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Labeling of beef, dairy, feed and food products: A parable on GMO

Below is a parable about beans and two very interesting tribes of warriors and the cost of not using technology.  This story should keep people’s attention and may help them understand the science and importance of technology like genetically modified organisms, GMO.

There once were two tribes that battled every fall and winter.  The winner claimed a coveted piece of ground.  One tribe lived on the frozen tundra and only ate the green beans shown below.  These green beans did not get very full and were tough but the frozen tundra tribe loved them.  Sometimes the vines of this green bean had a golden color.  The frozen tundra tribe would occasionally lose a battle early in the fight season, but always won the last big battle of the year.

The other tribe lived in a land of many lakes.  They ate only purple beans.  The purple beans were thick and tasty.  The lakes tribe won a few battles and some years it look like they would FINALLY win the big battle, but they always lost the last fight.  It was discovered the purple bean caused choking in high stress situations.

The green bean did not cause choking.  Several times the lakes tribe tried cross breeding their purple bean with the green bean.  The most promising cross was conducted using a BF-4 variety.  This cross created a green bean with purple strips shown in the picture below.  It was plump and thick, but the lake tribe still choked in the final battle.

Some very smart people in the lakes tribe discovered the specific gene that prevented choking was a VnLmB gene in the green bean.  They proposed using gene splicing technology to insert the VnLmB gene into the purple bean.  The rest of the tribe did not trust the smart people and they did not understand the science.  The tribe insisted on continuing the cross breeding program and passed a law that prohibited the use of gene splicing technology on the purple bean.   They invested many resources, even building a big glass house for the purple bean program, but they never did win the final battle.

Ok, now back to reality.

What is GMO?  GMO is an acronym for genetically modified organism.  Most consumers do not recognize or know what GMO means and the anti-GMO groups can pray upon this ignorance.  I don’t use ignorance to be derogatory.  Genetically modified organism sounds scary.  Genetics is biology with a heavy dose of statics.  Both are very boring to most of the population.  Boring is the wrong word.  Science scares most people.  It is human nature when we don’t understand something, so we stick to what we have always done.  Anything new is uncertain and scary.   Time is everyone’s most limited resource and most consumers will not take the time to do the research.  I think an acronym change is needed for GMO!  I propose SAGE, scientifically accurate genetic enhancement. That is more of a marketing angle but in reality marketing is about delivering a message which is the goal of this blog.

The recent regulations passed by the states of Maine and Vermont to require labeling of foods with GMO ingredients has generated a fair amount of discussion and confusion for the consumer.  The reasons for me defending technology like GMO is because if we do nothing there will be regulations created by the most active/vocal groups or we may lose the ability to use the technology all together.  The challenge is to communicate how and why we need technology improvements in our crop and cattle operations.  The human knowledge base is expanding faster than ever.  Some estimates find that the Agriculture knowledge base doubles every 10 years, so we will have many more of these technology issues to explain in the future.

Specific to GMO technology, humans have been manipulating the genetics of crops and livestock for centuries.  Livestock and plant breeding is very much like a roll of the dice.  We have data on both parents in the breeding process which improves the odds of getting the desired outcome.  It may take decades to get what we want.  GMO technology allows for a more precise introduction of specific genes into the genome of a plant or animal.  GMO’s have been in the lab for 30 years and after extensive research and testing some products have been on the market since 1994.  The safety of GMO has been documented by several thousand trials and confirmed by the USDA.

The parable about the tribes and beans hopefully kept your attention and made GMO a little easier to communicate.  We need to make discussions with consumers about something they care about.  Believe me that the tribes care about winning the battles and this story may get them engaged in talking about technology.