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GE crops get clean bill of health

It’s official — the sky-is-falling predictions of critics who feared consumers who eat genetically engineered foods would eventually grow warts on their big toes and extra thumbs as a result of ingesting these “Frankenfoods” have been banished to history’s trash bin of irrelevancy.

That’s because an independent panel of scientists has determined that GE crops undeniably benefit farmers and the environment. According to a report released in April by the National Research Council, GE crops lower production costs, reduce pesticide use and improve yields. And GE crops enhance the environment because they reduce soil erosion and improve water quality, the report says.

Of course, GE opponents would like to scream bloody murder that somehow the panel that performed this study is biased, self-serving and conflicted by special interests. But none of that will stick to the wall.

They targeted crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton that had been genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant or produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins that are lethal to the larvae of some insects.

Overall, the report was an affirmation of the experience farmers have had with genetically engineered crops since they went commercial in 1996. The research drilled down on the effect that plant technology has had on farmers, and that impact has been dramatic. The study’s key conclusions:

• Farmers who have adopted GE crops have experienced lower costs of production and higher yields, including in some areas where insect populations were hard to treat without such crops.

• Increased worker safety and greater flexibility of farm management have resulted.

• “The adoption of herbicide-resistant crops complements conservation tillage practices, which in turn reduces the adverse effects of tillage on soil and water quality,” the scientists wrote.

• “Insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops,” they wrote, noting that insect resistance to the technology has been low.

• For the three major genetically engineered crops – corn, soybeans and cotton – cross-breeding into wild or weedy relatives hasn’t been a problem.

The conclusions of the review panel included a couple of important caveats: that GE crops are not a silver bullet. Such crops must be properly managed to avoid the development of herbicide-resistant insects. Just as the use of the same types of pesticides year after year will tend to develop resistance, so do cropping systems that rely on genetically engineered traits, the scientists said.

And then there is the danger of crossbreeding contamination. The panelists said that accidental crossbreeding with the non-genetically altered crops “remains a serious concern for farmers whose market access depends on adhering to strict non-GE presence” in their crops. “Resolving this issue will require the establishment of thresholds of the presence of GE material in non-GE crops, including organic crops that do not impose excessive costs on growers and the marketing system.”

Overall, though, the panel gave genetically engineered crops a thumbs-up, with the positives far outweighing the negatives.

Will this latest and most comprehensive study by a group of renowned and respected scientific experts slake the thirst of activist groups in their quest to discredit GE crops? Fat chance.

Genetically engineered seeds remain under attack by activists and regulators in spite of the overwhelming evidence in support of GE seeds compiled by experts during the past several decades. In addition to the wholesale misrepresentation of GE accomplishments, activists’ latest strategy has shifted to one of harassment.

The tactics of so-called green groups were spelled out earlier this year in an article on the Web site by respected scientist Dr. Henry Miller, a physician, molecular biologist and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He also authored “The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution.”

In his January article titled “The Seeds of Irresponsible Activism,” Miller cites lawsuits filed in federal courts by activists seeking a ban on the planting of herbicide-resistant alfalfa and genetically engineered sugar beets. If granted, they would effectively halt nearly half the nation’s sugar production.

The lawsuits allege no actual damage, Miller notes, but claim regulators failed to adequately consider the possible effects of genetic cross-contamination between GE crops and traditional crops. These lawsuits are the latest example of hypocritical, anti-social opposition to important technology.

“The activists’ strategy is reminiscent of the old courtroom dictum: When the facts are on your side, pound the facts; when the facts are against you, pound the table,” Miller writes. “Because there is no scientific evidence to support allegations about negative effects of genetic engineering, they are pounding the table, resorting to scare tactics and specious assertions.”

Miller points out that nowhere in the peer-reviewed studies or monitoring programs of the past 30 years is there persuasive evidence of health or environmental problems stemming from GE seeds or crops. Quite the opposite: The technology used to produce these seeds is a paragon of agricultural progress and benefits the environment, so those who oppose it must face some inconvenient truths.

And one truth is the herbicide-resistant alfalfa and sugar beet seeds under attack by activists are just the beginning of what will be necessary to feed a growing world: The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that agricultural production must grow 70 percent by 2050, which will require “pushing the agricultural technology frontier outwards,” Miller says. Genetic engineering is the key to these advances.

Miller sums up activists’ lawsuits this way: “The delay of progress toward what even the United Nations has said will be necessary to feed a growing world is an example of irresponsible, despicable activism that is less a cause than a grudge. The environment, farmers and American businesses will all suffer the consequences.”

It can’t be said any clearer than that.

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