Friday, September 6, 2013

I appreciate the thoughtful responses of the contributors and their willingness to engage in this forum. They were able to cut through most of the widespread misinformation on food, farming, and genetics and all affirm the scientific consensus that the process of genetic engineering does not pose inherent risks compared to conventional approaches of genetic alteration. None disagree that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. 

Nina Fedoroff, Greg Jaffe, and Rosamond Naylor address the regulation of GE crops. I agree with Fedoroff that the product, not the process of developing the seed, should be the target of regulation. Naylor sees a role for GE crops in fighting persistent hunger and improving rural incomes in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and she rightly emphasizes that appropriate biosafety protocols for GE crops need to be in place before planting new varieties. Each crop needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In the specific case of bananas, most cultivated varieties are sterile, which simplifies regulatory evaluations.

Jaffe calls for more regulation of GE crops even though all those on the market in the United States have been through voluntary FDA review. Current regulations for all whole foods mandate FDA review only if there is a substantial change in content—that is, if they contain additives. Mandatory review is not required for GE products because they contain no additives and therefore are not substantially different from their non-GE counterparts. Changing that system to single out GE crops, regardless of their characteristics and for no scientific or health reasons, makes no sense.

Genetic engineering is just one tool—sometimes the most appropriate.

Jaffe also calls for federal oversight of farm management practices. Certainly integrated weed and pest management practices are important elements of all farming systems, whether the seed was developed through genetic engineering or other methods of genetic alteration. Requiring an herbicide rotation system for herbicide-tolerant crops would likely slow down the evolution of resistant weeds. But GE crops did not create this problem and making them a special regulatory case will not solve it. If we want to delay development of resistance, regulating herbicides and their patterns of use is a better option.

I also disagree that more regulation will reduce public concern. Do people feel that prescription drugs are safer than over-the-counter drugs? Consumers want the government to regulate more heavily products that are more dangerous, not ones that are less dangerous.

Like Jaffe, Jack Heinemann identifies serious problems with agriculture but not any that are specifically related to the process of genetic engineering. He correctly points out that epidemics have occurred throughout history in the absence of crop genetic diversity. A genetically diverse crop is less vulnerable to disease epidemics. He gives a specific example of the 1969–1970 corn leaf blight epidemic that spread throughout the Midwest because most farmers had, long before the advent of plant genetic engineering, planted a single variety of corn. 

But when it comes to specific crops, Heinemann makes myriad mistakes. In East Africa bananas are grown mainly by smallholder subsistence farmers. Farmers grow several varieties on the same land. BXW does not infect only one banana variety—virtually all bananas are susceptible. Monoculture is less a problem in Africa than in Asia and Latin America, where Cavendish bananas are grown widely. African farmers access banana plantlets from national, nonprofit institutions—they are not dependent on U.S. multinational companies. The banana research in Africa is funded by local, nonprofit, public institutions. The new banana varieties are not grown from imported seeds. And GE bananas are not patented. The technology is simple and does not require farmers to alter their traditional practices. 

Many studies have shown that the methods Heinemann proposes work fine in a trial scale with abundant labor and attention but fall far short when put into a real-world situation. Reduced yield forces higher prices and ultimately  does not help the poor. Nor does it help American family farmers, such as Jennie Schmidt and Tim Burrack, whom we rely on to achieve a more sustainable agriculture in the United States.

Margaret Mellon’s organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, once well respected, is now, on this subject, increasingly untethered from science. UCS has disregarded decades of research and the conclusions of the global scientific community and displayed little concern for farmers, global food security, and environmental degradation. Mellon herself claims no inherent objection to genetic engineering, but UCS continues to fan the flames of misinformation and fear. Their Web site sounds a false alarm: “GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.”

The UCS reports cited by Mellon were published and distributed without critical review. Since publication, several scientists have noted selective use of datasets and calculation errors in the initial report. Specifically, because the benefits of GE crops to neighboring farms were not included in the UCS analysis, the conclusions of the report are not useful. Furthermore, the report focused only on corn and soybeans in the United States, omitting the extensive data available from cotton and canola in the United States and abroad. Finally, the UCS claim that GE crops on the market have “failed to yield” is highly misleading. BT crops were designed to guard the plants against insect damage and reduce the use of sprayed insecticides. A decade of peer-reviewed reports attests to the success of this approach in achieving these objectives. In addition BT crops have reduced pesticide poisonings of farmers and their families and dramatically enhanced yields in developing countries. Collectively, these omissions in the UCS report serve to distort the actual situation and confuse the public.

Mellon says UCS believes GE crops may have a place in agriculture, but the organization is short on specifics. What crops do they support? Do they support Bt cotton and GE papaya—crops that have been grown for nearly twenty years to the benefit of farmworkers, consumers, and the environment? Did they speak out against the vandalism of fields of golden rice? 

UCS’s tepid support for future products—with no comments on the many crops on the market—and their alarmism with respect to nonexistent health risks only polarizes the debate while avoiding real discussions that will advance the sustainability of agriculture globally.

At the heart of anti-GE arguments is an imaginary bogeyman or corporate conspiracy that wants to address agricultural challenges exclusively through genetic engineering. Yet farmers and scientists do not present the technology as the “be-all-and-end-all solution to agriculture and environmental challenges.” Even Monsanto employs diverse methods to generate new seed varieties. The company may be criticized for many things, but genetic engineering is not its sole approach to developing new seed varieties, nor should it be.

Genetic engineering is just one tool. Sometimes it is the most appropriate technology and sometimes it is not. Other approaches, such as marker-assisted breeding, mutation breeding, the release of sterile insects, and crop rotation also have a place in agriculture. In most cases a combination of techniques will be most effective. Decisions must be based on knowledge of a particular crop, the environment, and the needs of the farmers. Broad generalizations do not advance the debate.

Unfortunately Robert Paarlberg’s and Marc Gunther’s assessments of the current politics of GE crops are accurate. Farmers and scientists have tried for a long time to counter the fear mongering with scientific facts and with logic. Gunther is right that it is time to call out the “large U.S. corporations [that] have helped fuel the anti-GMO movement.”

Thankfully a number of journalists, such as Gunther himself, have taken the time to learn about genetics, food, and farming. Recent articles in Slate, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Grist have tackled the misinformation eloquently. Other excellent independent sources of information about GE crops are biofortified.org and ucbiotech.org.

It seems nearly inevitable that genetic engineering will play an increasingly important role in advancing sustainable agriculture. The question is not whether we should use genetic engineering, but more pressingly, how we should use it.