By Nonie Arora
“Technology is progress” and “new is better” seem to be mantras in some fields of research. However, when it comes to fields of genetically modified corn, we might be wise to think otherwise.
Duke biology professor Dr. Mary Eubanks spoke to a group of Duke students, community members, and a farmer from Togo about corn genetics in a workshop held Friday, Oct. 24 at the Duke Campus Farm. Dr. Eubanks founded her own seed genetics company (Sun Dance Genetics LLC) and is a leading advocate for changing the way we grow corn.
Dr. Eubanks became intrigued by the origins of corn while studying the origins of agriculture and the start of American civilization in an archaeology PhD program. She realized that she wouldn’t be able to answer her questions about what she considered to be this “great botanical mystery” without an understanding of genetics. To uncover this mystery, she pursued a postdoctoral program in corn genetics. Based on her experimentation, she developed the hypothesis that maize domestication involved something called intergeneric hybridization, or crossing between plants in different genera.
During her career, Dr. Eubanks also worked in regulatory affairs and learned about the devastating effects of chemical pesticides. She became an advocate for sustainable agriculture: finding ways to develop pest-resistant corn without genetic engineering. She has successfully transferred natural resistance to the worst insect pests of corn — corn rootworm and European corn borer.
In contrast to using natural breeding methods to create new lines of corn, genetically modifying organisms could have negative effects on human health, according to Dr. Eubanks. Dr. Eubanks believes that the inserter and promoter sequences that are used to get the genes to express the foreign proteins can lead to antibiotic resistance and intestinal issues for humans.
The group was surprised by her description of her own anaphylactic shock reaction to Bt-corn, a GMO. Her own personal history of the allergic reaction made her think of the potential reactions our bodies could be having to GMOs. Dr. Eubanks described how it was problematic that genes being introduced to the crop came from other organisms and that humans haven’t evolved a tolerance to the proteins the genes encode. This could lead to potential allergenicity in humans. According to Dr. Eubanks, it is possible that there has been horizontal gene transfer between plasmids — small molecules used to insert genes from one organism to the next — and the human gut.
When asked about the regulations regarding GMOs, Dr. Eubanks explained that the FDA is in charge of the labeling and GMOs are generally regarded as safe so long as they are substantially equivalent to the other food product. The industry is very opposed to the labeling of GMOs and 90% of the corn, cotton, and soy available has some GMO product in it, according to Dr. Eubanks. She believes that not enough is being done to regulate the industry.
We were intrigued by her discussion of food security and funding for interventions. She described that a lot of international work on food security highly promotes technology and the big industry agricultural model. Dr. Eubanks believes we need to change our paradigm from thinking that the most advanced technological options are always best to considering an ecological intensification approach. Such an approach seeks to design more productive, sustainable production systems that are well suited to their environments by better understanding how nature functions. Her current work is helping bring food security to South Sudan through corn that is pest-resistant and drought-tolerant.