GMO discussion shows sharply opposing views

October 15, 2013 in GMO's, News, War on Food by The Manimal

Source: Des Moines Register

Iowa farmer Bill Horan’s prediction about biotechnology drew jeers from opponents in a Des Moines audience Monday: Over the next two decades, every animal and crop used to feed the world’s population will be genetically enhanced, he said.

“People will look back 20 years from now, and say, ‘Gosh, what was all the fuss about,’ ” said Horan, who farms near Rockwell City in western Iowa.

Judging from the crowd’s reaction, Iowa might need more than a couple of decades to come to agreement about genetically engineered food — corn, soybeans and other crops grown with seeds that have been modified to resist certain pests, environmental conditions or chemicals.

About 200 people attending The Des Moines Register’s panel discussion, “GMOs: Possibilities and Peril,” had plenty to say about both, with little middle ground on issues ranging from the need for labeling to GMOs’ effectiveness in feeding starving people in developing countries.

The debate leads into this week’s World Food Prize discussions, which will bring scientists, politicians and philanthropists to Des Moines from across the globe.

Steven Druker, an attorney and director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity in Fairfield, said seed companies have never provided evidence to the federal government showing that “any genetically modified food is safe.”

“It’s very clear and well documented that the FDA has been lying to us,” said Druker, who initiated a lawsuit in 1998 that forced the Food and Drug Administration to divulge its files on genetically engineered foods.

“Every genetically engineered food is on the U.S. market illegally,” he said. “They should all be taken off, and none should come back on until they’re demonstrated safe.”

But Ruth MacDonald, who leads Iowa State University’s food science and human nutrition department, said GMO foods are safe for consumers.

“There’s no evidence that they change the nutritional value in any way. And this is based on solid scientific research,” she said. “Also we have about 20 years of use in foods and food ingredients in the United States.”

The U.S. is by far the world’s largest user of biotech crops, planting 172 million acres in 2012, almost 40 percent of all the biotech acreage globally. About 90 percent of all corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is produced from genetically modified seed.

U.S. farmers also use biotech crops to produce canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya and squash. Brazil, Argentina and Canada are major users of genetically modified seed as well, collectively growing about as many acres as the United States.

The six panelists debated whether GMOs should be used in developing countries that battle hunger.

“GMOs aren’t cheap,” said Ron Rosmann, whose family operates an organic farm near Harlan. He uses crop rotation and diversity to control pests and weeds. “How are these poor farmers going to afford it? They’re much better off using biological, time-tested, low-cost methods that I’m talking about.”

MacDonald said she thinks “it’s a bit unethical for people who oppose GMOs to take food away from people who are starving and prevent them access to foods like golden rice that can eliminate blindness.”

A member of the audience asked MacDonald whether foods in the United States should be labeled to indicate they contain GMOs.

MacDonald said she was torn, given her desire for consumers to make informed choices. But labeling would require substantial regulatory oversight by the FDA, burden food manufacturers and add to the cost of food, with no benefit to consumers, she believes.

Horan, the western Iowa farmer, said the GMO traits disappear in high temperatures. “What started out with GMO corn … the protein disappears above 120 degrees.”

Gary Munkvold, a professor and seed science endowed chair at Iowa State University, said GMOs have added more than $100 billion to farmers’ bottom line globally. Most of the money, he said, stays with the farmers, not the seed producers.

“The benefits extend not only to the farmers but to the environment,” with reduced use of pesticides, he said.

But Rosmann said U.S. farmers are using more pesticide with biotechnology.

“Because of resistance … herbicide use in the U.S. has raised by 500 million pounds,” he said. “That’s one of the myths we need to be talking about.”

He said Tennessee farmers lost $120 million last year due to reduced yields and “the need to use more herbicides.” Iowa farmers are projected to spend $700 million in the future, he said.

Concerns have arisen that insects and weeds are becoming resistant to GMO crops because some farmers fail to regularly rotate crops or change the type of chemical sprayed on a field.

For example, in Iowa — the largest U.S. corn producer — and neighboring states, some farmers who grow a genetically modified variety called Bt corn are finding their plants are no longer resistant to corn rootworms. The pest does most of its damage when larvae feed on the roots of young corn plants, preventing them from taking in water and nutrients, which ultimately can result in a lower yield.

But Munkvold disagreed with Rosmann on trends in pesticide use.

“Pesticide reductions have occurred, and they’re substantial,” Munkvold said. “There are many studies that are unbiased. … Each side can quote data, but it comes down to whether that data is being interpreted correctly.”

Micheal Owen, a professor and associate chair of the Iowa State University agronomy department, sat toward the middle of the panel, both physically and politically. Owen said a lack of crop diversity, not GMOs, in many ways is the real issue.

“We have been pushing a system that is lacking in diversity, and predictably the system is pushing back,” he said.

Rosmann, whose farm has been pesticide-free for 30 years, said non-GMO production is less expensive and gets “similar yields.”

“Why not leave more room for organic and non-GMO production if the yields are similar? We need genetic diversity,” he said, adding that mono-crop production of corn and soybeans is creating weeds resistant to herbicides, rootworms resistant to pesticides, faster erosion and a decline in wildlife.

But Owen said the technology is creating “less soil erosion and improved water quality” because it’s “supporting conservation tillage agriculture.”

Rosmann said, “both sides can cherry-pick studies.” He said later, “I know what I see on my farm.”