Addressing Public Views on GM Plants: How to Bioengineer Non-Pollinating GM Food Crops

With climate change and population growth predicted to place huge pressures on global food production and agriculture, ensuring crop yield growth in the future is of the utmost importance.  Scientific investment into non-technological and halfway solutions to this problem has been exhausted.  The advent of crop rotation, irrigation, and breeding boosted early civilization’s yields just as mechanized agriculture, artificial fertilizers, and new pesticides continued to improve our global productive capacity during the green revolution.  Looking to the future, Ryffel Gerhart of the European Molecular Biology Organization performed a survey of current research in order to formulate a strategy for changing negative public opinion on the next generation of yield-boosting technologies–genetically modified food crops.  Using the GM corn MON810, Gerhart posits a route to a more GM friendly future by stopping transgene crossing–the spreading of a GM gene into a traditional crop.  Gerhart sees the threat of cross-pollination between natural and GM plants as the biggest hurdle to widespread GM adoption in commercial agriculture.—Michael Gazeley-Romney
Ryffel, Gerhart U, 2011. “Dismay with GM maize”. EMBO reports advance online publication 9 September 2011; doi:10.1038/embor.2011.182.

Ryffel Gerhart, on behalf of the EMBO, researched alternative methods of developing genetically modified crop varieties with the aim of reducing public resistance to their widespread use.  He acknowledges that the “non-technological” and “halfway-technological” methods for increasing crop production have largely been exhausted and are now standard practice around the world.  Gerhart sees the most efficient expansion of future yields stemming from a high-tech solution like genetic modification.  In response to public suspicion of GM products, Gerhart utilizes MON810–a pest-resistant GM maize variety approved for commercial use in the EU–as a test case to first identify then repudiate the major public fears of genetically modified crops using current scientific research.  By describing how to create an apomictic, sterile maize variety that would eliminate the fear of cross-pollination, Gerhart’s research gives a feasible solution to increasing yield growth by creating social acceptance for a proven technology.  In the case of most genetically modified crops the evidence for their ability to boost production is proven, but their realized benefits are limited by social stigmas.
First, Gerhart addresses the concern of GM crop safety.  Gerhart cites a recent long-term study, finding no trace of the modified protein in milk or bovine plasma among livestock populations relying solely on MON810 as a feed source.  In response to the fear for human health, Gerhart draws from ten years of closely observed commercial use and long-term studies of the livestock consuming the crop to authoritatively state that there are no human or environmental health concerns related to MON810.  However in responding to public needs, packaging of GM foods should bear a marker in order to support consumer choice as well as monitor GM foods as their use grows.
With GM safety settled, Gerhart confronts the fear of GM outcrossing.  To acknowledge the realities of transgene outcrossing he cites several recent studies documenting outcrossing among maize populations in Mexico.  The Mexican study is significant because MON810 has not yet been approved for commercial use there yet and has still become a problem.  Another body of research from Guatemala thoroughly details the outcrossing there.  Whereas with human health, much of the public fear is essentially baseless, the potential for polluting nearby crops with GM genes is a real concern.  Gerhart uses a variety of studies to support the viability of his solution to the outcrossing problem.
According to Gerhart, genetic modification provides the solution to the outcrossing problem it creates.  As there is no realistic way of preventing pollen- and seed-mediated transgene outcrossing, the plant itself must be further modified to create a sterile seed-producing variety without the normal process of fertilization.  Referring to several papers on apoximis, a process through which seeds are produced by the plant absent fertilization, Gerhart demonstrates the viability of a GM-derived solution.  By deleting the pollen gene entirely, GM crops could be grown alongside native varieties without the risk of GM genes finding their way into the native populations.
With the stigma surrounding GM-based foods and the real danger of GM proliferation into traditional plant populations, promoting genetically modified crops as the answer to future food security is a tough sell by any means.  However, by increasing the availability of current research showing the safety of GM foods the stigma can be reversed.  Increased public support will encourage further scientific and monetary investment in GM technology which may someday make the outcrossing problem obsolete.  According to the European Molecular Biology Organization the door to our food-future has been opened, we must now gather the courage as a people to walk through it.

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