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July 2009



A Little Common Sense, Please

Nina Fedoroff, Seed Magazine, June 18, 2009

Nina Fedoroff, a geneticist and molecular biologist who developed several modern techniques used to study and modify plants, is science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the administrator of USAID. She is also a professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Food. 

The disconnect between what people worry about and what's true about GM crops is deep and wide-a chasm, really. Is it about the technology itself or is it about all kinds of other things? 

With a computer and bit of effort, almost anyone can extract the facts from the gloom and catastrophism. Fact: Modern genetic modification of crops is responsible for most of the crop yield increases of recent years. This means, of course, that the farmers who've adopted GM crops have benefited the most. These already number more than 13 million, 90 percent of whom are resource-poor, small-holder farmers in relatively poor countries. 

So far, so good, yes? But there's more.
Insect-resistant Bt crops have reduced pesticide use a lot. Less pesticide means more beneficial insects and more birds. Herbicide-tolerant crops have made big strides in reducing topsoil loss by enabling no-till farming. Keeping the soil on the land and retaining the organic matter and water in the soil supports all the creatures that make for healthy dirt. There is simply no evidence-after 13 years and almost 2 billion acres grown-that GM food is bad for people or animals. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence that levels of contaminating fungal toxins-very bad for people and animals-are much lower in GM corn than in either the conventional or organic versions. 

Why would any environmentalist or champion of sustainable farming oppose such progress? Why the anti-GM hysteria? 

I think the reasons are embedded in our psyches, and not just those of Europeans. (If they've had more problems than Americans with GM foods, the opposite has been true with food irradiation and stem cells). We kinda like scary stuff so that's what newspapers publish, and that's what we remember (not boring old statistics). This is how urban legends about the bad effects of GM crops and foods get started. There's the widely believed "terminator seeds" myth-an idea that earned a bad name but never got off paper. And then there was the GM corn-kills-Monarch-butterflies story. In reality, in the worst-case scenario, one in 2,500 larvae might be affected by Bt pollen, as compared with the 90 percent death rate of pesticide-sprayed insects. Once rooted, however, such urban myths are hard to dislodge with feeble facts. 

From the perspective of the GM critics, the bad guys are "multinationals" and "big agribusiness." Almost everyone's convinced that Monsanto is bad, tantamount to a Monsatan. That European scientists contributed significantly to the development of GM techniques is lost in the hyper-concentrated focus on the US companies who brought them to farmers and are making money doing so. Such "technology transfer" was in the past regarded as a good thing, but has now become a favorite whipping boy of GM critics-especially if there's money to be made. And the anti GM-ers circulate some pretty odd stories: Monsanto's going to "force" farmers to buy its seeds. If farmers keep their seeds to plant next year, Monsanto is going to come and get them. (Um, how's it going to do that?) A little common sense, please. 

Then there are the romantic agri-myths, like the "organic" one, which lots of people have bought into. It goes like this: Organic food, farmed using manure instead of chemicals, is better for you and better for the land. None of that's true-nitrogen is nitrogen-but it's pretty good marketing if you're selling poor produce at exorbitant prices. (Organic farming is inefficient, so production costs are generally higher.) 

Finally, there's the myth that GM crops are untested. The truth is that they're the most thoroughly tested foods ever to have been incorporated into our food supply.