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Serving: United States

Biotech: salvation, monster? Farmers know the answer

In just 10 short years, the adoption of genetically engineered crops has become so endemic in U.S. agriculture that farmers who grow them could not imagine reverting to conventional production methods.

The announcement earlier this month that farmers worldwide have planted 1 billion acres of genetically engineered crops got scant notice even in the agricultural press. Despite all the hoopla from the antis, the silliness about “Frankenfoods,” and dire warnings of genes running amok that have occurred over the past decade, bioengineered crops continue revolutionizing agriculture.

Estimates are that more than 90 percent of the soybeans in the United States, 75 percent of the cotton, and 50 percent of the corn are genetically modified varieties.

For farmers, the crops have increased efficiency, which has translated into lower per unit costs, even after factoring in the technology fees associated with the patented seeds. Many say the technology has been their salvation, that without it they'd be out of business.

Even in the European Community, where opposition has been the most organized and vocal, the issue is rapidly becoming a non-issue.

Top scientists in the USDA recently issued a preliminary report that eating foods made from cloned animals appears to be safe, although they noted that there are still questions to be resolved about possible allergic reactions and that some products from genetically modified animals hold “a moderate degree of concern” about risks to the environment and human health. That report, too, got little attention by the media.

The Food and Drug Administration has asked the food industry to keep meat, milk, and other products from genetically modified animals out of the food supply until it decides whether to allow their sale. A decision is expected by the end of this year.

The USDA committee says genetically modified animals can have a number of benefits, including less fatty meat, more nutritious milk, more resistance to diseases.

“Using the tools of biotechnology to produce more desirable, healthier farm animals is not a new practice,” said Lisa Dry, communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. She termed the report “very positive,” and said it's “the same as we've found with genetically engineered crops.”

As with any new technology — particularly one involving elemental life processes — there will continue to be questioning, as there has been with all of mankind's advances, and opposition (“Man will never fly,” “A carriage without horses?”).

Concerns continue about cross-contamination between conventional and GMO varieties, a prime example being Anheuser-Busch's position that if even a small acreage of “pharma” rice were grown in the Missouri Bootheel, it would buy no Missouri rice because of the potential for cross-contamination. The rice wasn't planted, economics won out, and isn't that how the marketplace works?

But the biotech genie is long out of the bottle. Gene modification will transform our lives in ways we can't imagine. And science that is sound will instill confidence in the new technologies that are worthwhile and proven safe, and it will relegate to the dustbin those that aren't.

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