Lisa H. Weasel is a molecular biologist, an associate professor of biology at Portland State University, and the author of Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. This 5-part interview was conducted in February of 2010, and predates last month’s decision by the USDA to deregulate the production of roundup ready alfalfa; the recent lifting of the restriction on GM sugar beets; and now, the approval of an industrial GM corn for bioethanol production.
- Interview with Lisa Weasel: Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food
- Interview with Lisa Weasel:-2
- Interview with Lisa Weasel: Food Fray:-3
- Interview with Lisa Weasel: Food Fray:-4
- Interview with Lisa Weasel: Food Fray:-5
Part 1; What is genetically modified food?
The conventional understanding of genetically modified food focuses on transgenic plants, which are plants that are made in the laboratory by taking genes from one species and putting it into a food crop. Basically it’s the crossing of species that would never really occur in nature or through conventional breeding or hybridization. Transgenics involves taking genes largely from bacteria and putting them into plants.
When most people think about genetically modified foods they think about soy, rice, corn and other basic foods. What other foods are genetically modified on a large-scale basis?
Mostly soy, corn, canola and papayas. A good percentage of the papayas that are grown in the United States are genetically modified and it’s a different type of genetic modification than soy or corn because they’ve been engineered with viral resistance. Genetically modified rice is developed but not marketed, and genetically modified wheat has also been developed but has not been commercially grown or approved. Then of course sugar beets – about 95 percent of the sugar beet crop in this country is genetically modified and that’s a recent entrant into GM crops.
China is sort of a renegade in terms of developing GM crops so China has a number of other vegetables and crop plants that are genetically modified. But when we think about mainstream Western agriculture crops those are the main ones. Then of course there’s the BT eggplant issue in India which is a big issue right now.
Can we talk about that?
Sure, genetically modified eggplant is a BT strain that has been put into eggplant to resist a shute and fruit borer. This insect is a little caterpillar (lepidopteran species) that will bore into the eggplant, particularly into the fruit and damage the shutes when the plant is young. When the BT gene is introduced there’s a toxin that will kill that caterpillar. [non-GMO] Eggplant in India is a very well consumed crop.
In recent weeks the government has been conducting field trials and building up to the approval of genetically modified eggplant that they call brinjal. The government decided that is was fine for approval and then there was a large revolt by consumers, farmers and government ministers of different states in India about the introduction of this first genetically modified food crop for India. (India has approved genetically modified cotton and it’s been grown fairly widespread there but no genetically modified food crops have been approved yet).
GM eggplant is different from the GM food crops that have been grown worldwide up until this point because corn, soy, and canola are all highly processed or produced as animal feed. If corn and soy are consumed by humans the genetically modified corn and soy is in a very processed form such as corn syrup, corn byproducts, soy lecithin and proteins and super processed stuff like that. Genetically modified eggplant is eaten in a much less processed form.
India has a whole slew of different food and agricultural issues that make it a very different environment than the United States for introducing genetically modified crops. I think that a lot of those concerns are over the containment of genetically modified varieties, issues around organic agriculture and the small scale type of agriculture that is practiced in India, issues about is it really going to increase yield, who’s doing the research to show that it’s safe and safe for the environment and that it’s actually going to be beneficial? When you trace it back to big biotech companies doing that research – a subsidiary of Monsanto in this India case — people’s trust is not very high.
What do you think will happen?
Right now they’ve put a moratorium on the approval of genetically modified eggplant. I think that eventually it will probably make it onto the market but more checks and balances will be in place.
In a similar vein, farmers in the Northern Plains and the West wheat growing states said they were very concerned about introducing genetically modified wheat seeds because of export to Japan and to Europe and how that would the export market. Even though it was all ready to be approved – Monsanto pulled back and didn’t introduce it. When there is huge revolt against something it makes a difference.
What was the year like for you especially in regard to promoting your book Food Fray?
It’s a challenging book to promote because the issue of genetically modified food is so polarized. Generally I think it’s gone well. My intention with the book was to shine a critical light but at the same time present a balanced perspective. I think that most reviewers and readers have found that to be the case. That said, it’s a very emotional issue for a lot of scientists so there has been some backlash and I’ve had to deal with that attack on me personally.
In some ways I’m just a messenger – Food Fray is based on research, on interviews, and relaying people’s views and perspectives. Globally there is a lot of opposition to genetically modified foods and the goal of my research is to try to understand why that is and not just to make a blanket statement and say, “That’s bad. Science is good. This is a rejection of science.”
In the cases where there has been backlash there’s been criticism that as a scientist I should be out there telling people how wonderful science is. But really my job and my role in doing this research was to listen to what people’s concerns are and try to understand how people relate to science. If people reject science, even if it’s good science, it’s really important to understand why.
Americans are not that informed on genetically modified foods even though they’ve been out there for a long time. It’s also been heartening to see that by reading this book people have become more educated on the issue and can make their own decisions about what the issues are out there.
March 7, 2011: part 2; Lisa Weasel talks about the emergence of genetic engineering in agriculture; failed efforts to require manufacturers to label transgenic foods; and how she became involved in biotechnology.
Liz Crain writes about Pacific Northwest food and drink for various print and online publications. Her book Food Lover’s Guide to Portland was published by Sasquatch Books in July 2010. She is also a fiction writer and editor at Hawthorne Books.