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Commentary: GMOs provide additional food choices

Katie Pinke

What do food choices mean for my Thanksgiving shopping and yours? The American Farm Bureau Federation's 32nd annual price survey of classic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table indicates the average cost of this year's feast for 10 is $49.12, a 75-cent decrease from last year's average of $49.87.

Farmers utilizing choices in seed technology, such as GMOs, allow us to have an abundance of food choices at affordable prices. Americans spend just under 10 percent of disposable income on food, the lowest in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In a season of holiday food shopping and feasting, I am more conscious of the gratitude for the food choices we have in America. Amber waves of grain, lush green soybean plants, sunflower, flax and canola bloomed this past growing season in farm fields across the region in which I reside. The crops make their way to grocery store shelves, providing families with affordable food choices.

While you grocery shop, prepare holiday meals or simply enjoy a feast with loved ones, take a moment to think about where the food comes from, the choices given to how it was raised and your choices in purchasing it.

While most produce is not genetically modified, one fruit — Hawaiian papaya — is, and the science of how it came to fruition brings Hawaiian papayas to grocery store produce aisles today. I've never been to Hawaii, but my daughters love papaya, so I read into more about how the industry was saved a few years ago.

The papaya ringspot virus nearly decimated the Hawaiian papaya industry. The virus started in the 1940s on the island of Oahu and became significant in the 1950s. The industry moved to the island of Hawaii by the 1970s but knew eventually the virus would infest there also, as the virus spread through aphids, according to the American Society of Plant Biologists.

University of Hawaii research made headway through the 1980s, and by 1996 petitions were filed for transgenic papaya approvals with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to consultation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food safety approval.

The research and approvals remind me we can be thankful for the safest and most researched food supply in the world.

By 1997 the virus had decreased Hawaiian papaya production by 40 percent. By 1998, the University of Hawaii developed rainbow papaya seeds, a disease-resistant plant to fend off the ringspot virus. The seeds became available commercially to Hawaiian growers. Within four years of the rainbow papaya's commercialization, Hawaiian production returned to levels before the virus invasion.

While Hawaii agriculture seems far from the farm fields of my home, I can buy papaya in my grocery store. I am thankful the same technology choices are accessible to local farmers I know as were given to Hawaiian farmers.

My home state, North Dakota, leads the nation in the production of 13 crops, including flax, barley, spring wheat, durum, honey, dry edible beans — including navy beans and pinto beans — dry edible peas, lentils, sunflowers and canola. Canola is the only GMO crop North Dakota leads production in across the United States. The remaining crops are non-GMO.

For those not familiar, a GMO plant has a desired gene or portion of a gene, such as drought or pest resistance placed from one plant or organism to another plant. American farmers have choices to raise a total of 11 GMO crops depending on their climate and soil types, including corn (field and sweet), alfalfa, canola, soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes, cotton, squash, papaya and most recently, apples. This fall, Arctic Apples started being sold in limited U.S. grocery stores.

Farmers can choose to grow non-GMO and organic options of crops that have GMO versions. Non-GMO and organic options often offer a premium but require more intensive management.

Beyond value-added pricing, farmers choose crops to improve soil health, reduce passes over the fields, decrease compaction, reduce labor and resources and increase the overall sustainability of their farms.

Farming and food choices create affordable meals to be shared with family, friends, neighbors and even strangers. Celebrate the choices. Happy Thanksgiving!

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