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Food Evolution: The GMO Debate Through a Scientific Lens

On Thursday, March 22nd from 6 pm – 8 pm in Jones Auditorium, Meredith College will present “Food Evolution,” an event that explores the controversial role of genetic engineering in food production. The event begins with the screening of the award-winning documentary “Food Evolution” narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This will be followed by an expert panel discussion and audience Q/A.  Event is free and open to public. This screening and panel discussion qualifies as an Academic / Cultural Event for General Education.

Imagine a group of scientists who are setting out to create the perfect rice plant: they collect thousands of rice seeds and expose them to high doses of radiation. This exposure results in tens of thousands of random, wholesale changes in the seeds’ DNA.  The scientists then plant these seeds, observe the plants, and select the one in which the altered DNA makes the perfect rice – with long grains, heavenly fragrance and an amazing texture when steamed! They propagate this select mutant rice, and consumers all over the world enjoy it.  Imagine no more. This technology – called radiation mutagenesis – has existed for over fifty years and has given us a variety of food plants, including herbicide-resistant sunflowers, organic ruby-red grapefruit and yes … mutant rice varieties developed in Asia and grown organically in California!

Imagine now that there are thousands of corn farmers whose crops are being destroyed by a voracious caterpillar.  A team of scientists discovers that placing a single gene from a bacterium into corn plants can make them resistant to this caterpillar.  Farmers purchase and plant these genetically engineered seeds, saving their farms from this very hungry caterpillar! Again, imagine no more.  This technology – called genetic engineering by which a single gene from one species is placed in another species – has existed for over twenty years.  Like radiation mutagenesis, it has given us some wonderful varieties of food, including disease-resistant papayas in Hawaii and caterpillar-resistant eggplant in Bangladesh.  

Radiation mutagenesis and genetic engineering are only two out of many tools that help in the development of food crops with desirable traits.  But, while consumers have accepted radiation mutagenesis as a perfectly good breeding tool, they have been much more skeptical of genetic engineering (better known as GMO technology).  It would be an understatement to say that “GMOs” are the subject of intense debate – an agricultural lightning rod. While 88% of scientists consider “GMO” food products safe, only 37% of the American public agrees.  Of all the politicized issues in science, this gap represents the largest one between scientific consensus and public opinion.

Ironically, people on both sides of this debate share a common vision – to sustainably produce enough food for a growing human population, which is expected to hit 9 billion in the year 2050.  But do we have the tools to accomplish this goal to produce more food on less land, while also combating climate uncertainties? If so, what are these tools? How does the scientific process work in developing these tools?  Which ones will we accept? How will we decide?

It is clear that an interplay of science, economics, agriculture, societal values, and government regulations is shaping this debate, and in-turn shaping the future of food.  Are we prepared to become informed participants in this debate and help make the best decisions?

The Food Evolution event will help you do just that!  It begins with the screening of the documentary “Food Evolution.”  Narrated by star science-communicator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, this documentary takes a science-based look at the debate surrounding GMOs.  

Even more exciting is the panel discussion that follows the documentary! A panel of world-renowned experts (Dr. Fred Gould, Distinguished Professor Entomology at NCSU and member of the National Academy of Sciences; Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, Associate Professor of Agroecology and organic agriculture expert; and Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, molecular biologist and science communicator) will answer your questions!  The event is made possible via the Meredith College Kenan fund and the volunteer support of the Biology Honors Society and Angels for the Environment.  It is free and open to the public.


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