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Giving Thanks for Technology

November 21, 2017
As you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, you can thank modern agriculture for many of the foods you’ll be putting on your plate. While we usually don’t think about GMOs on Thanksgiving, biotechnology has a role in many of our favorite dishes.

One of the most common biotech crops is corn, and some varieties of sweet corn are genetically engineered to resist damaging insects like earworms and corn borer. GMO squash varieties – yellow crookneck, straightneck, and zucchini – were developed to resist viruses.

But did you know that if you’re eating cheese at the dinner table, you can also thank biotech?

While most people don’t think of GMOs when they think of cheese, much of our cheese is made using biotechnology. Enzymes known as “rennet” are a critical part of the cheesemaking process. Years ago, the only source of that rennet was the lining of calf stomachs; however, biotech stepped in to help make the cheesemaking process more humane. Researchers used biotechnology to create GM bacterium and yeast cells to produce rennet, which in turn could be used in making cheese. Between 80 to 90 percent of hard cheese made in the U.S. is made using GM rennet!

Making potatoes? There’s also a biotech option for you! J.R Simplot Co., a potato company, has developed potatoes that have been modified to reduce browning and bruising. In an important development, those same potatoes have been engineered to reduce the amount of asparagine, a naturally occurring chemical that can be converted into acrylamide – a probable carcinogen – when cooked at a high heat.

If you’re drinking a beer while watching the big game, biotech has played a role in that too. Beer production is one of the most basic applications of biotechnology. Enzymes – a common tool in industrial biotechnology – are used in the brewing process. And, biotech is now being used not only to produce beer, but to improve it. A number of companies are now modifying yeast to create new, unique beers.

Even your pumpkin pie is likely brought to you by biotechnology. The sugar in your pies probably came from GMO sugarbeets; sugarbeets provide much of the nation’s sugar supply, and more than 90 percent of those sugarbeets are genetically modified. That refined sugar you’re eating in your pumpkin pie is the same at the molecular level – regardless of whether it’s grown from conventional, organic, or genetically modified seeds.

While GMO can be an unfamiliar and confusing term for people, biotechnology has provided a safe, affordable way to put food on the table. So this Thanksgiving, we can give thanks for biotech.