Genetically Engineered Crops Divide The Food Movement
More Pros Than Cons
By John Hibma
Farmers find themselves squarely in the middle of the debate over genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods. Also referred to as genetically modified organisms—GMO—the concern over the genetic engineering of our foods is part of the larger all-natural, sustainable and organic movements that have emerged over the past decades. A growing segment of the population now prefers not to consume foods that have been genetically engineered or modified. These foods include those that have been directly modified such as grains and vegetables as well as meats and dairy products coming from animals that have consumed GMO feedstuffs.
Critics see the GE of crops as presenting unnecessary risks to the food supply and human health, placing the control of something so basic and necessary to the survival of human-kind in the hands of monolithic corporations with greater wealth than some countries. The new technologies producing GE foods are seen as risky, producing foods that are “unnatural” which makes them potentially harmful, as well. Others see the GE of crops as a much needed advancement to modern agriculture and the future needs of feeding a hungry world population that’s forecast to reach 10 billion by mid-century. The emergence of modern genetic engineering provides a new tool for developing and improving crops that will increase yields and improve the economies of farming worldwide.
Farmers everywhere have been bombarded by the GMO/non-GMO controversy with both farmers and consumers questioning the environmental and ethical impacts of GE crops. Three key questions that have emerged over GE are:
• By modifying our foods on a genetic level, are we permanently altering and unknowingly damaging select foods that may result in irreparable harm to the human race sometime in the future?
• Are people’s civil rights being violated as genetically engineered foods are being introduced into the food chain?
• What are the economic and ethical ramifications as a growing percentage of our food supply is being controlled by a handful of mega-companies that have the financial and legal resources to manipulate nutrition through genetic engineering around the world?
Dr. Margaret Smith, a geneticist specializing in plant breeding at Cornell University, explains that genetic engineering is a logical extension of what plant breeders have always done. She points out that our domesticated crops and animals are already “not natural” due to centuries of cross-breeding and hybridization. Genetic engineering is a new tool for breeding improved crops. Modern GE technology moves beyond the traditional cross–breeding and hybridization, providing faster improvement of crops that can stand up to harsher growing conditions and be brought to market much more quickly than through traditional methods of plant breeding.
Genetic engineering alters the properties of plants by moving specific genes between them or by modifying existing genes. Genetic engineering can also correct a defective gene and enable plants to turn a gene on or off. Corn, soybeans, canola, cotton and alfalfa now have both herbicide tolerance and insecticide traits built into them. In tropical regions, papaya and squash have been genetically engineered to resist viruses that commonly afflict those crops. (On a personal note I hope the Cavendish Banana can be saved from extinction through genetic engineering.) All of this has been done enabling farmers to reduce the input costs such as labor, herbicides and pesticides, reducing the chances of crop failure and improving crop yields.
The controversy over genetic engineering arises because the general population has little understanding of plant breeding and the processes involved. Adding to the confusion, the term “GMO” implies that our crops were not previously genetically altered prior to modern GE technology. The term has been embraced by the mainstream media as “a bad thing” and essentially puts the monkey on the back of pro-GMO to explain that GMO has been around for many years with no food safety issues.
Cornell’s Dr. Smith explains that a body of more than 100 independently-funded studies has not revealed evidence of any food or feed safety concerns with currently-commercialized GE crop varieties. Those few studies that have purported to show problems from feeding GE crops have been very widely discredited by experienced scientists for their poor design, inappropriate analysis, and other scientific problems. Nevertheless the fear still exists that a scientist will make a mistake and create a disaster.
A National Research Council study showed that the adoption of GE varieties resulted in positive environmental impacts from reduced insecticide usage and less need for soil tillage. Although impacts vary from farm to farm due to differences in environment, soils, and production systems and practices, this study found that many farmers had benefited economically from GE crop varieties.
The results of herbicide use are less clear. While herbicides are still being used with GE crops it appears that there’s a shift toward using less toxic herbicides in place of the more environmentally undesirable herbicides. Dr. Smith explains that opponents of GE crops can point to data showing that increased GE crop adoption has resulted in increased herbicide use, and at the same time the advocates of GE crops can point to data showing that more environmentally-friendly herbicides are being used and reduced tillage (with its environmental benefits) has been promoted.
Additional controversy over GE focuses on the public’s right to know if their food contains GMO. Consumers question whether GE crop varieties that find their way into our food supply (animals included) are safe and whether GE technology has or could introduce allergens into common foods. Once again, the problem lies with misinformation about what GE foods are and are not. Many ingredients in our foods are highly refined and purified, having no protein or DNA which makes them indistinguishable from and chemically identical to the non-GMO variety. Of course, the public has the right to know what’s in their foods. However, this mostly emotional debate over labeling of GMO/non-GMO focuses on foods and ingredients that often contain no GMO or non-GMO characteristics. As an example, take sugar made from sugar beets. Regardless of whether the sugar beet was GMO or non-GMO, the sugar coming from that beet is only a sugar hydrocarbon molecule that contains no genetic material.
Modern genetic engineering also begs the question of whether it’s prudent to allow just a handful of companies to “own” crop genetics. Some may fear that large companies are in the GE business solely to enrich themselves and their altruistic intentions will be short lived and last only until the profits run out. Agriculture is no longer the simple business of farmers planting crops (or raising animals) for local consumption and hoping the weather or the bugs don’t destroy the crops and wipe out their livelihood. Agriculture has evolved into big business with large private sector companies spending millions of dollars to improve nutrition and standards of living for millions of people worldwide.
Regardless of what side of the debate you come down on, genetic engineering in agriculture is a work in progress and it must be evaluated in the context of the greater good of future humanity.
Many thanks to Dr. Margaret Smith of Cornell University for sharing her research.