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Seeds of Biotech Resentment: Part Four

A technology that long-ago was deemed safe remains under attack. Why?

After nearly 20 years of safe use, you might think we could move on - that there would no longer be questions about genetically engineered seed. Millions of acres of GM seed have been planted worldwide, and millions of people and livestock have eaten the harvest. Case closed.

Yet, the debate over GM is becoming even more polarized, as witnessed during a recent event held by the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois. Despite 600 scientific studies that verify biotech safety – 200 of those from independent sources – we're still talking about this.

Is it just hatred for Monsanto? The idea of having to buy a license or pay a tech fee to use a seed? Is anyone holding a gun to farmers' heads? If they thought it was bad for their families or their farm, or their bottom line, wouldn't they try something else?

Many of the arguments we heard last week against biotech were familiar: Somehow, it must be dangerous. Somehow, it must be hurting other farmers. Somehow, it must be ruining our soil and productivity and sustainability. Yes, biotech is linked to growing bug and weed resistance; but is that the fault of this technology, or the result of how farmers misused it?

In the debate, the anti-tech folks cited the same scientists, sounded the same alarms, and touted the same research we've been hearing for years.

A colleague who also witnessed the debate made a good point: 'Science,' as most of us understand the word, is no longer trusted. In fact, she argued, science and research, which should be unbiased, is now abused and biased.

A case in point was when Mary-Howell Martens, a New York organic farmer, and Doug Gurian-Sherman, representing the Union for Concerned Scientists spoke. Both told the audience about studies that suggest genetically engineered food is unsafe, or that glyphosate may cause cancer. In the Q and A that followed, a crop science doctoral student pointed out that those studies were flawed and had been retracted – something the speakers themselves had declined to tell the audience.

Even so, Sherman argued that 17 years of safe usage is not enough time to determine if food from genetically engineered seed is harmful.

"If you had a simple cough or sneeze, how would you know if it was because of a GM crop or not?" he says. "What kind of data do you need to show something is harmful? Yes, if people were dropping dead from eating GM crops we would know that, but if it's something more subtle long term, like a disease such as cancer or heart disease, you would never know without epidemiology."

"The problem is, you take data in whatever direction you want it to go," responded Leon Corzine, an Assumption, Ill., farmer who grows biotech crops. Corzine was added to the panel only after pressure was put upon the debate organizers. "Let's talk about more real world – there has been nothing that shows any person or any animal has ever gotten sick or died from GM food. You can talk about other methods of farming that people HAVE died from. So let's keep it in perspective."

While the debate did become nonsensical at one point, a few good points were made. They include: crop rotation is important; biotech has its place and needs to be an option; most people had a similar definition of sustainability; and people only care about things like GM food labeling when they are prompted. Otherwise, it's way down the list of food safety worries.

Here's what else we learned:

  • When you mislead an audience about the veracity of studies that allege to prove your point, you lose all credibility. Such was the case when Martens and Sherman touted studies that showed links between glyphosate and health problems – studies that have long been dismissed and retracted.
  • Be careful what you wish for. Martens, the organic farmer, appeared to be saying the only way forward for food production is organic. She failed to mention how such a change in U.S. production methods would impact the premiums that she receives for organic production.
  • Farmers need to be at these events, no matter how much the panel is stacked against you. Even if you're targeted, as Leon Corzine was, you need to volunteer and go speak. Farmers need to be present and included in decisions that affect them.

"It is the responsibility of farmers, especially farm group leaders, to address and take on the extreme positions of those against us," concludes Corzine. "It is probably more important where we are outnumbered."

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