Fear and Loathing Haunt GMOs

It's difficult to balance the lack of negative scientific evidence against consumers' right to know what's in their food.

By Rory Gillespie, Contributing Editor

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A couple of decades make quite a difference in the way we live, work and eat. Just look around. A few years back, texting a colleague instead of calling didn't exist, websites and email were only catching on and you probably called a travel agent to book your vacation.

Our crops descended from ancestors that are not recognizably similar to the plants we grow today.

– Bruce Chassy, University of Illinois

Today, your smartphone not only may book your flight, it could be used as your boarding pass. Also today, estimates say 80 percent of the food produced and consumed in the U.S. comes from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The major crops in the U.S. and increasingly around the globe – soybeans, sugar beets, corn, rice, cotton and canola – are genetically engineered, and they affect most foods as ingredients, sugars and oils.

From our breakfast cereals to our beverages, the seeds of grains we live on have been genetically altered, most beginning in 1996. The seeds have had DNA spliced into them to give them one or more qualities they didn't have before, among them resistance to herbicides and insects and, of course, more abundant yields.

GMO crops enter our food supply primarily as highly processed ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup, oil made from corn and soybeans and sugar from sugar beets. Most researchers say they are identical to ingredients made from non-engineered crops.

Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops

Courtesy of James, Clive, "Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops for 2012"; ISAAA Brief No.44. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. (www.isaaa.org)
BioTech Crop Countries
Biotech Crop Countries and Mega-Countries.
Click on the image to enlarge
Global Area of BioTech Crops
Global Area of BioTech Crops
Click on Image to Enlarge

The modified crops are not just state of the art, they are also the current state in the U.S. and are expanding globally.

In herbicide-tolerant crops (HT), soybeans have expanded from 17 percent of the U.S. acreage in 1997 to 93 percent in 2012. Cotton expanded from around 10 percent to 60 percent, and the adoption of modified corn has risen to 73 percent in the same time frame. (All these numbers are from USDA.)

In insect-resistant crops, Bt corn (containing the gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis) grew from 8 percent of acreage in 1997 to 67 percent in 2012. Plantings of Bt cotton expanded more rapidly, from 15 percent of U.S. cotton acreage in 1997 to 77 percent in 2012. These increases include the "stacked" versions of cotton and corn, which have both traits.

While the benefits to American farmers are huge, and the resulting lower costs to food processors also are significant, genetically improved crops also helping to feed more of the world, to improve the livelihoods of farmers in poorer countries and even to maintain the ecological balance.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) is an international nonprofit organization headed by Dr. Clive James. It has an awkward name, but a lofty goal. "Of the many strategies that have been forwarded to address the issues of global poverty and environmental degradation, crop biotechnology is seen as a viable contribution to the solution," ISAAA says in its mission statement. "The organization shares information to achieve agricultural sustainability worldwide and is dedicated to the 800 million people who suffer from hunger and poverty."

ISAAA reports that 2012 saw a 100-fold increase in biotech crop hectarage (a hectare is equivalent to 2.471 acres) from 1.7 million in 1996 to 170 million hectares. It says the reason is simple: Biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socio-economic and environmental benefits. Over 17 million farmers benefit from biotech crops, it says.

In 2012, a record 17.3 million farmers, up 600,000 from the year before, grew biotech crops all over the world, according to ISAAA. Notably, more than 90 percent were small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Farmers are masters of risk aversion, and in 2012, 7.2 million small farmers in China and another 7.2 million small farmers in India collectively planted a record 15.0 million hectares of biotech crops. Bt cotton increased the income of farmers significantly by up to $250 per hectare and also halved the number of insecticide sprays, thus reducing farmer exposure to pesticides, the ISAAA said.