Q&A on Plant DNA

By Lindsey Foss

In today’s digital age, answers and information for nearly every question imaginable is available at the click of a button, a 140-character tweet or even a simple ask of Siri.

And yet, even with the technologies available to Skype with a farmer, chat online with a dietitian or even see a doctor on demand, our recent Iowa State Fair survey reflects that nearly 79 percent of respondents cite personal experience and recommendations from friends and family as the most influential factors in food-purchasing decisions.

So, if we’re not connecting with doctors, dietitians or the folks growing our food, who is a professional we can turn to with questions?

The Center for Food Integrity has found the “mom scientist” — a mother with scientific education and/or work experience — to be one of the most respected, relatable sources of information for consumers’ food questions.

Add that’s where Jessie Alt comes in.

Jessie is a self-proclaimed “Minnesota farm kid” — with the accent to match — who credits her love of plants to her time spent on the farm. Jessie studied agronomy at South Dakota State University during her undergraduate years and, through work experiences with various seed companies, discovered the track of plant breeding. Those internships sparked a passion for the field (both literally and figuratively), and Jessie went on to receive her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Iowa State University. She has been a research scientist for DuPont Pioneer for 10 years.

When she’s not at the office, Jessie trades her lab coat in for gardening gloves, transferring her passion for plants into her flower and vegetable gardens on her family’s acreage outside Madrid. Jessie and her husband, Brian, have two energetic daughters — Kiera (6) and Kels (3) — and like to get them involved in the garden in the form of a roadside pumpkin patch. Jessie recently “carved out” some time away from plant breeding and pumpkin sales to share with us her take on a variety of food questions and misconceptions and how she, as a “mom scientist,” sorts fact from fiction.

Lindsey: Walk me through a day in your role at DuPont Pioneer.
Jessie: I lead our soybean-breeding efforts in Dallas Center. Our goal is to develop high-yielding, stable varieties for growers in central Iowa, northern Missouri and out into Nebraska. My job is a combination of genetics, agronomy and statistics, and it really depends on the time of year on which of those three priorities takes precedence. My work relates a lot to the growing season in Iowa. For instance, today I’m behind my desk working on genetics on the computer. As farmers begin harvest, my day will be spent 100 percent in the field, taking notes ahead of the combine because we’re continually assessing how the varieties we develop translate into productivity and profitability for our growers.

So, are you essentially working with GMOs? Can you break down what a GMO is?
“GMO” is an abbreviation for what has been termed “genetically modified organisms.” Because I am a scientist, I take “genetically modified organism” to mean just that — anything we have modified genetically.

To me, it includes things that we do for traditional breeding practices. Today, I’m doing genetics on the computer and intentionally selecting plants that have disease resistance. It’s not a GMO that people think of in terms of a transgene, but I think the common misconception is that GMOs are scientists inserting a foreign piece of DNA into a plant. For me, that’s one teeny, tiny part of what a GMO is.

Why are people scared of GMOs?
I try to have conversations with folks to unveil their underlying concerns of GMOs because, more often than not, their fears aren’t about the genetic process or inserting the DNA. Their perceptions or misconceptions are likely linked to the environment, risks to the farmer or the company associated with GMOs.

The good news is, there’s nothing to fear because GMO crops undergo rigorous testing before being introduced as an option for farmers and certainly before human consumption. What we consider “conventional soybeans” — things that don’t have what is viewed as a GMO — take us about five to seven years to develop and test across many different years and environments. For something that has been genetically modified, we plan to double that process; as the plant generally takes several years of additional testing before it can enter the “normal test program.” If people are OK with the traditional breeding process, then GMOs should get a gold star.

So, are GMOs the “silver bullet” to a sustainable food system?
I think the really important part about how food is grown is that it fits with what the market wants and what is best for the grower and their farm. Growers make their evaluations based on what is going to be most profitable in their environment, with their piece of ground and with their equipment.

It takes all types. One is not better than the other. I go to the grocery store and I’m just amazed by all the options we have; we’re very fortunate to have those choices here in the U.S. We have different types of growers, we have a diversity of practices and ultimately, we have a variety of food.

How do you bring science into conversations about our food system?
I’ve found a good connection point to be the environment. I’m such an environmentalist at heart; it’s one of my largest driving factors to do what I do. The environment and lessening our footprint really resonates with a wide range of people of other backgrounds, too, and may lead decisions on the food they purchase, the cars the drive — there’s a lot of that in the back of people’s minds.

My job is to help our growers produce more soybeans on their existing pieces of land. The land is fixed. I want them to produce more yield there, with either the same or less inputs. That might mean farmers are able to use less chemicals, or maybe they can use less tillage, making less passes in the field and ultimately have less compaction. If I can help growers produce more on their land, that’s a way I can have a positive environmental impact on a large scale.

I grew up as a child of the 80s and early 90s: the pre-GMO farming era. I remember my dad making many passes across his field with different chemicals to control the weeds. Weeds have always been there. Weeds are not a new situation. Ever since we’ve been farming, weeds have been an issue. How we are able to control weeds now with much less environmentally impactful chemicals, much less passes across the field; I think those are huge moves in a sustainable agricultural system.

How did becoming a mom change your outlook on food, if at all?
Our biggest fear is always that we’ll do something detrimental to our children and of course, we never want to do that. Even with a Ph.D. in this area of study, I felt the pressure to seek out different foods or to choose organic when I was a new mom. That lasted a few months when my oldest was a newborn before it really dawned on me that, “No, my driving factors — like a lot of people out there — are that I want nutritional food at a reasonable cost.” That shifted my mindset and is how my buying purchases are driven right now.

How does being a mom impact your work at DuPont Pioneer?
Our entire goal for everyone who works at DuPont Pioneer is that we want to help our growers. We are never going to be successful with that if we don’t give them things that are good to grow, good for the environment and good for people.

I’m a mom and a scientist so I have seen quite a few different opinions. The take-home opinion, no matter how your food is grown or raised, is that here in the U.S., our food is very safe.