Classroom project educates students about GMOs

Story and photos by Savannah Schroering

Students in science teacher Randy Hein’s AP environmental class hastily enter the greenroom, happily checking on their growing plants.

“We’re growing two varieties of plants. Soybeans and corn. These are common plants that are used in agribusiness in Indiana,” said Hein. “We grow a lot a corn and a lot of soybeans, so of those two, we are looking at the one variety that are non genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and ones that are.”

The seeds were planted into numerous little pots, labeled “GMO” and “wild type.” Each one was placed in the greenroom and grew for about two weeks.

“The ‘non GMO’ varieties are what we consider a wild type, even though that type has had selective breeding to get the stalk. It has been the old fashioned type of selective breeding, transferring one trait to another plant, whereas the GMO have actually had genes snipped into them that were not in the gene pool of that particular species of plant. That’s kind of by definition what a GMO is: taking genes from one organism and splicing it into another,” said Hein.

GMOs have been protested against, mainly because of the way they are produced. Junior Carson Cotner opposed the use of GMOs for her concerns on the health risks.

 “I believe GMOs should not be allowed because they cause health problems in children and animals,” said Cotner. “They drastically change the environment and cause bugs to grow immune to them, so they have to keep on making them more dangerous. It infiltrates our water supply, which in turn hurts animals and people.”

GMOs are also objected against because they do not occur naturally, and they may have some unknown allergens and are unpredictable.

“Generally, what people find more objectionable is when they take a gene from one species and inject it into another species. People find that a little more freaky,” said Hein. “I guess you could say protesters are justified. Does every protester fully understand the issue? No, but on the flip side, does any scientist fully understand the emotional reasons why someone might object to the use of GMOs.”

Understanding of the need for GMOs is crucial as well. The high yield that comes from growing GMO plants could feed very poor parts of the world, and while there are some downsides, there are reasons that they are grown.

“I think some people misunderstand the use of a GMO and the advantages of GMOs. I think some people fear what they don’t understand and they fear that when they eat a GMO. That it is, in some way, the proteins and carbohydrates we are ingesting are different from those of a non GMO,” said Hein.“Right now, I have to rely on the evidence that the FDA has put forth that a GMO is just as safe to ingest as a non GMO.”

As people learn more about GMOs, they begin to form opinions about them. For example, many anti GMO stickers and pins can be bought at organic grocery stores such as Rainbow Blossom in Louisville.

“Trust of the government organizations and officials right now seems to be at a lower level than it has been previously, so I think there is kind of a general feeling of distrust of organizations and governments and big companies, so I understand why someone might be apprehensive,” said Hein. “I can’t say that I’m 100 percent for every genetically modified trait that’s potentially injected into every organism that a company would like to inject it into.”

Back in the greenhouse, the plants grew quickly, ready to be sprayed with glyphosate, unaware of the pesticide they were about to take in.

“The gene what we’re looking at is called a Roundup Ready gene. Years ago,the Monsanto corporation developed a gene that gave a plant resistance to the herbicide glyphosate. glyphosate is normally a total kill herbicide, meaning that if most any plant is sprayed with it, it’s going to kill it,” said Hein. “So what they have developed is a gene that when it is in the plant, it allows it to resist the chemical glyphosate, so they call it Roundup Ready corn.”

In the experiment, two of each seed were planted: non-GMO soybeans, non-GMO corn, and Roundup Ready GMO corn and soybeans.

“GMOs for the most part have been developed to increase or boost yield of some crop. That increase in yield is going to allow more production from that particular food source and literally could mean the difference, in some areas in the world, providing enough for people to eat, or to have people starving from famine and lack of calories,” said Hein. “Ideally, what they are designed to do is increase yield or production of that particular food. There are benefits such as allowing a plant to grow that’s resistant to particular kinds of insect pests, drought, and particular fungal infections. So the GMOs are going to allow the production of foods without the increased application of pesticides and herbicides and fungicides that they might otherwise have to use.”

The unpredictability of the GMOs is sometimes undesirable to people, but there are needs for them due to the ever growing high demand of food.

“Unfortunately we don’t have long term data before a GMO is approved for widespread use. That’s what alarms people. Sometimes people get alarmed by this because of a lack of data. We’re moving ahead in the push to produce more crops and food. With 74 million mouths to feed, this is a good way to increase food production. Sometimes there’s pressure to push forward before we fully understand everything there is to understand,” said Hein. “Environmental issues are very complex because each field, the plants and animals are around that and the insects that are pollinating those. It is unique across the country. We can’t take the time to study every single microclimate that exists out there,” said Hein.

Not all genetically modified plants are consistent, meaning that not all of them will react the same to every chemical.

“I think there’s an expectation with the GMOs that all of them will have taken the gene into their genome and one hundred percent of them will be resistant to the glyphosate, so I think it might surprise some of them to find that even some of the gmos might be susceptible to the glyphosate,” said Hein. “Some may be surprised that some of the non gmo plants may survive an application of the glyphosate. I’ve not used this particular company as a supplier before, so even I don’t know the percent of survival.”

Shown below is the changes in plant growth over the two weeks for the project.


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