I feel that one of the most highly misunderstood things about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the insect-resistant trait that certain varieties of GMO corn and GMO cotton have: the Bt trait. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis and it is a naturally occurring bacteria that is found in the soil. Bt produces a protein to kill very specific types of insects (corn borers and rootworms) but do not harm other insects or humans. Bt stops these pests from severely damaging the crop also by not allowing insects to continue to feed. Insects previously allowed fungus (mycotoxins) to grow through their wound sites on the plants which also diminished the value of the corn crops and the safety for humans and animals. It is also important to note that since Bt is targeted for a specific set of insects, this saves farmers from applying the alternate method of controlling insects by spraying an insecticide that can kill the good bugs too.
So plant scientists found a way to allow corn to protect itself from these specific insects that damage the crop using a very precise method with biotechnology by placing a gene from Bt into corn (GMOs). But you know what? Plants have been doing this for thousands of years! They naturally produce pesticides to protect themselves from damage from pests. In fact, its been calculated that 99.99% of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves, and it is estimated that humans ingest roughly 5000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides
and their breakdown products.
So why the comparison to GMO corn? Well, I’m going to use this popular “superfood” as an example of a plant that produces its own pesticide. Quinoa produces chemicals called saponins, which are simply defined as “a class of chemical compounds found in particular abundance in various plant species”. This blogger gives a more thorough break down of saponins here. As a pesticide active ingredient, saponins extracted from quinoa plants are applied as a seed treatment for crops such as cereals and beans (like soybeans) and is applied before transplant to tomato seedlings. It is marketed under the trade name “Heads Up® Plant Protectant“. This treatment prevents the seeds and tomato plants from developing diseases caused by fungi, certain bacteria and viruses.
Quinoa must be rinsed before it is consumed as it is coated in these saponins, so it might taste bitter and even get soapy from this chemical that is coating the quinoa. Should we fear quinoa as it is coated in a “toxic pesticide”? No. It has been determined a safe substance to ingest by the same regulatory bodies that determine the use for Bt in GMO corn crops.
So What’s Your Point?
My point is that yes—Bt is a registered pesticide that man has put into corn with the use of genetic engineering; but saponin (found naturally on quinoa) is also a registered pesticide. Everything natural isn’t “good” just as everything that is synthetic isn’t “bad”. Caffeine is a natural pesticide, corn and other grass plants also produce a natural pesticide called DIMBOA, even the highly praised cruciferous vegetable kale produces a natural chemical to defend itself called glucosinolate. The bitterness of kale is attributed to mustard oils produced from these glucosinolates when the plant is chewed, and it also contributes as a defense from pests and diseases.
Pesticides are natural, pesticides are man made and they should be understood—not feared.
U.S. EPA BIOPESTICIDES REGISTRATION ACTION DOCUMENT Saponins of Chenopodium quinoa
U.S. EPA Saponins of Chenopodium quinioa Fact Sheet
Gluten Free Gigi Questionable Quinoa: Perfect Plant Protein or Poison?
Ames, B., Profet, M., and Gold, L.S. Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)*
Randall, R. GMO Bt corn’s underrated ability to reduce mycotoxins benefits health and economy
Katiraee, L. Myth busting: Are synthetic pesticides, used with some GMOs, more dangerous than natural ones?