BEVERLY — There's a negative reputation that follows GMOs around in the food world — many products list that they are "Non-GMO."

While the labeling may give some consumers peace of mind as they shop, some scientists are saying that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are, in fact, nothing to worry about.

Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel Laureate and scientist at New England Biolabs in Ipswich, said GMOs do not cause adverse health effects. He spoke to the Beverly Rotary Club Thursday at the Danversport Yacht Club.

In fact, Roberts said, GMOs can help save crops in developing nations, putting food on the table of those who need it most.

He said thinking about science in developed nations versus developing ones requires a different approach. Developing nations need cheaper drugs to fight different illnesses and disease. They also would rather spend money on food.

"The bottom line is if you're hungry, you don't really care about medicine," he said. "You don't want to go to bed hungry."

But people in developing nations don't have the same opportunities to buy food in grocery stores the way their developed neighbors do — they often grow their own food instead.

In looking at traditional growing versus agriculture with GMOs, Roberts said, the difference comes down to how the strongest plants are developed — those that yield the most produce and aren't susceptible to diseases.

Traditionally, genes are crossed multiple times until the desired result is achieved. If it doesn't work, Roberts said, radiation or chemicals are used to get the desired traits.

With GMOs, genes of desired traits are simply put into the plants.

Roberts compared it to cars, using the example of one having a global-positioning system, or GPS, and the other not having one. With the traditional method, he said, both cars would be taken apart and their parts mixed. Then the parts are put back together and the GPS put in. With the GMO method, the GPS is simply pulled out of one car and put in the other.

GMOs were used to save banana plants in Uganda — 30 percent of the calories Ugandans eat come from the fruit.

The bananas there developed a disease that can't be stopped naturally, Roberts said. The only way to control it is to cut off affected branches to stop it from spreading.

"It turns out there are genes in other plants, in this case sweet peppers, that don't succumb to this disease," he said.

Using this gene makes the banana plants resistant to the disease, he said.

The same was done with papayas in Hawaii back in the 1990s, said Roberts. A compound was used to stop a virus that was killing the plants. Now, 77 percent of papaya plants there use GMOs.

Roberts stressed that GMOs are not dangerous, adding that it's a method to achieve a result, not an ingredient.

"The bottom line is how you make something is not important," he said.

Rotarian Jo Broderick, dean of college relations and special assistant to the president at Montserrat College of Art, said she first read an article about how GMOs can be used positively over the summer.

She said that since stopping world hunger is one of Rotary's missions, she wants to use this information and see how it can help.

Fellow Rotarian Jackie Rapisardi said she also wants to look deeper into the issue.

"It makes you more aware of what you're buying," she said.

Roberts, along with geneticist Phillip Sharp, won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of split genes. He was knighted in 2008. 

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at amacneill@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill. 

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