The blue strawberry has been described as a ‘Willy Wonka-esque creation‘, and created a storm of controversy for Internet bloggers and social news websites.
I originally wrote about this transgenic strawberry back in March as a response to a TIL post on Reddit. I cautioned readers because the original blog article posted by Cynthia Bu Jawdeh had a lack of credible references. In the last month, traction for the ‘GM blue strawberry’ story has only continued to rise.
Dr. Kevin M. Folta is an Associate Professor at University of Florida, Gainesville, FL holding a BS and an MS from Northern Illinois University; a PhD from University of Illinois Chicago and a Postdoc at University of Wisconsin. He worked collaboratively with a team of 75 researchers to publish the DNA sequence of the strawberry.
GMO Strawberry Facts:
- The only commercial transgenic (GMO) fruit is the papaya.
- There are other approved GM crops such as potatos, and tomatos– but none are currently grown in production.
- GMO strawberries do exist. They are created in the lab for research purposes ONLY.
- The stawberry used for research purposes is Fragaria vesca, aka ‘the woodland strawberry’– not the commercially available Fragaria x ananassa.
Q&A With Dr. Folta
1. Dr. Kevin M. Folta, can you tell us a bit about your background and your research area?
We study how light signals interact with plants to control developmental transitions. Most of the work is done in Arabidopsis thaliana, the model plant. We also use genomics technologies to understand gene function in strawberry, with a goal on variety improvement. We are interested in traits that help growers produce more high-quality fruit, with an extended growing season. We also are interested in decreasing the amount of water, fertilizer, fungicides and other chemicals required for cultivation, along with using less labor and fuel. The idea is to produce a strawberry that is more profitable for the farmer, better for the consumer, with less environmental impact.
2. What is Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is hard to define, but in my opinion is using the fundamental components of biological systems to best serve human objectives. Today we think about this most commonly with DNA. The DNA sequences that define genes have been used to generate human medicines (like insulin and growth hormones) and make transgenic plants, such as plants resistant to herbicide or plants that generate their own anti-insect proteins. But even familiar processes like making bread, beer and cheese use lots of molecular biology information and custom strains of yeast/bacteria to optimize production. These are the most conspicuous applications of biotechnology.
There are other uses for biotechnology. It is frequently used in processes like ‘marker-assisted selection” sometimes known as “precision breeding”. These non-transgenic (non-GMO) technologies allow scientists to follow a gene associated with a given trait from generation to generation, speeding breeding efforts. This results in improved food crops, faster.
The future of biotechnology is tremendous. Soon we’ll all know our DNA sequences and receive customized medical care based on the information within. Today it is possible to predict likelihood of developing specific diseases or identify problems such as sensitivity to specific drugs. This information is all in our DNA and defines the future of medicine.
3. Where it is being adopted?
You see biotechnology in two places mainly. It is in medicine to generate compounds like insulin. These proteins are best made by microbes because it is cheaper than synthesis. In agriculture, you there are only large agronomic crops like corn, cotton, canola and soybean.
The only commercial transgenic (GMO) fruit is the papaya. While tomatoes, potatoes and other crops have been engineered and approved, they are not grown at this time. It takes tremendous cost and time to negotiate the approval process, and it would just not be profitable to market transgenic fruits at this time. There absolutely are not transgenic/GMO strawberries for human consumption!
4. Can you make GMO strawberries?
Yes we can, and we do. They are created in the lab for research purposes ONLY. If we add or take out a strawberry gene in strawberry, we can understand what it does and how it affects traits we care about. Then once we’ve linked a gene to a process, we can then use traditional non-GMO methods to breed that gene into elite lines. In the lab, we also use a very different strawberry (Fragaria vesca) a simpler cousin to the commercial strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa). Even if we had a transgenic plant that could solve a problem or make money for farmers we could never afford the time and money it would take to approve it. Right now such plants are only tools to understand biology better.
5. What did we learn from the Blue Strawberry matter?
I think it was an unintended experiment that exposed the anti-GMO agenda. The original source had no reference to people or institutions producing such a product. However, I received many emails about it and the blue strawberry has gone a bit viral on other websites. It exposes how humans are easily fooled and do not have much threshold for quality information. They believe it because it is on a website. This is a symptom of the anti-GMO movement. All of us want a better environment, safety for workers and better food for consumers. Transgenic technologies are one part of that equation.
While there appears to be a hot debate on the subject, the scientific literature shows a solid record of safety and effectiveness. Websites, authorless reports and low-impact, one-time journal articles do announce dangers. However, the scientific literature is very clear.
This link provides a list of over 350 independent, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate safety and/or efficacy . Recently the EU generated a report on transgenic/GM plant safety from ten years and 500 projects. It is available here for free.
To me, the future of biotechnology is good, but we have a lot of teaching to do. Watchdog groups and independent scientists are always on the lookout for instances of harm from the technology—and that’s a good thing. If something is wrong, it will be exposed. For the last decade it the technology has lived up to its promise.
If you know someone who thinks they have eaten one of these, it’s a safe bet they are misled or confused… or possibly allergic to blue food dye.
Featured image: hmhmphf on Deviantart