These days everything from cookies to orange juice carry labels boasting that it’s GMO free — a marketing ploy that assumes consumers still hate, fear or at least disapprove of genetically modified organisms despite reassurances from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. While science journalists have bemoaned this as irrational fear, people might be making a reasonable choice, given the risk-benefit ratios. Many consumers see no gain in GMO products — at least so far.
One example of a GMO developed for health benefits — vitamin A-enhanced “golden rice” — is unlikely to offer much to consumers in well-fed countries such as the U.S. But now there’s something the Whole Foods types might go for.
Last week, the American Chemical Society announced that scientists had transferred a rabbit gene into a house plant — pothos ivy — endowing it with the power to clean the carcinogenic pollutants benzene and chloroform from indoor air. They’re close to a version that also cleans up formaldehyde.
Stuart Strand, an environmental engineer at the University of Washington who headed the ivy project, said indoor air in homes is often worse than in offices or schools. Chloroform, benzene and formaldehyde can build up from cooking, showering with or boiling chlorinated water, and from the “outgassing” of furniture and flooring materials. Pollutants can also creep in from attached garages.
Strand said the gene they transferred to the ivy, called CYP2E1, is found in animal cells, including human ones, and is active in the liver. It can help clean toxins that you ingest, but not ones you breathe. So, he thought, why not put the gene in plants, where it can clean up toxic compounds before they get to peoples’ lungs?
In tests, he filled chambers with chloroform and benzene and put in the GMO ivy, regular ivy or nothing at all. Over three days, the ordinary ivy did almost nothing to clean the air, while the GMO plants cleaned up 82 percent of the benzene and 75 percent of the chloroform. The results were published in the American Chemical Society’s journal, Environmental Science and Technology.
He suspects they would do even better in real homes, where pollutants would be less concentrated than in his experiment. But for them to work optimally, he said, you’d want to sell them as part of a unit that forced air over the leaves.
He’s also exploring GMO grasses that clean up munitions waste at military training sites, and other plants that might absorb and break down methane — a greenhouse gas that’s much more potent than carbon dioxide.
The air-cleaning ivy is already approved in Canada, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still awaiting results of tests. There are still concerns about the plant spreading and becoming invasive in a way the ordinary variety has not.
There are a few risk experts who argue that we need to factor in the small possibility that widespread dependence on GMO crops will lead to some catastrophe, perhaps even wiping us out faster than all those other existential threats. How this would happen is not quite clear.
Consumers will be driven by perceived risks and benefits to health. The marketing that demonizes GMOs isn’t helpful. Wherever you shop, nearly everything in the produce section is actually GMO-free — with the exception of Hawaiian papayas and a very small fraction of summer squashes, both of which have been altered to withstand viruses.
Processed foods, on the other hand, are likely to contain GMO corn, soy or sugar — but getting rid of the GMOs won’t make those products healthier. Meanwhile, boasts of “GMO free” are becoming ubiquitous, even on items, such as water and salt, that don’t have any genes.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.