Visiting Monsanto with my Inner Science Nerd

April 17, 2017

chipping seeds

GMOs and biotechnology are among the most asked about topics on watchusgrow.org. Recently, we reached out to a group of people to give them the opportunity to visit Monsanto's Biotechnology Research Center. The tour was provided by Illinois Farm Families.

Ok, ok, ok… Don’t x my page out just yet. A lot of people have a lot of feelings when they hear the name Monsanto. You could feel like they are the evil empire and hate anything close to GMO’s. You might ask, Um, what’s a GMO and who is Monsanto? Or finally, you might say, GMO’s are totally safe and Monsanto is a business; get over it, you hippies. No matter what way, most people tend to feel that way STRONGLY.

Where do I fall on that spectrum, you may ask?

I am not quite sure, but I would love to talk it through with you. I love getting to know where my food comes from and who in particular grows that food. So, when Illinois Farm Families contacted me about flying down to St. Louis for the day to tour the Monsanto facilities, I was intrigued. The main reason for me accepting this offer was because I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to pull back the curtain and get to know more.

I think my curiosity stems from my background. I enrolled in college majoring in biology before switching to environmental health. I like to think I would have become a geneticist if it weren’t for that dang organic chemistry! I am fascinated by the advancements in gene placement in plants and am basically still a huge science nerd on the inside. Also, since I became a Mom, I am a little more cautious about what I bring into my house for my kids. (Meanwhile, Mike eats 3 taquitos off the 7-Eleven rollers).

After Home-Alone-ing through the airport to catch my flight and landing safely, I got to talk with a Registered Dietician who was on the trip from Jewel-Osco and a fellow Food Blogger Johanna. We all kind of had the same feeling about taking on this visit–keeping an open mind and wanting to know more.

The first half of our tour of Monsanto was about plant breeding (or hybridization if you wanna get fancy with it). Some amazing fruits and vegetables have come from this process of screening plants for desired traits and cross-breeding them with other mates that share the desired traits as well. A good example of a product of this process is seedless watermelon. Seeds can be screened (no monkeying around with DNA) through the process of “chipping.” Chipping allows seed producers to save major time by chipping off a piece of a seed without damaging the seed and allowing it to still grow. Then they test each seed to determine which genes it carries and if this seed will specifically grow the kinds of viable crops (drought tolerance, more kernels, multicolored kernels, etc.) the farmers want. Think about it; an ear of corn usually has more than 600 kernels, and each kernel has its own genetic makeup and produces a unique plant which may or may not express the desired characteristics. Simply put, chipping safely reduces waste and increases yield. Right now, this technology (not a genetic modification) is being used on corn, soy, wheat, and cotton seeds.

The day ended with a panel discussion featuring farmers, toxicologists, you name it. I wish this part of the day could have lasted longer. You know, people like to think GMO’s are this new thing, but they have actually been around since the 1990’s. Genetically modified corn originated to deal with insect resistance. They took a commonly occurring microorganism found in the ground, which just so happens to kill this certain insect, and inserted it’s genetic material into the corn. So now, the farmer uses less pesticide and this nasty worm can’t hack up the plants anymore. Well, farmers came back and said, “What about this other insect?” So, Monsanto came up with the idea to add a “Round-Up Ready Gene” to the plants. Normally plants have to be a certain height before you can spray around them to kill weeds and bugs or else the Round-Up can affect it and needs to be washed off later. This genetic modification allows farmers to spray more effectively and efficiently.

A lot of the advances in agriculture and its technology are based on things farmers have asked for. It really helped to hear why a farmer would choose certain genetically modified seeds over unmodified seeds. Deb Moore, an Illinois farmer with Illinois Farm Families, said that this year in particular, given that Illinois didn’t have a good frost, they are probably going to see more insects this growing season. That is why she would pay a little more for the genetically modified seed, in order to get a insect resistant plant and a higher yield of crops in the long run.

Thinking about things from the farmers’ perspective adds new light to my grocery store trips. I always like to think that the little farm families would never do anything to ruin their businesses or hurt consumers. Farmers are the stewards of the land, right?

I don’t ever want to be manipulated or feel tricked. I’m always somewhat weary of marketing based on fear. GMO is such a trigger word that companies can cash in on people buying something because it says NON-GMO on the label. There are only 10 GMO crops available today: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa (for animal feed), sugar beets, Rainbow papaya, Ranger Russet and Atlantic potatoes, Arctic Apples and select varieties of squash.

The second thing that I think can be a slippery slope with genetics, no matter how many times you test and test and test genes, they are still unpredictable. So could it be possible for invasive or otherwise harmful species of plants to come out of all these mutations? I don’t know, maybe? Ever see Jurassic Park?

Continued strict genetic testing and screening is still mandatory after a GMO is on the market. Will that catch it? Those plants, in the ground, are no longer in a controlled environment. Are these regulations and testing enough to make you feel safe about GMO’s? That my friends, I cannot answer for you.

I’m not an expert, but I do know more (and want to know even more) as a result of my trip. I had an enlightening and invigorating day that sent me to read more books and articles and columns about GMO’s. All of this talk is causing people to dig deeper into where their food is coming from, and that is great. Could I go on and on about my opinions? Sure. Send me an email. There is still plenty left unsaid from all that I learned.

I am sure most of my usual readers just want me to get back to the recipes. So I’ll just finally say, thank you to the Illinois Farm Families for making this trip possible.

Originally posted on Sarcastic Cooking.

Stefanie Bundalo

 

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