Team:MichiganState/HP Expert Interviews

Expert Interviews

Note that the conversations shown below are not direct quotes; the interviews have been paraphrased.


Katie Brandt, Michigan State University Student Organic Farm

Because the use of GMOs in the food supply is a hot topic of debate, we felt it was important to understand why people may be opposed to growing and consuming GMOs. If we hope that crops will be grown with our GM bacteria one day, we need to identify the reasons why people might feel uncomfortable using it. This way we can figure out if there's anything we can do now to make them more comfortable using our product in the future. Therefore, we chose to meet with a representative from the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm, a large farm on campus. The use of genetic engineering is prohibited in organic products, so the farmers at the MSU Student Organic Farm purposely avoid growing GM crops. In order to understand barriers to our project, we needed to understand the other side of the argument. Team members Jessica and Jordan conducted a 20 minute phone interview with the farm's Farmer Field School Program Manager, Katie Brandt. Katie Brandt has a MS in Biology.

Jessica and Jordan: What are your thoughts on GMOs?

Katie: I am neither for nor against. I know growers who feel that, economically, they must use GMOs to maintain acreage. I know a grower who inherited over 1000 acres for GM soybeans, but wanted to change to organic. However, a lot of growers have a hard time moving to organic. My biggest problem is seed sovereignty and other issues from huge corporations that have developed GMOs. I dislike that most of the modifications being made are often about herbicide tolerance and inclusion of pesticides that may cause pest resistance due to low dose constant available rate to the pests. BT corn is also common now, and used on the MSU Student Organic Farm. I worry that using BT corn might make pest resistance occur on organic farms, and it may be very difficult to get rid of pests in the future. I’ll admit however, that I still know very little about GMOs, and most of my education on them came from classes in graduate school. From what you've told me about your project, I do like what you are doing with your GMOs though.

What specifically do you dislike about GMOs? In other words, what do you see as the downsides of using GMOs?

On my personal farm, I don’t use GMOs because I am certified organic. Many customers rely on me to have non-GMO crops due to health concerns and strong opinions. On my old farm, Groundswell Farm, I didn’t have space for sweet corn and I was surrounded by corn fields. I couldn’t grow corn because my crops would be contaminated by GM corn nearby. Cross pollination scares me. Growing GMOs is also expensive--or at least developing them is expensive. Last I heard, it was something like a million dollars to produce a GMO. I like growing peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce that are not GMOs because GMOs of that produce are not profitable anyways.

How do you feel about GM crops vs crops grown with GM bacteria?

I need to look at more science in order to form an educated opinion. Organic regulations would not allow me to use such a product on my farm. GM inoculants also exist, but I always buy certified organic types for my farm.

Is there anything that we (us and scientists in general) could do that would make you feel more comfortable growing crops with GM bacteria (i.e. more experiments determining the safety of GMOs, applying GM bacteria to crops only in contained areas, etc.)?

I have no opposition to research that is done carefully, and for purposes that help small farmers and sustainable farmers. It’s about contentious landscaping. For example, Vitamin A rice, for good reason, met a lot of opposition. There were cultural barriers to switching to different varieties of rice. There was a lot of uncertainty about what GM rice would involve. I’m not completely sure what scientists could do, and want to look into it more.

What information sources have shaped your opinions on GMOs?

I took a class on GMOs in graduate school. Plus, I’m a farmer and farm worker in a bubble of organic agriculture and vegetable production. I’ve looked at information from the general press and trade literature of organic farming. I’ve met with many interesting and well educated people at farmers markets. I’ve met with individuals from a small local seed company, Ann Arbor Seed Company, who seemed justifiably nervous about GMO due to risks they have to their business model and the vision of importance of genetic diversity of seeds that we’re losing so quickly. Huge numbers of people growing the same seeds means specialty varieties may become scarce because seeds are not saved or lost. Small companies are even being sued by huge corporations that have GMO seed sovereignty and patents.

Do you shop specifically for non-GMO products?

I shop specifically for organic products, which by definition means I shop for non-GMO products. I appreciate GMO labeling, because people have the right to know what’s in their food and how their food was grown. Preventing somebody from labelling is surprising and unfortunate. But, I also have options of local or non-local organic products. I try to find local, non-GMO, and organic food when shopping, and I can’t always find food that meets all of these criteria. Non-GMO is not as important to me as shopping local though.

What effects do you believe GMO products have on human health?

I have looked at some research on it, mostly older research shared among the organic farming community. One study found that cows chose non-GMO corn over GMO corn when given the two options. In grad school, I learned that higher lignin content in GMO corn may make it taste not as good as non-GMO corn. Early studies have also shown liver and kidney issues, such as studies with the Flavor Saver tomato. I am a follower of the precautionary principle for toxins, herbicides, GMOs, et cetera. However, many of the crops in the United States have skipped the precautionary time period. There has not been enough time to do long range testing on new products to make people feel more comfortable. GM crops came too quickly. Lower income folks felt there was no choice to opt out of this large scale experiment when we converted large portions of corn and soybeans to GMO.

Do you have any other comments or concerns you would like to discuss with us?

The curve of acceptance among GMO farmers was very steep, 90 or 95% acceptance, in crops, but has now leveled out due to price and economic farmers. Some conventional farmers are now relying on non-GMO products. I’ve also talked to conventional growers in West Michigan who have stated that GMO is not worth it anymore. They can get the same yield from non-GMO hybrids as GMO. In some cases it’s simply too expensive to keep growing GMOs.

Kennedy Moshebashebi, Pandamentaenga Farms, Botswana

Because our GM bacteria has the potential to help farmers worldwide, we wanted to gain the perspective from someone living in a region of the world affected by drought. We sent a list of written questions via email to Kennedy Moshebashebi, a farmer at Pandamatenga Farms in Botswana. He replied with written responses via email.

What is the biggest problem with agriculture in your area today?

The biggest problem at Pandamatenga is climate change. We are used to having huge amounts of rainfall from mid-November to December but nowadays we can have rains from January to March.

What do you forecast changing in agriculture over the next 20 years?

I forecast climate change where we will have more rain, and less predictable weather, that will alter crop plans.

Are droughts a problem for you?

Drought is a problem in my area to a point where we have to irrigate the fields.

Are salty soils a problem for you?

Salty soils are a problem for our region.

Do you have any ideas for how to fight these problems?

I believe regular soil tests and analysis could curb the effects of salty soils on crop production. Furthermore, new developed cultivars can be of help; we would need to explore drought tolerant cultivars.

If you had a team of scientists to help the agricultural industry, what would you want them to do?

Hold workshops and discuss new means to carry out crop production in the midst of drought as this affects the food production of the nation.

Our team is designing a plant that can grow in salty soils and droughts; do you think this would be a helpful product? Would you buy such a product if it entered the market?

New products that improve our crop production are always welcomed. I would definitely buy that product.

Do you use GMOs in any way (crops, et cetera)?

There are certain GMOs that I use, mostly the developed seeds which usually have high yield and the end of crop season.

Do you think your community would eat GMO crops?

My community would gladly embrace anything that looks good and is high quality?

Do you currently use herbicides, pesticides, or any kind of fertilizer on your crops?

I use a number of pesticides.

What kinds of crops do you grow?

I grow sorghum, maize, cowpeas, potatoes, butternuts, watermelons, and tomatoes.

Do you think that our project is feasible?

Your project is definitely feasible because it comes as an answer to the many questions that farming communities had in this ongoing climate change.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles to farmers potentially using our GMO?

The biggest obstacles that farmers will be faced with regarding the use of GMOs will only be how to prevent the negative impact on the environment that come with the benefits.


Dr. Jennifer Carter-Johnson, MSU Assistant Professor of Law

The laws and regulations surrounding GMOs are complicated and complex, but we hoped to better understand them. We took advantage of the law school at MSU, and spoke with an assistant professor. Along with her law degree, Jennifer Carter-Johnson has a PhD in microbiology, which gives her the ideal background for discussing GMO regulations and patents. Team members Jessica and Jordan meet with Dr. Carter-Johnson in person twice to discuss the government regulations and patent laws pertaining to our GM bacteria.

What is the legislation regarding GMOs (federal and state)?

Federal regulation provides a common framework as a group of laws. These regulate the marketing of GMO crops and cover international aspects such as importing and exporting. Everyone must comply with these, as they trump state regulations. State regulations are ad hoc, often covering issues such as when you can spray GM products. There are also new laws on labelling; all GMO food products will have to be labeled as such. This was passed in 2016 but is not in effect of now. THe EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) oversees crops with pesticides, such as BT corn, but your project would not fall under this. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulates crops based on plant pest; your project would have USDA implications. The FDA (Food and Drug Agency) has voluntary submissions.

How do GMO laws and regulations differ worldwide?

In the US, common thought is that GMOs are all the same; most are thought safe unless found not to be. We have the least strict laws and regulations, and the FDA has voluntary reporting standards. The European Union (EU) takes the precautionary principle. Most of the EU wants to be shown safety of the products first. They take GMOs more strictly.

Would farmers and companies that use our GM bacteria have difficulty selling their crops due to regulations/legislation?

There may be marketing issues, but labelling laws are not in effect yet.

Explain the ethics of patents on synthetic biology research.

Patents in the medical and food areas often cause ethical issues. For example, your product could be life saving, which causes many people to question whether or not it’s ethical to make business decisions purely in the interest of making a profit.

Government Officials

Robin Rosenbaum, Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) Plant Industry Section Manager

GMOs are subject to many rules and regulations through the state and federal government. After unsuccessful attempts to speak with someone at the FDA and USDA, Jordan and Jessica met with Robin Rosenbaum, the Plant Industry Section Manager at the MDA. She was a great resource for learning more about the government standards that apply to GMOs, as well as the history of government regulations for GMOs at the state level.

What are the regulations regarding GMOs in Michigan?

There are no regulations for conventional crops. GMOs are mostly regulated by the federal government. State governments can either concur or not concur with the federal ruling about a GMO. The federal government also oversees interstate movement of GMOs, while state governments oversee intrastate movement of GMOs. Exporting plants requires that the USDA look into the host country’s regulations to decide if the plant is allowed to enter that country. Some plants may be prohibited.

How have GMO regulations changed in your 30 years with the MDA?

GMO regulations have stabilized and I do not see them changing drastically anytime soon, even as more GMOs enter the market. I think the plant pest laws have been in place since the 1930s and are still used today. However, science is constantly changing so the future of GMO regulation can be difficult to predict.

What is the process of getting a GMO approved by the MDA?

The time frame depends on how simple and well understood the genetics are; that said, the Biotechnology Regulating Service (BRS) wants early communication about an upcoming GM product. Well known GMOs may be labeled as ‘unregulated’ or ‘deregulated’ by the BRS. In this case, the GMOs can be used with just a notification to the BRS. Lesser known GMOs have a longer approval process. The public also has a chance to comment on the federal and MDA regulations of GMOs.

How does marketing and selling GMOs work?

Farmers may have more difficulty marketing GMOs to the general public. For the most part, farmers try to keep the fact that a product is a GMO underwraps. Most people don’t know and understand enough about GMOs, so they often steer clear of the products. There should not be any legal problems associated with producing and marketing a GMO if all steps required by the BRS have been completed and the product is labeled appropriately.