The Great Debate On GMO Crops

Iowa Farm Scene

Believing in safety of genetically modified crops depends on trust and science.

Published on: November 4, 2013

Iowa farmer Bill Horan's prediction about biotechnology drew jeers from the anti-GMO people in the audience at a debate a couple weeks ago in Des Moines. Horan said he believes two decades from now, every livestock animal and crop used to feed the world's increasing population will be genetically enhanced. He added, "People will look back 20 years from now, and say, "Gosh, what was all the fuss about?"

An overflow crowd of 250-plus listened to Horan and five others debate the use of genetically modified organisms or GMOs. That is, genes from other species inserted into crops using biotechnology, to control pests and diseases and improve yields. The debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register on October 14, as a kick-off to World Food Prize week. Over 1,500 attendees journeyed from 70 countries to Iowa to attend the 2013 World Food Prize International Symposium on October 16-18.

GMO, YES OR NO?: To begin the World Food Prize week of events in Des Moines on October 14, a panel debated the pros and cons of using genetically modified organisms to improve crop production. Panelists were (from left) Ruth MacDonald, Bill Horan, Gary Munkvold, Carol Hunter (moderator), Mike Owen, Ron Rosmann and Steven Druker.
GMO, YES OR NO?: To begin the World Food Prize week of events in Des Moines on October 14, a panel debated the pros and cons of using genetically modified organisms to improve crop production. Panelists were (from left) Ruth MacDonald, Bill Horan, Gary Munkvold, Carol Hunter (moderator), Mike Owen, Ron Rosmann and Steven Druker.

The debate was carried out by a panel discussion; the theme was "GMOs: Possibilities and Peril." The panel had six people, four of them supportive of using genetically modified organisms to enhance crops. The other two panelists were anti-GMO and raised questions about the safety of GMOs.

WHAT THE DEVIL IS GOING ON? Opponents of GMO crops protested this years World Food Prize events in Des Moines. About 25 activists wore devil masks and carried signs "to call attention to the greed and destruction caused by biotechnology," said Katy Haley, a protester outside the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.
WHAT THE DEVIL IS GOING ON? Opponents of GMO crops protested this year's World Food Prize events in Des Moines. About 25 activists wore devil masks and carried signs "to call attention to the greed and destruction caused by biotechnology," said Katy Haley, a protester outside the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.

Panelists traded barbs and gave their own opinions on issues surrounding GMOs

The debate was open to the public and the crowd at the Iowa Historical Museum auditorium in Des Moines seemed tilted toward being anti-GMO. About two-thirds applauded the critics at various times during the debate. About one-third clapped for the scientists on the panel.

DEBATING GMO SAFETY: Proponents of genetically modified organism or GMO crops say theyre safe and necessary to feed an increasing world population, and help farmers be profitable and productive. Opponents believe GMOs pose a threat to human health and the environment and should be banned or at least labeled on food products.
DEBATING GMO SAFETY: Proponents of genetically modified organism or GMO crops say they're safe and necessary to feed an increasing world population, and help farmers be profitable and productive. Opponents believe GMOs pose a threat to human health and the environment and should be banned or at least labeled on food products.

The pros and cons of biotech crops were also discussed by scientists, politicians and others at the World Food Prize International Symposium, held later that week. The GMO debate on Monday got the World Food Prize week activities started. The panelists traded barbs in a spirited and lively discussion, with little middle ground on issues ranging from the need to have labels on food products that contain GMOs, to the effectiveness of GMO crops in feeding starving people in developing countries.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Crops are genetically engineered to produce characteristics to enhance crop growth or nutrition. The DNA of soybeans, corn or other crops are modified to be tolerant of herbicides, resist pests and diseases, withstand adverse environmental conditions and improve human health.

Six panelists with backgrounds in farming, science and the law participated in a lively discussion on GMOs, which was followed by audience questions. Panelists included:

* Steven Druker, a public interest attorney and executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, based in Fairfield, Iowa. Druker's group sued the Food and Drug Administration in 1998 challenging it's approach to deciding whether genetically modified foods are safe.

* Bill Horan, a farmer from Rockwell City, Iowa who plants GMO crops and is a long-time proponent of biotech seed.

* Ruth McDonald, professor and chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University.

* Gary Munkvold, professor of seed science and seed science endowed chair at ISU.

* Mike Owen, ISU Extension weed management specialist and professor of agronomy.

* Ron Rosmann, owner of Rosmann Family Farms at Harlan, Iowa, an organic farming operation that hasn't used any pesticides for 30 years. Rosmann doesn't use GMO crops and he thinks they've been over-sold.

GMOs are safe, based on independent research and 20 years of use

ISU's MacDonald said consumers have concerns about genetically modified food. However, she said GMOs are safe, based on independent research and 20 years of use. "There's no documented evidence of harm to humans or animals. There's no evidence that genetic modification changes the nutritional value in any way. This technology has substantial potential to increase the health benefits of food both for the U.S. and developing countries."

Consumers have the option to not consume GMO food, she noted. They can buy organic food which doesn't contain GMOs. An estimated 80% of packaged products in U.S. grocery stores contain GMOs.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

When asked about labeling of foods that contain GMOs, MacDonald said as an educator she wants people to know about their food. But, she has a problem with singling out GMOs because it's unclear what to label, since many ingredients contain very little trace of GMO components. Horan pointed out that GMO traits often disappear during processing, as the heat generated in processing breaks them down.

Labeling would increase food costs—another reason a number of people are against labeling. "It's very hard to see how we are going to regulate by using labeling without increasing the cost of food," MacDonald says.

Many of the people in attendance didn't believe MacDonald, including Druker

An anti-GMO crusader, Druker says government oversight of food is weak. He contends genetically modified foods are potentially dangerous, and he says the U.S. government knows it. "There has never been a scientific consensus that these foods are safe. Numerous experts have warned that GMO foods pose abnormal risks."

In 1998, Druker initiated a lawsuit that forced the Food and Drug Administration to release its files on GMO food. At the panel discussion on October 14, 2013 Druker said FDA concluded GMOs posed higher risks than conventional foods and needed to be thoroughly tested. He said his lawsuit exposed FDA's "cover-up and fraud."

ISU nutrition expert MacDonald said Druker's lawsuit "had nothing to do with the data that shows GMOs are safe." MacDonald also noted that the American Medical Association "has clearly said there is no risk" with GMO foods, as has the American Society of Pediatrics.

Critics of biotech say the advantages of GMOs are over-sold

Rosmann, the organic farmer, strongly criticized GMOs, which he said have had many unintended consequences, from increasing resistance to weeds and pests in GMO crops to contributing to the exodus of farmers from rural communities because GMO crops allow farmers to farm more acres. He says the advantages of biotechnology have been over-sold.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

"The U.S. is quickly becoming like a feudal system of farming," says Rosmann. "Farms are growing larger and larger, and there is less crop diversity." The trend to larger farms hurts rural communities, he points out.

Rosmann says farmers in the U.S. are using more chemicals than ever, which he says is harmful to livestock and wildlife. He also believes GMO technology has increased the number of herbicide resistant weeds. "The claim by the biotech industry that pesticide use has decreased with biotechnology isn't true," he said. "Because of weed resistance to glyphosate, herbicide use in the U.S. has increased by 500 million pounds."

ISU weed scientist says increase in weeds that resist herbicides isn't the fault of GMO crops

Mike Owen, the ISU weed scientist, countered Rosmann's statement. "The increase in weeds resistant to herbicide is not attributable to GMO crops," says Owen. "It's how the crops and weeds are managed, as management decisions are made. Weed resistance is a management issue, not the fault of genetic modification."

Owen says a lack of crop diversity, not GMOs, in many ways is the real issue. Also, a lack of diversity in weed control tactics. "Farmers have switched to using a system that is lacking in diversity—and predictably the system is now pushing back as we are seeing more problems with herbicide-resistant weeds."

However, Owen says the herbicide resistant crop technology does help allow more acres to be farmed with no-till. "That is creating less soil erosion and improved water quality because it is supporting conservation tillage agriculture," he noted.

Yields and grain quality on the farm have improved, thanks to biotechnology

Rosmann said herbicide-resistant weeds cost Tennessee farmers $120 million last year in extra herbicide use and in lost yields due to the rise in weed control problems. He believes weed resistance to herbicides will be far more costly to Iowa farmers in future years.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

The other farmer on the panel, Bill Horan, said yields and grain quality on his farm have improved thanks to biotech crops. And so has family life. A past president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Horan says he spent a large part of his summers as a kid with a hoe in hand, walking bean fields, hoeing weeds out by hand. "My kids got to play Little League baseball, swim team, dance lessons and, because of biotechnology, I got to go watch them. That was a luxury my parents never even dreamed about. Biotechnology offers me the opportunity to be a better husband and father, something that is hard to quantify."

Has there ever been a technology that has been more thoroughly vetted than biotech crops?

Horan says if there were health hazards from GMO crops, they'd have been found by now by the activist groups looking for them. "I don't think there's ever been a technology ever invented that has been vetted more than biotechnology."

Biotech turns out to be safe, something not true of other technologies we take for granted, said Horan. "Over 50,000 people are killed each year by automobiles," he noted.

When a member of the audience asked the panel about reports of water buffalo in Bangladesh dying allegedly due to biotech crops, Rosmann said he sees less wildlife on his farm today, which he thinks is due to wildlife eating genetically modified corn and soybeans nearby.

ISU's MacDonald was skeptical, pointing out that with all of the livestock that have been fed GMO crops, farmers and animal scientists would have reported a problem by now if there was one.

Some groups make their living by scaring people about food

Horan predicted that in 10 to 15 years, most of the crops and livestock in the world will be genetically modified and that today's fears will seem antiquated. Horan added, "There are a lot of groups and individuals who make their living scaring people about food."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~

Gary Munkvold, ISU seed scientist on the panel, added, "To me, these scare tactics are an example of trying to blame all the evils of the world on GMO crops."

ISU's MacDonald said she thinks "It's unethical for people who oppose GMOs to take food away from people who are starving and prevent them access to foods like golden rice that are genetically modified to prevent blindness." Golden rice is genetically modified to contain beta carotene, but anti-GMO activists have prevented the rice from being made available in countries poor and developing countries where it is needed.

Both sides in GMO debate can quote data, but here's the key question—Is the data being interpreted correctly?

Munkvold said GMO crops have added more than $100 billion to the bottom line of farmers globally. Most of the money, he said, stays with the farmer, not with the seed producers. Munkvold also said because GMO corn has resistance to insect damage, the crop has lower levels of mycotoxins that are caused by infections carried by insects, something documented by USDA studies.

Munkvold disagreed with Rosmann on trends in pesticide use. "Pesticide reductions have occurred," said Munkvold, "and they're substantial. There are many studies and they are unbiased. Each side in this GMO argument can quote data, but it comes down to whether that data is being interpreted correctly."

Rosmann ended with this comment: "Both sides can cherry-pick studies. I know what I see on my farm."

Horan ended with this comment: "I know what works on my farm, too. Biotech crops are the overwhelming choice of farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere if given a choice of what seed to plant. There has been an incredible effort globally to find something wrong with GMO grain, and no one has found it yet. That gives me a lot of confidence."