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Originally published October 28, 2013 at 8:55 PM | Page modified October 28, 2013 at 11:03 PM

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CON on I-522: GE researcher fears ‘demonization’ of a technology with many potential benefits

Scientist Max Moehs says existing genetically engineered crops already have had positive impacts, and future crops may help cope with climate change and disease.


By Sandi Doughton

The ABCs of GMOs

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

Click the graphic to learn more about GMOs.

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Charles P. “Max” Moehs is a principal scientist with Arcadia Biosciences in Seattle, where he uses both genetic engineering and conventional breeding to develop low-gluten grains and crops with increased stress tolerance.

Q: Why do you oppose labeling of genetically engineered foods?

A: Genetic engineering is a technology, not a trait. The National Academy of Sciences and other scientific bodies throughout the world have argued that the important thing about crops is what they contain, not how they’re generated.

If a food is unsafe, it’s not labeled; it’s taken off the market.

When you make soybean oil from soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to an insect or herbicide, the oil doesn’t contain any genetically engineered components. To add a label that says “May contain genetically engineered ingredients” is misleading and not really helpful to consumers.

Q: What do you worry might happen if GE foods are labeled?

A: I think it demonizes technology that has potential for a lot of benefits.

I also think it will require producers to segregate their genetically engineered and non-GE products ... and create an additional burden for them. Imagine trying to clean a combine of every last seed. If a farmer has both genetically engineered crops and non-GE crops, they would almost have to run two separate operations.

And it strikes me as an invitation to frivolous lawsuits.

Q: Why should consumers support genetic engineering when most of the current crops seem to be more aimed at boosting corporate profits than improving food quality?

A: I think consumers may not be aware of some of the benefits. It’s been shown that Monsanto’s technology has reduced tillage, for example, so that saves on fuel driving tractors through fields and reduces soil erosion.

Insect-protected transgenic corn has reduced levels of mycotoxins (fungal toxins) ... which provides a clear benefit to consumers of this corn.

Several medicines, including insulin, are produced using recombinant DNA technology, and we accept the benefits of that.

Q: Are there beneficial new crops on the horizon?

A: There are efforts to produce more climate-resilient crops. Diseases are moving northward from the tropics, and crops are facing increasing pressure from fungi and insects.

There are applications in the public sector, like research to make bananas resistant to some diseases. People are working on making cassava resistant to a devastating viral disease ... through genetic engineering.

Q: What role do you see for genetically engineered crops in the developing world?

A: Developing-world farmers are already growing a lot of transgenic cotton, and reaping substantial benefit from that. A number of peer-reviewed studies find that genetic engineering is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture, and it wouldn’t be used by farmers if they didn’t see a benefit.

No single technology is a silver bullet. It’s one tool in the toolbox.

Developing countries like India and countries in Africa conduct agricultural research, and they have to decide for themselves to what extent they want to adopt these technologies.

I think the anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) fear mongering is not useful. Activists have already delayed many useful applications, like Golden Rice.

Q: What factors would you like voters to keep in mind?

A: Scientifically, it’s been proven that all GE foods that are on the market are safe, so is the label really going to provide useful information, or is it just going to demonize a technology? I think (a label) is something that makes a technology appear scary or dangerous, when it’s not.

Foods should be evaluated on what they contain, not how they were made.

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com



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