Sweet Potatoes and the GMO Debate: Are We Swallowing More Than We Bargained For?

Biotechnologists at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Kenya and Peru have discovered that thousands of years ago, bacteria naturally produced genetically modified changes in sweet potatoes. They argue that this discovery should be used as evidence that genetically modified foods have been around for a long time and are safe for consumption. But the truth is, this discovery doesn’t make modern-day, lab-created genes inserted into foods any safer.

Lab tests show that a bacteria called Agrobacterium probably produced a horizontal gene transfer long ago, exchanging DNA material between the microbes’ genes and the sweet potato’s genome. Researcher Lieve Gheysen remarks, “The natural presence of Agrobacterium T-DNA in sweet potatoes and its stable inheritance during evolution is a beautiful example of the possibility of DNA exchange across species barriers”. Gheysen further claims that human-made GMOs have the advantage of us knowing exactly which characteristic is added to the plant.

However, this reassurance could be considered an overstatement or even an outright lie. It’s one thing for living bacteria like Agrobacterium to make a rather benign change to a plant thousands of years ago, with people safely consuming that plant for generations. It’s quite another for humans to create new genes that are not natural and have never existed on earth before, inserting them into plants while assuming they are safe and worthwhile to grow and eat.

Sweet potatoes have previously been the subject of other bogus claims by GMO proponents. In 2002 and 2003, Monsanto researchers claimed that their GMO sweet potatoes in Africa were a vast improvement over standard sweet potatoes. They said acres planted with GMO sweet potatoes were producing yields far more productive than the standard varieties. However, when farmers tried to grow GMO sweet potatoes, their crops produced the same amount as conventional farmers.

Aaron deGrassi, a researcher in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, says GMO schemes by companies like Monsanto “divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers”. Companies that make GMO foods, like GMO corn and soy, use viruses to introduce genetic material into these species. The entire process is less precise than the companies imply, which potentially introduces unknown changes in these foods that can have negative effects on your health.

Most of the genetic changes are engineered to allow crops to be doused with heavy applications of herbicides. The long-term effects of these herbicides both on the environment and on human health raise concerns, though you’d never know it from the propaganda produced by GMO-company PR departments.

The corporate philosophy of those companies is flawed. Profit comes before safety, instead of the other way around. It is essential to protect yourself by eating organic foods and seeking out foods that are labeled as GMO-free. Furthermore, people should be skeptical of any information coming from GMO corporations and their PR departments. However, when examining evidence presented by these companies, it is essential to critically evaluate the truth behind their claims, rather than blindly accepting them.