6 Surprising Facts About GMOs

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Vegetarian_Sydney_HassIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
While the public debate over genetically modified foods is still in full swing, the scientific consensus is pretty much in: Stop freaking out. With this verdict in mind, University of Florida horticulture scientist Kevin Folta, PhD, took part in a lively reddit AMA yesterday to answer the Internet's questions about the next generation of fruits and veg. Here's the coolest stuff we learned:

1. GMOs won't kill you, but they also won't feed the world. To date, there has not been any firm evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to our health. Plus, if GMOs did cause health issues, we'd find out pretty darn fast, says Dr. Folta. Still, he's quick to quell any world-saving expectations lurking at the other end of the GMO-opinions spectrum. "There's no reason to drive hyperbole like that," he says, explaining that GMOs are just one potential step along the process of solving the world's food crisis.

2. Allergen-free peanuts exist. Yep, it's true. Scientists have identified the proteins responsible for peanut allergies and have been able to dramatically suppress them. Dr. Folta says that allergen-free soy and wheat have also been produced, but are all confined to the laboratory for now.

3. Herbicide- and pesticide-resistance are the biggest problems GMOs face. Similar to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in response to the overuse of strong antibiotics, farmers are now dealing with the emergence of extremely difficult-to-kill "super weeds." When the popularity of herbicide-resistant, "roundup-ready" crops soared in the '90s, invasive species in the area also became resistant over time. Dr. Folta admits that this is a major issue for GMO crops and their farmers. He says there are new combinations of herbicides 2,4-D and glyphosate in development, but these will only work for a small percentage of crops.

4. The first plant patent was issued 83 years ago this week. Henry Bosenberg received his patent for a climbing, branching rose plant on August 18, 1931.

5. There are tons of useful, working plant technologies that will never be commercially released. These include one of Dr. Folta's lab's own creations, a disease-resistant strawberry that could dramatically reduce the need for fungicide. Another example? The infamous "terminator" genes, which make it impossible for farmers to grow anything from an engineered plant's seeds and could thus be useful for containing a crop. Monsanto inherited the technology when it purchased Delta Pine and Lands in 2006, but it never commercialized the seeds.

6. Genetic modification can save plants from extinction. This year, the once-doomed American chestnut tree was brought back to respectable numbers with a genetic mutation that makes it resistant to its deadly, fungal archnemesis.