Genetically modified organism. The words bring hope to farmers looking for improved yields and reduced costs, but give pause to environmental groups concerned about the implications of tinkering with nature.
Through biotechnology, corn withstands weed killer, cotton deters pests and other crops can be made to resist fungal attacks.
The practice of transferring genes from one organism to another could be significant for Lodi, as researchers scour for a way to make grapevines resistant to a formidable vineyard disease.
But as biotechnology advances in laboratories, debate remains over what extent the technology should be in use and whether consumers should know if they are ingesting foods with genetically modified ingredients. Also in question is who should make decisions about where genetically modified, or GM, crops are planted.
About 70 percent of items on grocery store shelves contain some type of genetically modified ingredient, be it starch from GM corn or soy products extracted from GM soybeans. Surveys have shown that roughly 60 percent of the American public is unaware those ingredients are in the food they buy.
However, no requirements exist for labeling genetically modified foods, and few if any foods sold in grocery stores are labeled as such.
A matter of perception
That concerns Patty Bell, who said she would prefer not to feed GM food products to her Lodi family.
"I think the American people would be scared if they found out how much of (their food) is genetically modified," said Bell, leaving a local supermarket Friday morning.
Jack Patrick, a field man for Gallo, said he supports GM crops because of their ability to reduce pesticide and herbicide use.
"I think they are beneficial," he said.
Danny Vierra, who runs a religion-based health education group and a Lodi health food store, believes genetically modified foods are a potentially hazardous subversion of nature.
|Genetic modifications at a glance|
|Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli||Controlled ripening||Allow shipping of vine-ripened tomatoes; improve quality, shelf life|
|Tomatoes, potatoes, corn,||Insect resistance||Reduce insecticide use|
|Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers||Fungal resistance||Reduce fungicide use|
|Potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe||Viral resistance||Reduce diseases|
|Soybeans, tomatoes, corn, wheat||Herbicide tolerance||Improve weed control|
|Corn, sunflowers, soybeans||Improved nutrition||Increase the amount of essential amino acids, vitamins or other nutrients.|
|Coffee||Low caffeine content||Naturally decaffeinate coffee|
"I am not for it. I think it is contrary to nature when you start blending fish genes with tomatoes so they can withstand frost," Vierra said, referring to North American flounder genes added to tomatoes and strawberries. "You're altering nature. There's negative repercussions to that."
But few, if any, verifiable negative effects from GM organisms have been recorded since the technology has been in use.
Vierra said that was the case before the dangers of tobacco were learned.
"Just because there's no immediate problems doesn't mean there aren't any long-term problems. Then how do you fix it?" Vierra asked.
Consumers need label information indicating whether a food has genetically modified ingredients, Vierra said.
"We're not alerted, other than we have the products that say non-GMO," Vierra said.
Supermarkets simply follow government guidelines, said Dave Heylen, spokesman for the California Grocers Association.
"Overall, grocers in general leave the responsibility for determining the safety of genetically modified foods to the federal government and follow their direction," Dave Heylen said.
A November 2005 survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 58 percent of Americans are unaware of GM foods.
Lodi's wine industry in recent years has taken a tack toward developing and using sustainable winegrowing practices, which emphasize care for the environment.
Meanwhile, researchers at University of California, Davis, are looking at ways to genetically modify grapevines that are resistant to Pierce's disease, a vine-withering malady that is spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect that feeds on vines.
The insect has decimated vineyards in winegrowing areas in the southern California, and a larvae was found last year at a Lockeford nursery, though no vine infections were reported.
But if the glassy-winged sharpshooter was to become a problem here, Lodi could find itself caught between using a vine that resists the disease and fracturing the public's perception of sustainable practices with a vine consumers may see as unfavorable.
Cliff Ohmart, research director for the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, said that could put Lodi in a precarious position if consumer attitudes toward GM crops don't change.
"Based on people's reactions right now, it could have a big effect. But if we're looking 10, 15 years down the road, so it could change," he said.
After such a vine is developed, the process of getting it approved by federal regulators would take at least a decade.
Additionally, use of a GM vine would depend entirely on whether the vine produced good winegrapes, Ohmart said.
While no companies are required to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, some sectors of the food industry have taken up the task themselves.
Six years ago, Melissa's World Variety Produce began adding the words "non-GMO" to its packages of soybeans and other produce items, company spokesman Robert Schueller said.
He said the company opted to add the designation to some of its labels after numerous calls from consumers curious to know if the Los Angeles-based company's soy products, some of which are available in local chain supermarkets, were GMO-free, Schueller said.
Now a number of food producers include the designation on packaging.
"It's been almost a standard practice within the soy foods industry," Schueller said.
Some of California's fertile fields are home to genetically modified corn, while about 90 percent of the cotton crop is GM.
About half of the corn planted in San Joaquin County is "Roundup Ready," allowing farmers to apply the herbicide to counter waterand nutrient-sapping weeds late into the growing season, according to Scott Hudson, agricultural commissioner for San Joaquin County.
By adding a gene from a certain bacteria - Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt - corn becomes resistant to Roundup and creates a protein that is toxic to worms and other corn pests.
Farmers say that cuts down on costs and improves yields. GM opponents say it opens a Pandora's box of issues that permeate boundaries of corn rows.
Nearly half of the corn Lodi dairy farmer Hank Van Exel grows to feed his cows is GM.
While non-GM corn fields can only be treated with herbicide before corn is growing, Roundup Ready corn lets him apply the weed killer at intervals throughout the growing season so weeds don't interfere with yields. That cuts down on fuel use by roughly half and reduces pesticide use, he said.
"We're a lot more environmentally safe because we don't use near the amount on our crops. You save at least two passes with the tractor," Van Exel said. "If it's better for less pesticide use, less tractor use, I think it is positive."
The state and county farm bureaus support GM crops and research - not just for what it has produced, but what it could do as the technology advances.
Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, said he believes in the possibility that the greatest gains from GM organisms would probably be in non-agricultural commodities.
A type of bacteria has been engineered to produce human insulin, which resonates with Blodgett, who has diabetics in his family.
Research must continue to reveal all the possibilities of biotechnology, Blodgett said.
"If we can be saving lives because of GMO research, we need to move in that direction," he said. "What if through GMO we can remove (mad cow disease) from cattle? I don't know that that's possible, but what if?"
First published: Saturday, February 25, 2006