Commentary: GMO bashers barking up the wrong tree

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College campuses never lack for opinion. Regardless of the subject, if you search hard enough, you’re certain to find a slant. That's by design; academic environments are established to foster free thought. Sometimes, though, such opinion goes out of bounds and you stumble across entrenched perspectives from the least likely sources – individuals weigh in on subjects with no real knowledge and/or expertise. (That’s especially ironic given that academicians are highly guarded about expertise and specialization when it comes to curriculum.)

That reality struck home several months ago as I casually thumbed through a local community periodical. I ran across an article outlining the attributes of eating soy (or not) - only it was written by a colleague who works in a separate college and possesses no formal training in agriculture or food production. To the point above, why should I be surprised? My curiousity was captured. But the more I read, the more troubling the article became. Most striking were the following observations:

"One of the most disconcerting issues in the current battle over the benefits of soy is genetic modification (usually referred to as GMOs or genetically modified foods and organisms). The 90-minute documentary released in November 2009, “Food, Inc.,” brought soybeans into the limelight as it explored the use of Roundup Ready soy beans… among some of the shocking revelations recorded in this documentary is the exploration of genetically engineered soybeans and the role Monsanto plays in seed creation. While GMOs and the advance of Roundup-resistant seeds superficially seem to be a logical avenue for massproducing food, questions have arisen about the safety of the harvested products for human consumption. Since about 93 percent of soybean seeds planted last year contained Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetic trait, there is reason to be alarmed."

Clearly, my colleague is a newcomer to this discussion if she believes that “Food, Inc.” is responsible for bringing GMOs “into the limelight”; this is not a new topic. But then again, citing “Food, Inc.” doesn’t set the bar very high in terms of source integrity – the documentary is certainly NOT an objective source of information about food and food production.

The commentary, though, reflects lingering perspectives of privileged ideologues that mandates some objective perspective. Most notably, utilization of  science in food production is not a new phenomenon. That was most appropriately outlined by Nina Fedoroff, former Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, at the 2010 USDA Outlook Forum: "It was George Harrison Shull who actually was asked to demonstrate the newly rediscovered Mendelian principles who inbred some strains of corn that he got from various places, and then he crossed them. And much to his surprise he suddenly got much bigger, sturdier plants with larger ears. He published a little paper that said, hmm, this might have some bearing, some implications fo agriculture. Of course it took many more decades before hybrid corn was adopted, and indeed many of the things that people say about genetically modified crops today were said about hybrid corn then…Of course we’ve done this with wheat. We’ve done it with rice. And we’ve done it with a huge variety of plants, principally increasing the sizes of fruits, making them less toxic, removing the seeds from them, making them healthier...."

Try to imagine your world if science had never gotten traction within agriculture. Our options would be greatly limited compared to the current lifestyle we enjoy today.

Similarly, Norman Borlaug was asked about genetic advancement in modern agriculture. Specifically, the question surrounded the appropriateness of crossing genetic barriers between species and whether he agreed that such action was inappropriate (Reason, April, 2000): "No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera – that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man. Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass.

First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was
essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire…So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.”

So while some individuals tout potential dangers of scientific progress, genetic change has always played a critical role in agriculture. Science provides us with great abundance and security. But we can’t stop here.

There’s further challenges ahead – feeding the world – a matter of nine-billion people by 2050 (a far cry from “thousands”). That reality means we can never let up in terms of advancing agricultural productivity; agriculture has a great responsibility and taking our foot off the gas will only serve to penalize the less fortunate (ironic given that my university colleague oversees a social justice program). So while the anti-GMO crowd might be “alarmed” about  science, such ideology is neither realistic nor helpful. After all, the more pressing issue is hungry people, lots of them and more every day – they need food to eat.

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Arizona  |  May, 23, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Thank you for that voice of reason.

texas  |  May, 23, 2011 at 02:03 PM

GMO's are a global experiment that can't be stopped. If/when an altered genotype is found to be dangerous or destructive to the environment, there will be nothing we can do to take it back. Maybe they are safe, but humanity's willingness to roll the dice and see what happens has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past. I believe farmers whose fields are contaminated by pollen from GMOs should have the right to sue the manufacturer, not the other way round.

Madeleine Love    
May, 23, 2011 at 04:54 PM

Capital M, Capital N Mother Nature - the new deity in the life of the promoter of crass GM technology. I think we've all moved on from repression discussion about a certain type of production method that shall not be named. Time to get GM fully labelled, and finally get it off the farms.

Canada  |  May, 23, 2011 at 06:33 PM

Here is a quote by nuclear physicist John Hagelin, Ph D - Director, Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy "I want to address the assumptions that underlie the entire agricultural bioengineering enterprise. I am deeply concerned that life scientists are implementing bioengineering technologies without adequately understanding the lessons we have learned from the physical sciences. One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers assumed. Today we know that there are inherent limitations on our ability to make precise predictions about the behavior of a system, especially for microscopic systems and nonlinear systems of great complexity. Numerous eminent molecular biologists recognize that DNA is a complex nonlinear system and that splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer. Yet, the genetic engineering of our food--and the widespread presence of genetically altered foods in American supermarkets --is based on the premise that the effects of gene-splicing are so predictable that all bioengineered foods can be presumed safe unless proven otherwise. This refusal to recognize the risks of unintended and essentially unpredictable negative side effects is just plain bad science. It is astounding that so many biologists are attempting to impose a paradigm of precise, linear, billiard-ball predictably onto the behavior of DNA, when physics has long since dislodged such a paradigm from the microscopic realm and molecular biological research increasingly confirms its inapplicability to the dynamics of genomes. Moreover, the premise of predictability is not just scientifically unsound; it is morally irresponsible. " I just want the ability to opt out of this experiment and right now I don't have that choice!

Clark Mills    
New Jersey  |  May, 24, 2011 at 03:24 AM

I wish you'd stop touting GMOs as miracle crops that will feed the world, it's not a realistic point of view. You'd have to really buy into the GMO propaganda to believe that GMOs actually increase productivity. Read this: Article excerpt: "The problems highlight an unpalatable truth for advocates of GM crops and foods - the technology has been spectacularly unsuccessful at delivering complex traits such as drought tolerance, which involve multiple genes and complex interactions with the plant's environment. Meanwhile, conventional breeding and new techniques such as marker-assisted selection - which uses knowledge of the plant's genome to inform breeding, without engineering the plant - have produced a long string of successes. " Another article about the lies the GMO industry is propagating: Article excerpt: "Between 2001 and 2007, annual glyphosate use doubled to 185 million pounds." So basically, GMO crops don't really reduce agrochemical consumption, they just switch consumption to the agrochemical of specific manufacturers, while the quantity of chemicals used actually increases. Crafty, isn't it ? Also, GMO crops have completely failed to "feed the world", because GMO agriculture is incredibly expensive. Meanwhile, ecological agriculture can double food production in poor countries in 10 years: GMO agriculture is heavily supported by public relations efforts (aka large-scale lying); if GMO agriculture were to try to stand only on science, as its proponents claim, it would fall immediately, because it really can't deliver on its promises.

Simi Valley  |  May, 24, 2011 at 12:06 PM

The anti-GMO crowd represents the organic food industry who see their world slowly disappearing. As crop biotechnology continues to advance, the organic food industry will not be able to compete with GMO and they know it. Thus they collectively publish scare tactics in various media in hopes of delaying the inevitable. Fortunately, farmers are not fooled.

Iowa  |  May, 24, 2011 at 12:20 PM

How many times have you heard someone say, "I really want to eat some genetically engineered food today?" Never. No one wants it. The only reason we have it is that it's being snuck into the food supply without people knowing it. GM foods should be labeled as they are in most other "democratic" nations.

North Carolina  |  May, 24, 2011 at 05:14 PM

Cross-breeding and genetic modification are two completely different things. And you call yourself an expert?

Jochen Koester    
Geneva, Switzerland  |  May, 24, 2011 at 06:33 PM

To Whomsoever edits these comments: Whatever happened to the comment I posted about 24 hours ago? It never made it public. You see my email address. Would you care to let me know what your reason is for not publishing it? Or does the right of Free Speech not apply to foreign contributors? To much criticism is too much for your readers? Thanks for letting me know - and perhaps you can publish it after all?

KC MO  |  May, 25, 2011 at 03:42 PM

There is no control of the spread of a GMO organism. When it spreads to an organic crop, the GMO patent holder can sue the organic farmer. Can any GMO supporter refute this current practice or offer any rational support of it?

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