Editors' Notebook

Some Sense on GMO

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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Biotech crops are harmless. Biotech crops are dangerous. Like a modern twist on the over-used lines from Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," genetically modified crops have brought with them both the "best of times, and the worst of times." Perhaps, to more accurately quote Dickens, they brought the "epoch of belief, and the epoch of incredulity."

To see the best of genetically modified crops you needed only to stand at the edge of a corn field stricken by European Corn Borer and prairie winds, and compare nonBt hybrids to their high-tech Bt cousins. There was no mistaking which part of the field was going to make a daughter's college tuition payment and which was going to enhance the feed for deer and raccoon populations that winter.

The technology also fostered its share of disbelief, fear, derision, and at times violent hatred, from some quarters staunchly opposed to what they see as mucking around with the genetic makeup of living things.

So what in the dickens are we to make of GM crops: Good or bad? This week, one of the most comprehensive studies of the current state of the post-GM world was released by the National Academies of the Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report "Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects," is a review and critique of the known science on these crops, as well as an attempt to use that review to help shape public policy around GMOs.

You can read the coverage of the 408-page report in the story by our Emily Unglesbee on various DTN platforms. You can read the report yourself here: http://bit.ly/….

Just a few thoughts about the report from someone who has long considered the two tales of GMOs.

When I first heard entomologist Fred Gould was heading up the 20-person Academy review committee, I had high hopes the result would be wide ranging and fair. As a scientist, Gould is about as even keeled and beholden to none as I've met.

The entomologist and his team of scientists from many other disciplines didn't disappoint. They read more than a thousand peer-reviewed scientific studies and public comments, plus listened to direct presentations from experts to the committee.

Their distillation of all that, while at times a struggle to wade through -- these are scientists, not novelists, after all -- thoroughly explains the lack of any real evidence that existing GM crops, in and of themselves, are a danger to humans, animals or the environment.

They just as thoroughly pointed to the issues that are concerning about GMOs. Those concerns mainly relate not to the traits but to how humans use them. The committee also raises the point that despite the fortunes spent on their creation, marketing, purchase and use, GM crops have not really been the answer to feeding a hungry world as some have promised. They are a benefit, helping to protect higher yields in certain crops in certain circumstances, reducing chemical pesticide use in a couple others. But overall, the committee says, they've not had the direct influence on food availability as promised.

The jury is still out, the committee said, on whether GM crops truly reduce pesticide use over time, something that biotech proponents often tout. Part of that less-than-ringing endorsement is that it's tough to compare the environmental value -- the inherent "goodness or badness" -- of one legally approved pesticide or herbicide to another. The NAS scientists call for a better way, and more study, of how to compare pesticide alternatives in broad, what-it-really-means-to-the-overall-environment sense. A holistic view, what a novel idea.

The other "anti- GMO" point raised, though, is the human use issue, one we have hit on often at DTN: The fact that overuse of some traits has led to resistance and other issues, sending us back to using more pesticides, and older chemistries, to combat resistant species.

Here, the committee calls for agencies such as APHIS to have more authority to continually monitor and regulate products after initial approval. Currently, APHIS can only allow or not allow a product to come to market, it has no power to tweak that product's use as new information arises.

EPA does have such authority, and the committee gives that agency a pat on the back for being willing to actually use it to make label changes. EPA has exercised that authority of late, though that jury, too, is still out on whether there are enough teeth in the new herbicide labels and enough jaws in state regulatory agencies to actually foster smarter use.

My saddest thought reading this NAS report is that despite a fair and reasoned effort, it will likely do little to change the global conversation around GMOs. Those with a financial stake in the technology are widely picking out the "pro" points and shouting them from headlines and Twitter posts.

Those who oppose GMOs will, at best, only amplify the negatives. Even more unfortunately, the "Food Babe followers" and others driven more by emotion and their definition of social justice than any logic or science, will completely discount the NAS report. To them, it's just another piece in the great Chemical Company World Domination and Destruction conspiracy.

There isn't much we in agriculture can do for that lot. Similar to others I've tried, at meetings, cocktail parties, and even (silly me) on social media pages. I always end up feeling like actress Veronica Cartwright's character Nancy in the final scene of the 1978 version of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." https://www.youtube.com/…

The "pods," who at first seem approachable, quickly cry out to mark your presence, then encircle to suck the life out of you.

What we can do is lessen the actual shortcomings, which again are mostly due to overuse and misuse. That will at least appeal to the portion of GMO doubters who can be reasoned with. It turns out that being smarter GM trait users will also likely preserve the technology's useful life, giving us longer access to more tools to battle pests and slow down the headaches we're creating for ourselves.

The NAS committee also called for the need of a better way to evaluate new technologies, something I think agriculture would be smart to get behind. Too much time has been spent on studying the method used to create the trait -- debating whether inserting a foreign gene into a plant is inherently more dangerous than decades of more traditional breeding to get to the same basic product. More time, the committee contends, should be put on the end result of a new technology, regardless of how we create it. That's a more difficult task, for sure. Not everyone will agree on whether a supposed effect is in the end good or bad, or even agree on the likelihood that it will happen. The exercise, though, should get to the deeper conversation of saying whether a new technology is truly "better, worse, or same" than an existing method.

Most importantly, let's hope this report is read and taken seriously, and not, like Charles Dickens' epic novel, remembered by too many of us for only a few poignant opening lines.



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