I have a handful of friends and some family members that are vegetarians and, although I’ll take a pork chop over a leafy salad any day, I’ve got no qualms with vegetarians or vegans. It happened that a couple days ago I was having a conversation with some old friends who happened to be vegetarians. As with any old acquaintances catching up on each others’ lives we talked about our jobs. They had never heard about Monsanto so I described what the company did, mainly, our development of genetically modified (GM) seeds.
The responses I received were surprising.
“Doesn’t that mean you guys put fish DNA in tomatoes and make potatoes with spider DNA?” and “I just eat organic veggies because GMO vegetables have animal DNA.”
This is not the first time I’ve heard statements like this but it’s still astonishing to me that people think that this is true. It was further proof to me that there are a lot of misconceptions about GMO vegetables and crops.
I should first explain that vegetables are typically not genetically engineered.
Primarily, traits in vegetables are accomplished through breeding technology. Breeding is more cost effective than genetic engineering given the amount of time and research it takes to develop biotech traits. So, most vegetables you run across are, in fact, not genetically engineered.
However, there are a few vegetables and fruits that do have biotech traits and have been on the market for quite awhile now. Biotechnology is generally used when a trait is needed but breeding can’t accomplish the development of the trait fast enough.
One example is virus-resistant papaya which was released in 1998. Papaya is a major commodity produced in Hawaii and, before the release of this product, Hawaii was at risk of losing one its major industries since the papaya ringspot virus (PRV) was wiping out all papaya grown on the islands. Since the release of virus-resistant papaya, it has been widely adopted and has saved the papaya industry in Hawaii.
Another example would be virus-resistant squash which has made it possible to grow squash in areas that would have had crops wiped out by viruses. For those who grow squash in virus-populated areas it was the difference between having a healthy crop or no crop at all. Interestingly, virus-resistant squash was actually not developed by Monsanto but rather was acquired through an acquisition.
Now, onto the bigger issue – there are no commercial biotech products owned or produced by Monsanto that have animal DNA. I’m not sure how this rumor got started but it’s just not true.
Most biotech or GE crops (maize, soy, cotton…) are actually developed with agrobacterium which acts as a transfer agent. The most common traits in GE crops are herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (IR). HT plants contain genetic material from common soil bacteria. IR crops contain genetic material from a bacterium that attacks certain insects. One example is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), an IR trait. Bt is expressed in the plant and targets specific insects–and is not harmful to humans. BT is actually used in organic farming too, but it’s sprayed on the plants.
So, again, there is NO animal DNA in GMO vegetables, fruits or grains. Zero, none, zilch! If you’re a vegetarian and don’t want to pay a premium for organic, don’t worry, biotech foods are vegetarian friendly.
Side note: Biotech has even made cheese vegetarian friendly. Previously, cheese was made with rennet, coagulate harvested from a calf’s stomach, but biotechnology has developed a ‘genetically modified’ version that contains no animal DNA. Kosher cheese often uses GM rennet.
Kate works on the corporate website for Monsanto in the public affairs department. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Truman State University. Kate grew up in an Air Force family and has lived in sevaral states and countries but spent the majority of her childhood growing up in Iowa. Kate enjoys art and photography as well as horseback riding.