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GMOs, biotechnology offer agricultural blessings

The fundamental misunderstanding of the plight of agricultural producers stems from the idea that farming is, or should be, natural. Farming is not natural. It is, in fact, a struggle against nature.

Editor’s note: R.N.  Hopper raises cotton, grain, cattle and various other crops near Petersburg, Texas. The following is a response he and his neighbor developed to counter negative claims in a recent social media post. We thought the essay more than worthy of sharing with Farm Press readers.

I am writing in response to the negative comments written about biotechnology in agriculture. Randy McGee, a close friend and neighbor, came by recently and showed me his Facebook page in an attempt to get me to participate in social media. Our farm is about 25 miles from his, but around here, there are so few young farm families, this proximity still constitutes a neighbor.

I do not have a Facebook account, something I intend to remedy, so Randy was kind enough to allow me to post on his. My name is R. N. Hopper. I am a 33-year old agricultural producer who grows white food corn, cotton, wheat, grain sorghum, black-eyed peas, and stocker cattle. I live and work on the farm with my wife and three children.

This year has been the most difficult of my career because of the most severe drought in the last 100 years of recorded history. Not only have we had just two inches of rainfall in the last 12 months, but we have also set new records for heat and average wind speed. Our irrigation and production systems are not designed to operate in these unprecedented conditions.

Of all of the natural disasters that can hurt our crops, drought is by far the most painful. While harsh storms or plagues of insects can sometimes bring immediate destruction, drought is like death from a thousand cuts. Each new day brings hope of rain and each new night brings disappointment as we struggle with Mother Nature and watch our crops suffer.

Adversity is nothing new for a farm family. This struggle against nature has been our story since the fall of man, recorded in Genesis: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. – Gen 3:17-19.

 But just as our merciful God made Adam and Eve coats of skins and clothing before he sent them out of the garden, He has not left us alone to fend for ourselves against Mother Nature. He has clothed us with the ability to learn from our mistakes, to develop better production practices, to use the scientific knowledge to better utilize our given resources, and to employ technology.

Fundamental misunderstanding

The fundamental misunderstanding of the plight of agricultural producers stems from the idea that farming is, or should be, natural. Farming is not natural. It is in fact, as earlier alluded, a struggle against nature. This is why the amount of production for any given crop is referred to as “yield”—what nature has allowed the grower. It is not taken from Mother Nature by force, but rather nature has capitulated, as a loving parent would to an ardently petitioning child.

It may surprise you that I say farming is unnatural, but I assure you that you will never see a population of 32,000 corn plants per acre in nature. When you attempt such trying to attain a high yield, many problems arise. These “unnatural” populations open the door to attacks from insects and disease, problems that must be managed.

Something else you will never see in nature is a lone stalk of corn. Corn plants have no mechanisms of seed dispersal. Consequently, if an ear of corn falls to the ground, the seeds will germinate and die from the intense competition. If it were not for the care of farmers and domesticated agriculture, corn, as we know it, would have disappeared from the Earth.

Management required for successful agriculture is no less necessary than the management required to sustain the 8.3 million people in the city of New York. Such a population on such a small area opens the door to many problems. A lot of food and other resources must be brought in, and a lot of waste must be carried out. An army of public servants must serve the needs of sanitation, law enforcement, and maintenance.

Yet you choose to cry against my family and me because we are a smaller and less powerful target. You use the technology of social media to have a voice against farmers, but would deny us the technology to safely and affordably feed you. I have read your claims against biotechnology and find them to be full of falsehoods and half-truths perpetuated by uninformed fear mongers.

Multiple inaccuracies

The Mercola website that reported the story of the 1,000 acres of corn being destroyed is among the worst inaccuracies. On that site I read a story about buffalo eating GMO cottonseed and becoming sterile. This might be funny if it were not so tragic in its ignorance. It is not the transgenes that cause the buffalo’s sterility, but rather the gossypol, a toxic pigment found in all cotton seed—which can only be detoxified by heating during processing—that causes temporary sterility in adult bulls and permanent sterility in adolescent males. In fact, the Chinese male birth control pill, also used in Brazil, is based on gossypol.

The food supply provided to you, by American farmers and ranchers, is the safest and most affordable in the world. The World Health Organization states on their website: “The GM products that are currently on the international market have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities. These different assessments in general follow the same basic principles, including an assessment of environmental and human health risk. These assessments are thorough, they have not indicated ANY risk to human health.”

U.S. farmers grow 40 percent of the world’s corn and 10 percent of the world’s wheat. The genes selected to protect and enhance these crops are chosen with great care. I remember one of the first genes to control worms in corn was the StarLink (Cry9C) protein developed by Aventis. StarLink was a very long and complex protein structure. Most allergens are also long and complex proteins. There was never a single person identified who showed an allergic reaction to StarLink, but since it was a long protein, and it is impossible to prove that something is not an allergen with a world population of six billion, it became guilty by association.

The EPA did, however, allow StarLink to be fed to animals. This was a terrible mistake to allow StarLink for animal and not human consumption because we do not have the infrastructure necessary in our grain handling facilities to segregate the grain consumed by animals and humans. It was only a matter of time before the StarLink corn found its way into the food supply in the form of taco shells. There was never one instance where a person was hurt by the StarLink protein, but its uncleared presence in the food supply caused it to be quickly taken from the market in 2000.

The mill where I deliver our corn continued to test for StarLink until 2009, when it was clear that it had been completely purged. The genes that followed StarLink, such as Dow AgroSciences’ Herculex (Cry1F), were extensively tested to the point they were cleared for both humans and animals. Never again will one be cleared and the other not.

Rumor and fear

The StarLink scare was perpetuated by rumor and fear and not science or substance. However, StarLink was removed from the market out of genuine concern and an abundance of caution. It was no different than the Alar scare in apples, circa 1989, when CBS’ 60 Minutes reported that “the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply is a substance sprayed on apples to keep them on the trees longer and make them look better. That’s the conclusion of a number of scientific experts, and who is at risk? Children who may someday develop cancer.”

That report started a panic almost overnight and soon the story was picked up by Phil Donahue, The Today Show, CNN, Women’s Day, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, to name a few.  Even actress Meryl Streep joined the fray with her founding of Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits.

The mass hysteria that ensued led to mothers dumping all their apple products. Apples were removed from school lunches and rotted on grocery store shelves. The market for apples and apple products fell so quickly that 20,000 apple farmers suffered and many of them ended up in bankruptcy. Then, because the Consumer Group Citizen Alliance decided they hadn’t cheated enough farmers out of their livelihoods, they claimed Alar was being used on grapefruit, even though Alar was never used on citrus. Tons of grapefruit headed to South Korea and elsewhere were left to rot on the dock as export shipments were reduced by 90 percent.

The Alar scare was nothing more than a scandalous, deliberately misleading fund raising campaign led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a self-appointed environmental activist group. Alar had been used since 1966 by some growers to help prevent early drop; thus extending the harvest season, shelf life, and even the nutritional value of the apples. The amount of Alar fed to the lab mice by NRDC would have been the equivalent of an average adult eating 28,000 pounds of Alar-treated apples every year for 70 years.

This is not to say that it was the Alar residue rather than an impossible overdose of a natural compound in the apples causing the cancer in the mice. NRDC petitioned the EPA to reconsider the Alar label and a “special review” panel considered this petition. The Scientific Advisory Panel for the EPA concluded NRDC’s evidence was flawed and rejected it on its baseless and ridiculous nature. This matter was decided three weeks before CBS aired the Alar story. What a waste. What a tragedy for all of my brother farmers and their families.

Safe food

The primary goal in my life and the purpose of my existence is to provide as much food for as many people for as little expense as my talents and resources will allow.  You want nothing different from what I want - safe food and a productive future for my children.

Randy invited one of you to visit his farm. His invitation was thrown back in his face and that person also attacked him and insulted his intelligence. I will once again extend the same invitation. I plead with each of you to re-examine your beliefs about biotechnology. It is humanity’s single greatest hope for the future. In years to come, I believe that this will be borne out by history.

These environmental extremist organizations are nothing more than terrorists. My family doesn’t have to worry about jets flying into our sparsely populated town, but we are terrorized by our own American brothers and sisters - by you - who are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.

In any event, I shall continue to strive to be the best steward of the great blessings my Creator has given me charge over as long as I live. I have only one request:  Please stop hurting my family. It seems too simple a request, but regretfully, I don’t know how else to ask. May God bless you. May he bless us all.

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