The debate over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is ongoing in modern agriculture. An Internet search on GMO’s will show volumes of information available from those who are for or against the practice.
The problem is, how do people who have little connection to modern farming know what to believe? GMO advocates and opponents make very contrasting claims, and they point to evidence that backs their case. What is the truth? How can farmers convey that truth to the public?
“Most of the time, we’re talking about plants, but a GMO could be any kind of organism,” said Karen Batra, the Director of Food and Agriculture Communicationsat the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). “It’s been changed genetically, usually very slightly, and only a single gene to express a desired trait.”
Karen Batra is the Director of Food and Agriculture Communication for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington, D.C. (Photo by biotech-now.org)
Enhancing genes has been around a long time. The process is simply becoming more refined.
“I see the GMO as an extension of conventional breeding that’s been going on since day 1,” said Kevin Dahlman, President of Dahlco Seeds of Cokato. Back in the day, they had to do various crosses and see what they ended up with. Because of GMO’s, they can do that in a laboratory and be more specific with more predictable results.”
“The purpose of all breeding is to take genes from one thing and put it into another thing,” said Dahlman, “and the purpose is to end up with a better product than you had before. The process has simply moved from the field to the laboratory. That’s really the only thing that’s changed.”
Dahlman said gene enhancement has benefitted crops by strengthening plants against the normal stresses of a typical growing season.
“Crops are now insect resistant, drought resistant, and herbicide tolerant,” said Dahlman. “The biggest improvement has been insect resistance. Before, we had worms, bugs, and everything eating our stalks, eating our corn kernels, and damaging the yield as well as the quality of harvested grain. Because of GMO’s, we no longer have as many of those issues as before.”
Batra said it’s important to look at GMO’s not as things, but as a process. “If you go back to the beginning of agriculture 1,000’s of years ago, some of our earliest farmers took a look at the genetics of their plants. They said ‘this is a strong plant, and this is a strong plant, and I might cross-breed those two,’ and that’s how farming began to evolve.”
GMO’s are helping to feed people around the world who are struggling to get good food.
“Crops can be nutritionally enhanced too, which makes them healthier,” said Batra. “Some folks may have heard of Golden Rice. It’s grown in developing countries and has beta keratins added to it, and that helps combat the nutritional deficiencies seen in both children and women.”
Golden rice is held up next to traditional white rice. Golden rice is a valuable food source in developing countries, where people may lack basic nutrients in their foods (Photo from golden rice.org)
Despite what you may read on the Internet, GMO’s have been thoroughly tested to ensure their safety.
“The World Health Organization (WHO), the National Academy of Sciences, the EPA, FDA, and the USDA have all reviewed this issue,” said Andrew Walmsley, the Director of Congressional Relations for the American Fame Bureau Federation. “There have been over 1,000 different independent studies that found no harm or cause for health concerns related to GMO’s.”
“We’ve been genetically modifying crops since we stopped being hunter/gatherer’s,” said Walmsley. “We started selecting traits that showed themselves over time, and now we’ve gotten to be really specific on what we’re able to do.”
Walmsley encourages farmers to talk about why they utilize the technology on their farm.
“Tell them why it’s personally important to you,” said Walmsley. “You’re now able to go to conservation tillage, fewer passes through the field, you’re spraying less pesticides and you’re quality of life’s improved. You feed your family this same food and you don’t have any concerns.”
Andrew Walmsley is the Director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. (Photo from linkedin.com)
Despite the volume of available information and test results out there, the debate over GMO’s is continuing. Walmsley said it’s being driven in part by people who may have questionable motives.
“I consider them conflict entrepreneurs,” said Walmsley, “they like to make money off the back of agriculture. They include the Food Babe’s of the world and the different environmental groups that like to instill fear in consumers to make a buck. There are certain organic groups that want to vilify GMO’s to their own financial benefit.”
The debate is continuing over GMO’s at the state and national level with a push to pass laws that would make labeling GMO products mandatory. Walmsley said Farm Bureau and other national Ag groups want a federal solution, instead of passing laws state-by-state.
“The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act (HR 1599) was recently introduced,” said Walmsley, “it was introduced by Mr. Pompeii out of Kansas, a Republican, and Mr. Butterfield of North Carolina, a Democrat. It’s clearly a bipartisan issue, and we do not want this to be a partisan issue.”
He sees this as a good solution to the patchwork of state labeling law proposals that are currently out there.
“We’ve seen several ballot initiatives, some state legislative action, and we have Vermont with their state labeling law that’s currently held up in court,” said Walmsley. “A patchwork of laws doesn’t benefit anyone, it doesn’t benefit consumers, it doesn’t provide transparency, and will only increase costs and confusion.”
“I think our opponent will even agree it needs to be a federal solution,” said Walmsley. “Where we disagree is whether it needs to be voluntary or mandatory. We heavily support voluntary labels.”
He said the current regulatory system is in place to make sure unsafe products never reach the marketplace.
“When a new trait comes to market, it goes to USDA, the EPA, and the FDA first,” said Walmsley. “Currently, the FDA piece is voluntary, and the bill (HR 1599) would make that mandatory to try to alleviate consumer concerns. Every product that’s currently on the market has gone through the FDA process.”
“If there was a food safety issue, the FDA wouldn’t allow it to get to the marketplace,” said Walmsley, “and our members wouldn’t grow it.”
Agriculture needs to continue to speak out for modern practices and educate the non-farming public.
“We in agriculture have done a poor job of educating the average consumer,” said Walmsley, “we see the benefits of these products, but we’re slow to communicate those benefits to others. It’s important to be transparent with consumers.”