This is the first part of a two-part feature focusing on the role of genetically-modified crops.
“Improving agriculture. Improving lives.”
The biotechnology giant Monsanto remains in the middle of an often-heated argument that seems to grow larger by the day.
What exactly are genetically modified organisms, where can they be found, and perhaps the most important question - what are their long-term health effects on human beings?
According to Dr. Richard Goodman, a former manager of the Allergy Program with Monsanto, who currently works as a research professor with the Food Allergy and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, much of the talk concerning genetically modified organisms is driven by rumors, and poorly constructed scientific studies. He sees the main potential health threat in genetically modified crops to be the allergic reactions an individual may have to the new proteins inserted into the crops.
“There are some other tests that are less predictive. Is it stable in pepsin, the stomach enzyme that chews up a lot of proteins? Is it highly abundant? If it is stable in pepsin and its highly abundant, there may be an increased risk of becoming an important food allergen even if we didn’t know anything about other people having other reactions.”
Genetically modified crops are just that: crops that have had their DNA altered in order to meet a specific demand.
For example, most GM crops have been altered in order to include resistance to pests or environmental conditions. One of the other main goals of GM crops is increasing resistance to chemicals, such as herbicides.
However, some organizations, such as the Non-GMO Project, point to recent shortcomings of these GM crops’ ability to repel pests, namely an insect called a corn borer. One study explained the ineffectiveness of BT maize (corn) in repelling the pests.
“Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.”
In the Nebraska Panhandle, farmers have seemingly made up their minds regarding which side of this argument rings true.
According to Kevin Schinzel at Frenchman Valley Co-Op in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, all but one of their customers uses GM corn seed each year, an overwhelming majority.
“I’d rather take that small chance of having some chemical than not have a crop at all,” said Schinzel. “But that’s just my opinion.”
According to 2013 planting statistics from the USDA, 90 percent of all U.S. corn is of a biotech variety, with 71 percent of all corn planted to a “stack” of genes, which offers tolerance to popular herbicides and resistance to key insects. The implementation of GM soybeans has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, with that percentage rising from 17 percent in 1997 to 93 percent in 2013.
Shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations placed emphasis on the long-term safety and the overall contributions of genetically modified organisms in a brief written by Assistant Director-General Louise O. Fresco.
“As the portfolio of GM applications increases, the international community needs to ensure that GM crops make an optimal contribution to world food security, to food safety and quality, and to sustainability and that they remain available to the public at large.”
Over a decade later, these concerns are still very much in play across the world, from developing nations in Latin America and Africa to the most industrially developed nation in the world - the United States of America.
According to the Monsanto website, the ever-expanding population has prompted the agriculture industry to, once again, re-think how farming is viewed and practiced.
“Agriculture is one of the first things to be affected by changes in our environment. Rising temperatures, extreme weather, drought—these are only three of the many issues agriculture must deal with in order to feed mankind,” a statement on the website read. “Quite simply, if you care about the environment, you have to care about agriculture.”
Proponents of the biotech industry believe the work done by companies such as Monsanto is the future of agriculture and will allow farmers across the globe to feed a population that could approach nine billion people by the middle of the century.
Some would suggest that the solution is simple: just grow more food. However, there is a great deal of intricacy involved in the process of determining the best way to feed a growing population.
Food, like wealth, has never been, and likely will never be, equally distributed. According to statistics from the USDA, some 16 percent of American citizens will face food insecurity this year.
This problem spans the globe, with populations in China and India growing rapidly, as well. The diets of these cultures, however, are changing just as rapidly. The number of calories the average Chinese citizen consumes daily has increased by 50 percent since 1970, and in India it has increased by more than 25 percent.
This demonstrates the problem facing food producers everywhere. It’s not simply a matter of volume. Rather, it is an intricate balance that demands supplying certain types of food in certain parts of the world - a challenge only heightened by the fact that much of the land is not what experts would call agriculturally friendly.
However, despite these challenges facing the agriculture industry, as a whole, advocacy groups who stand firmly against the GMO movement are not sold that this is the solution. In fact, many groups believe that these problems are simply blown out of proportion by companies such as Monsanto seeking a profit.
Glyphosate, a key chemical in mainstream herbicides, is reportedly a factor in increased growth rates for fungal diseases in plants. Some of Monsanto’s biotechnological creations are under fire for treating what some believe to be a problem caused, or at the very least worsened, by none other the company itself.
“In an attempt to combat soil-borne diseases such as Fusarium, Monsanto markets its new Roundup 2 Yield soy seed with a proprietary fungicide and insecticide coating,” reads a comprehensive publication written by a team of scientists with the Non-GMO Project. “In other words, Monsanto has created a problem (fungal infection) by genetically modifying the soy seeds, and is then profiting from a techno-fix ‘solution’ to that problem. Such chemical treadmills are profitable for seed and chemical companies, but hurt farmers, consumers and the environment.”
Despite these claims, the Manager of the Monsanto Water Utilization Learning Center near Gothenburg, Chandler Mazour, insists that several levels of safeguards are present in the company, as well as all companies who work in the biotechnology field.
“We have seventeen years’ worth of experience where there has been no health challenges with GMO technology,” That’s actually one of the great things we have here in the United States, is a regulatory process to test that. These products are tested rigorously before they enter the market, and I’m very confident in that process.”
Dr. Goodman, who also spent considerable time working for Monsanto, echoed his thoughts.
“At big companies, there are people who work on safety assessment at multiple levels,” Goodman said in reference to his time with Monsanto.
The debate continues to rage, as farmers in some parts of the country begin to question the effectiveness of GM technology, due in part to the array of opinions that have surfaced concerning the matter. In the Nebraska Panhandle, GM crops are quite prevalent. Wheat, however, remains a traditional crop with no genetic modification projects currently in the public market.
A representative from Kriesel Certified Seed in Gurley, Nebraska spoke on this matter.
“In this region, there is no GM wheat,” he said. “The only genetically modified crops around here would be corn and possibly sunflowers. I think a person can be fairly safe in saying that in small grains nearly all of it is conventional.”
With an array of both conventional crops such as wheat, and GM crops such as corn prevalent in the area, the ongoing discussion over the future of biotechnology and the role of companies such as Monsanto will continue. Is this technology safe? Is it effective?
The one question all this plays into is one that will shape the future of not only agriculture, but also the world.
“What does the world’s future food supply look like, and how will it come to be?”