introduction of toxins and new allergens, increased pesticide use and decreased genetic diversity.
Olechnowski said of increased pesticide use as a concern, “We could be repelling potentially beneficial insects,” which could have a harmful effect on the environment. He also stated that the world’s food distribution is skewed, saying we have enough food to feed the world, yet there are still populations that are hungry.
Myers, an associate professor of biology, spoke next. She asked why genetic modification is used and responded that it is a “means to an end.” She then used case studies to explain how organisms are modified. She said food waste commonly occurs due to infection by virus or browning by oxidation. GMOs have been incorporated into foods such as apples and salmon to prevent browning and to increase the size of the food. She suggested that we “consider each GMO individually” and not lump them into groups to judge them all as harmful or all as beneficial.
Next, Hartmann, a senior biology major, spoke about the approval process of GMOs. Currently, there is no federal law requiring manufacturers to label their products if they contain GMOs unless they can cause allergies. She said that “57 percent of people are more willing to buy milk without GMOs,” showing that more than half of those surveyed would rather not have genetically modified foods.
The final panelist to speak was Baard, journalist and founder of HarborLAB and Gotham Orchards. His speech was light-hearted, saying that the scientists who study GMOs are “not Doctor Evil types, wearing white lab coats.” He hinted that they are just normal people studying genetically modified foods and stressed the impact on the genetic diversity of monocultures.
Baard left the audience to contemplate his statement that, because of human interactions with the earth, “there is no nature left.” During the introduction it was mentioned that only about 10 percent of the world’s ecosystems remain in their natural habitats.
After the speakers gave their presentations, audience members asked questions, ranging from topics like the amount of time a crop could be exposed to an insecticide before dying from the toxins to possible health concerns. The speakers assured the audience that, for the most part, toxins in insecticides are specific to certain insects and claim to be safe for the environment and for consumption. They also assured the audience that the genes injected into a GMO will not transfer to the consumer.