January 7, 2014

What’s a G.M.O.?


Shelby: This week, General Mills announced a big change to its Cheerios. The company says it will no longer use ingredients that have been genetically altered by scientists. It is the latest response to a backlash against genetically modified foods. So, what does this mean? And how does it impact you? Maggie Rulli takes a closer look.

Maggie: Have you ever snacked on potato chips, popcorn, cereal, soda, milk, ice cream, pizza? Then chances are you have eaten quite a bit of genetically modified organisms, better known as GMOs. That is because around 80% of all processed food in America contains GMOs. But these seemingly common foods are surrounded by a controversy that is anything but common.

Protestors: Just label it! Don’t table it!

Maggie: Sparking protests around the world, battles at the voting booths and all-out online campaigns.

Some say they are great.

Max: A GMO is a plant that has been improved.

Protestors: GMOs have got to go!

Maggie: Others say they are a threat to human health and the environment.

Ash: When you mess with nature, when you’re altering these things, nothing good can come of that.

Maggie: But what exactly are GMOs in the first place? Well, people have been messing with seeds for centuries by mixing different varieties of plants together. But about thirty years ago, scientists began mixing the DNA of different species to create something new with a certain characteristic that they wanted, like a strawberry that has been crossed with fish genes to protect the fruit from freezing. And by the mid 90s, some of these genetically modified foods began hitting the grocery shelves.

Peggy Lemaux: And she’s putting the little embryo into the tube…

Maggie: Peggy Lemaux creates genetically modified plants in her lab at UC Berkeley in California.

Lemaux: Basically, we do the same thing that a plant does; only we do it in a laboratory. So we are able to use chemical scissors to cut out particular pieces of genetic information.

Maggie: Right now, Peggy’s team is working with sorghum, a grain found in parts of Africa. They want to make it more nutritious and easier to digest. So first, Peggy’s team takes a whole bunch of sorghum seeds, then separates out the embryo and inserts DNA from barley, another type of grain.

Alright. So, what is the next step? That embryo then comes here to grow.

You have the sorghum embryo that was separated. It comes in here. You inject it with a naturally occurring bacterium that is the agent of change that is going to deliver this DNA that…

Lemaux: Yes.

Maggie: Got that? Well, even though this crazy mass of cells looks a lot different, it still remembers that it used to be a sorghum plant.

Then you bring it in here. Those cells see the light and they say, ‘good gosh! I’m a plant. I need to grow into sorghum.’ And then it starts growing and you see now they are real.

Lemaux: Now every cell in that plant will have that new piece of DNA that you put in.

Maggie: This new genetically modified seed is then brought out to the lab’s greenhouse and grows into, well, something that looks exactly like any other sorghum plant. But now this plant has more vital nutrients and is easier to digest. The same thing goes for this genetically modified corn. Looks the same but isn’t. And also for these GMO tomatoes.

And this tomato, even though a gene has been altered, a human eating it wouldn’t be able to taste a difference, smell a difference, see a difference. It is identical.

Lemaux: Right. The only difference in the tomato is that one new gene that we have put in. These tomatoes are equipped to resist a lot of bacterial diseases.

Maggie: Many of Peggy’s students feel that their work on GMOs could be their chance to make a real difference in the world, like fruit that can deliver medicine or plants that can grow faster and bigger.

Max: Plants are our future, plants are food, plants are what are going to feed our world. I want to make the world a better place. I want to make it livable for more people.

Lemaux: There’s no question we’re going to have to produce more food in the next fifty years than we’ve really, sort of, done since the beginning of time. So we’re going to need as many tools as we possibly can get. And genetic engineering is just one of those tools.

Protestors: If it’s GMO, I have a right to know!

Maggie: But many environmentalists are worried. They say scientists are messing with our food and we don’t know the consequences.

Teens Turning Green member: We have no clue what impact GMOs are having to our bodies, to our land, to our future. We have no idea. We are the petri dish.

Maggie: Members of the environmentalist group Teens Turning Green say they want more testing done on GMOs.

Teens Turning Green member: When you’re inserting DNA of one living thing into another to make it bigger, better, faster, or to make it survive the winters better, we don’t have any idea what those implications are.

Teens Turning Green member: The fact that we’re a country that uses the ‘it’s not proven dangerous’ versus the other countries that are ‘it’s not yet proven safe,’ that’s also scary.

Maggie: They say GMOs introduce things into the food chain that humans have never before consumed. They point to studies on animals that link GMOs to major health concerns like allergies, autoimmune disorders, birth defects and certain types of cancer. But many scientists say that GMOs are safe to eat and they point to the majority of studies that have found no problems with GMOs.

Lemaux: It isn’t true that they haven’t been tested. They’ve actually been pretty extensively tested.

Sangita: By the time it can reach the consumer level, it’s bypassed so many tests that I am not concerned on its well-being.

Maggie: Leaving the question: will GMOs save the world or end it?

Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.

Shelby: To learn more about how different states and countries are dealing with GMOs, head over to


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