Beyond Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO

My name is Tara Mittelberg, and this blog is about my adventures as I circumnavigate the globe studying the institutions that research transgenic crops (AKA “GMOs”). I developed an interest in food security, agriculture, and the environment in my high school AP Biology class. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the public conversation surrounding agricultural science, particularly biotechnology. This summer I will travel to Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, Malaysia, and the Philippines to visit a wide variety of scientists and farmers. The goal isn’t to prove that you should be pro-GMO or anti-GMO, but instead to show that biotechnology can mean a lot of different things depending on the gene, crop, and context. Tara was funded by the Circumnavigators Travel study Grant, jointly awarded by Northwestern's Office of Undergraduate Research and the Chicago Chapter of the Circumnavigators Club.  It provides funding for one student to travel around the world the summer before their senior year, stopping in at least five countries on at least three continents.

Biotech Scientists in Argentina

Hello! I just got back from a busy week in Rosario, Argentina, where I learned a ton about GMOs from many different perspectives. Over the next few days, I’ll publish three posts with what I learned from talking to scientists, the public, and farmers. Of course spending five days in a place isn’t enough to create generalizable knowledge about entire populations, but I think you’ll still find my conversations interesting.

First, a bit about Rosario, which some call “the Chicago of Argentina” because it serves as the central hub/port for national grain trading and transport. 80% of Argentina’s grain passes through Rosario, most of it on its way to China and Europe. It was a lovely city to explore, and running along the Parana River reminded me of Lake Michigan.

On Tuesday I visited the INDEAR Instituto de Agrobiotechnología Rosario. This organization is a small biotech company specializing in the production of seeds and biosolids. It differs from the large American seed companies that many are familiar with in several ways. First, they are not a large well-known company, so to gain international regulatory approval, INDEAR teams up with other small biotech companies who help them navigate the regulatory processes in their respective countries. In this way, INDEAR considers itself a “multi-local” instead of a multinational company. Second, though they have a small seed division, their primary business is biotech. In Argentina, there are a number of seed companies that buy genetic traits from biotech companies; on the other hand, in the U.S., the biggest biotech companies are also the biggest seed companies. The Argentine model promotes more competition, which an INDEAR leader said can dramatically lower their costs of trait development.

INDEAR hasn’t yet commercialized any GM trait, but is currently obtaining international regulatory approval for drought-resistant soy, wheat, and alfalfa. If the technology is approved, it will be the first GM wheat to be commercialized. The gene for drought tolerance is originally from a sunflower, which one scientist emphasizes on her regulatory applications because “it’s something we’ve all already eaten.” One difference between drought-resistant GMOs and herbicide-resistant GMOs (described in a previous post), is that drought resistance is measured on a spectrum, and is not a definte trait that can be easily tested by spraying a plant with herbicide. The INDEAR scientists said that this makes it more challenging to gain acceptance for the trait.

Does INDEAR receive much consumer pushback for working with GMOs? The scientists said no, because they are a small company and have yet to officially commercialize anything. In Argentina, Monsanto is the notorious bad guy, which one INDEAR scientist said keeps the attention away from them. What do the INDEAR scientists think about the strong anti-GMO movement in Argentina? They say that as part of the industry, they have to be pro-biotech. In response to the fear of agrochemicals, they say that insect repellent, sausage, and Argentina’s beloved mate yerba have also been proven to be carcinogens. Tomorrow I’ll dive into the public response to biotech in Argentina, so check back soon for a post with less technicality and more controversy!

Enjoying Argentina

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a small change of plans because an Argentine holiday postponed my interviews until Tuesday. This means I’ve had an extra few days in Buenos Aires, and have loved exploring the city. Luckily, my 18 and 24-year-old host siblings from my semester in Ecuador attend school here, so I’ve had some great tour guides. I had always heard that there is a huge European influence in Buenos Aires, but I was still surprised at how different my hosts’ neighborhood seemed compared to other South cities that I’ve visited. The streets are narrow and tidy, there’s a cafe on every corner, and the cars actually stop to let you cross. I’ve especially loved drinking a café con crema every day.

I’ve seen a lot of sites in the few days I’ve been here, including La Casa Rosada (the main government building, pictured here), the Chacarita Cemetary (I’ve never been so impressed by the scale of something), a tango milonga (I wished I had remembered more from the lessons I took at NU last year), and the Palermo Forest Park (great for running!). I’ve had so much great food along the way as well. My hosts took me to Guerrin, which may have the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. We also went to a great burger place in Palermo. Additionally, Argentina is famous for a special drink called mate, which is high in caffiene and is consumed like tea. It is usually served in a hollowed out gourd, which is often passed around and shared among a group of friends. And it’s not just a caricature that Argentines are always drinking mate – last night I saw someone pull out thier gourd and thermos on a 10-minute bus ride and start passing it around to his friends.

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La Casa Rosada (Thanks Circumnavigators Club for sponsoring!)

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Pizza in Buenos Aires with my wonderful hosts/tour guides

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Enjoying mate

Yesterday I went to El Golpón, an organic market with vendors selling all sorts of crafts, beverages, jams, vegetables, and more. I was inspired by my market experience in Chile and was hoping to find someone who could speak to me about GMOs. I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble upon a overtly anti-GMO activist like I had in Santiago, but I had a conversation with one of the vegetable vendors. She said that they’ve had more and more people desiring GMO and pesticide-free produce, and that they can barely keep up with demand. Of course this doesn’t mean that everyone in Buenos Aires is following this trend, but it shows that the urban public has a stake in the GMO conversation. It will be interesting to see what scientists think of these agricultural discussions that are at once scientifically technical, socially complicated, and increasingly at the hands of the public. Tomorrow I head to the Rosario Institute of Agrobiotechnology to find out. Stay tuned!

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Golpón Organic Market

Chile GMO Resistance

Greetings from Buenos Aires! I arrived here Wedenesday afternoon after spending a few days in Santiago, Chile seeing the sites and practicing my Spanish before beginning interviews. It turns out that Chile is a very bad place to practice Spanish because they talk fast and have a lot of vocabulary that only they use. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time in Santiago. I went to the central market, did a city tour, ate at a famous ice  cream store, and ran up Cerro San Cristóbal, a big hill/park in the middle of the city.

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Shortly after arriving in Santiago, I went to a weekend craft fair and stumbled upon a vendor selling organic herbs and vegetables. She had this sign, which translates to “Out with Monsanto in Chile / GMO-free foods / Seeds of the farmers in resistance.” She said that she displays the sign to initiate conversation about GMOs (“transgénicos”) because the public doesn’t know much about them. I later learned that Chile has fascinating GMO regulations – scientists can develop biotech seeds for export, but Chilean farmers cannot cultivate GM seeds themselves. At the same time, it is legal to import foods with GM ingredients, and there is no mandatory labeling.

Thus, whether you’re a farmer who wishes to reap the financial benefit of GMOs, or a consumer who wants to avoid them, everyone loses in this situation. It’s not surprising that the woman in the market was trying to educate the public. I wish I could have stayed longer to attend a meeting of her anti-GMO activist group, and to see what Chilean scientists think about engineering seeds destined for cultivation in faraway places. However, I had to catch my flight to Argentina: a country with millions of acres of GM soy, an anti-GMO consumer counter-movement, and a new government that could change the way the biotech companies and farmers operate.

When I arrived, I learned a lesson in flexibility when my interviews with Argentine scientists were postponed until next week because of a holiday. In the meantime I’m in Buenos Aires, and will visit an organic market tomorrow to speak with vendors and consumers.

Getting Started

I begin my journey close to home: on my family’s farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My dad is passionate about environmental conservation, so he plants most of his fields with either native grasses or crops for animals to eat. From left to right, this field contains strips of non-GM native grasses, genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, GM corn, and non-GM sunflowers.

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So what does genetically modified even mean? A genetically modified organism (“GMO”)  is any organism that has been engineered to contain a gene from another species. If you remember back to high school biology, genes provide the code that tells cells how to make proteins. There are many different types of GM crops and traits, which I will write about as I travel the world. In this picture, thanks to a bacterial gene, the GM alfalfa can produce a protein that allows it to survive the application of glyphosate, a common herbicide. Therefore, when my dad sprayed this field with glyphosate last week, the weeds (the tan bushes in the foreground) died, while the alfalfa survived. The corn hasn’t been sprayed yet, so there are a lot of weeds growing between the rows.

 

What’s up with the sunflowers? You can’t see it in this picture, but there are a bunch of really nasty weeds called thistle in the sunflower field. For the past 15 years, most farmers in my area (including my dad) have planted their fields with GM crops every season. Over the years, the thistle has evolved to resist glyphosate because of repeated sprayings. Now even if there were glyphosate-resistant sunflower seeds available, they wouldn’t be useful because the thistles would also be able to survive low levels of glyphosate application. Before planting this year, my dad sprayed both the entire field and individual thistles with extra herbicide to try to kill the weeds. He isn’t sure how this extra glyphosate application will affect the sunflowers, or even if he completely eradicated the thistle.  

 

This is one farmer’s story. Over the next 3 months, I will tell the stories of farmers and agricultural scientists from around the world. I challenge you, dear reader, to view each of these stories in their own individual context. My dad uses GM crops to control the non-native invasive species that would crowd out the row-crops. Other farmers in Iowa use GM crops to maximize profit margins. The existence of herbicide-resistant weeds in Iowa is no reason to say that GM papayas are bad for farmers in Malaysia; at the same time, higher yields from GM maize in Illinois is no reason to say GM cowpea can solve food insecurity in Ghana. As the stories unfold, I encourage you to comment with your own opinions. Tune in after I leave on June 11th for more updates!

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