Resource: A Panel of Scientists and Experts Assess the Subject of Genetically Engineered Crops

Photo by Ben Sutherland @Flickr CC

Pamela Ronald, UC Davis Plant Pathology and Genome Center Professor, wrote “Buddhist Economics and a GMO rethink” which was published online by Scientific American last week. In her article, she informed us of a forum hosted by the Boston Review Magazine comprised of a virtual group of journalists, activists, plant biologists, and farmers, as well as academic experts in food security and international agricultural and environmental policy, that were invited to discuss the role of genetic engineering in crops and food production.

Of the panel, she said, “All accepted the broad scientific consensus that the process of GE does not pose inherent risks compared to conventional approaches of genetic alteration and that the GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment. That agreement allowed the discussion to move forward to a more societally relevant issue- the use of appropriate technology in agriculture.”

The Boston Review Forum was titled, “The Truth About GMOs.” Together, these articles provide a good round-up of up-to-date points from knowledgeable experts surrounding the genetic modification debate.

In this post, I shall provide links to each of the panelists at the Boston Review along with a key idea they brought to the discussion. I encourage you to read each of the articles, as they contain much more than what I’ve touched on here in this post.

The first forum article, by Dr. Ronald, begins by telling us of the importance of banana crops to poor farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the disease challenge BXW, which is threatening banana production there. Ronald states that many pests and diseases cannot be controlled using conventional breeding methods and that subsistence farmers cannot afford most pesticides, which are often ineffective or harmful to the environment. She goes on to say that “many emerging agricultural catastrophes can almost certainly be avoided thanks to a modern form of plant breeding that uses genetic engineering (GE), a process that has led to reduced insecticide use and enhanced productivity of farms large and small.” In the remainder of the article, she gives us crop examples from around the world to illustrate this. She importantly cites examples of “abundant misinformation that plagues the debate over genetic engineering of crops.”

Ronald also helps dispel a common fear of those who oppose GE crops:

Currently there are 30 commercialized GE crops cultivated worldwide. By 2015 there will be more than 120. Half will come from national technology providers in Asia and Latin America and are designed for domestic markets. The reduced dominance of U.S. seed companies may alleviate concerns of consumers who oppose genetic engineering because they see it only as a tool of large U.S. corporations.

She brings up “superweeds”, another common argument used against genetic modification. She tells us that superweeds happen whenever herbicides are overused, whether or not the crop involved has been genetically modified. She tells us that every new seed crop needs tested on a case-by-case basis before it is brought to market. Either new GE-crops or new non-GE crops may pose risks unless first evaluated, and she gives us examples.

Nina Fedoroff, Biology Professor at Penn State, reassures us of the safety of GE crops, and reminds us of a 1987 white paper from the Council of the National Academy of Sciences which said that if modified plant varieties were to be regulated (which they had never been in the roughly 10,000-year history of plant genetic modification), they should be regulated based on their characteristics, not on the method by which they had been modified.

Rosamond Naylor, Stanford’s Food Security Center Director, questions why the anti-GMO advocates are silent about beer made from GE yeast, soft drinks made from GE high fructose corn syrup, and pharmaceuticals (including insulin) produced with genetic modification. But, she urges sound biosafety protocols for GE crops so that they don’t spread from one farm to another, or into the wild. And, yes, she is concerned about opportunism in profits related to adoption of GE crops — including in Africa. Yet, she is optimistic about using GE crops to help provide global food security and to help with growing food in climate changing weather conditions.

Author Robert Paarlberg brings to the discussion the failure of the biotech industry to bring food crops to the market, saying that in the U.S., “one GE food crop after another has been blocked from commercial use.” He blames continual disinformation of individuals from wealthy and well-fed countries who fail to appreciate the importance of giving farmers in poor countries better ways to protect against crop disease, insects, weeds, and drought.

New Zealand University Genetics Lecturer, Jack Heinemann, would rather see education of small farmers about using sustainable farming practices to overcome diseases than what he considers to be unsustainable genetic engineering as a solution to epidemics. He opposes GE technology and would rather focus on other successful farming practices such as irrigation improvement.

Iowa farmer, Tim Burrack, tells us of his very favorable experience growing GE sweetcorn.

Margaret Mellon, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says they take the middle ground, neither being opposed to GE, nor are they uncritically accepting of its use. They, at UCS, believe that the GE promises are over-hyped, and that conventional breeding has been more successful in the past. But, they feel that GE has a role to play in the future, and that it should be a niche response to special problems, not a be-all-and-end-all solution to challenges.

Marc Gunther, Guardian Sustainable Business Editor, expresses concern about corporations such as Whole Foods promoting non-GMO food as healthier, and thus, doing a disservice to the advancement of GE crop investment research.

Farmer-Dietician, Jennie Schmidt, explains that their family farms sustainably while embracing GE crop seeds, because they work and have higher yields.

Greg Jaffe, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, expresses concern about loopholes and the need for better government oversight in the GE seed regulatory process along with a better system to address any potential risks.

I hope this summarization helps readers advance their knowledge on this very polarized issue. As I see it, many opponents to GE food and crop production are misdirecting their reasons for opposing it, and we all need to become better informed about the scientific advancements being made in using this important scientific tool.

Summer Recap of Popular Articles

There is always a difference between readership during the school year and summer here at Big Picture Agriculture. The purpose of this post, then, is to provide links to some of the past three month’s most popular articles for those readers who may have missed them.

Also, I’d like to mention that I am pleased with the new news style and will continue it for the time being. It is my opinion that one of the most valuable services that I can provide for readers is links to important articles. I spend a considerable amount of time reading and selecting these, in the interest of advancing agricultural knowledge, science, problem solving, and policy decision making. Since I’m only one person, the number of articles that I can turn out myself is limited, so I figure my time is well spent featuring the great work that others are doing.

What’s new? You may have noticed that a few weeks ago, I added social media buttons which now appear beneath the posts. Please use them to help promote the work here that you like. That helps me out. And a big “thank-you” to those who have been doing that already.

If you sometimes get confused by what is featured here, continue to know that this site is broadly open-minded, shies away from politics, uses predominantly main stream news sources for news links, embraces science, and considers what is economically realistic, while always championing for the environment. I also prefer real developments over opinions and predictions on most days, believing that judgement is difficult without the power of hindsight.

Please leave a comment once in a while, and hope you had a great summer!


• Garden Interview of Barbara Series, Six parts, starts here. (This is a wonderful resource. Please help to promote it on gardening forums and the like.)

The USDA’s Latest Report on Energy Use in Agriculture

A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy

Special UN Report: Biofuels Impact Food Prices and Availability

Allan Savory: “Agriculture is More Destructive than Coal Mining”

Savory Conference Hub Representative: Durukan Dudu

An Interview with Cornell’s Dr. Erika Styger about the System of Crop Intensification (SRI-Rice)

USDA’s Farmland Price Update Report (August 2013)

Your Certified Organic Food Just Might Rely Upon Chinese Imports

The Importance of Vitamin K2

Graph of Top Global Biofuels Producing Nations in 2012

The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling

Remarkable Graphs of Corn & Soybean Profitability

3 Picks: Mob Grazing, Wild Bees, Magical Solution

Photo by Free Photo Fun @Flickr CC

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Mob Grazing as a Tool: By Fae Holin. This is the cover story for the current (online) edition of Hay and Forage Grower magazine. It is an update to the North Dakota farmer’s successful use of multiple cover crops, no-till, and mob grazing which produces healthy soil microbes, soil which retains moisture, and reduces the need for fertilizer while increasing productivity…. “The producers I’ve talked to who I feel are doing it well are the ones saying, ‘I use it as a tool.’” A mob strategy “needs to be very elastic, very responsive to what you are seeing.” (See previous N.D. farmers post on b.p.a.) I was also happy to see this report out of Nebraska about similar studies being done there, funded with state lottery money.

2) How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System: By Hillary Rosner. This SciAm article will bring you up to speed on the whole bee situation, including the fact that the U.S. Army has become involved because bee health is a national food security issue. We need to focus on habitat for the health of ALL bees, not just one bee, the honeybee…. “M’Gonigle thinks the honeybee crisis could be “a kind of blessing in disguise” because “it forces us to think, ‘What are we going to do to keep our food production going?’ In the long term, it might be that we look back and say, ‘Wow, this was a good thing, a good way of getting us to reprioritize and start thinking about conservation of native species.’” As I watch a mix of honeybees and their wild cousins dart among purple flowers in one of Kremen’s hedgerows, it is easy to see what he means. Our entire modern-day agricultural system has grown up with honeybees, so we have never had to really consider the fact that relying on a single pollinator is probably not sustainable.”

3) Wave goodbye to global warming, GM and pesticides: This article out of Ireland was sent to me by a valued reader. One should never fall for magical solutions … or, first sentences like this one. I’m including this for entertainment purposes only…. “A GROUNDBREAKING new Irish technology which could be the greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough is set to change the face of modern farming forever. The technology – radio wave energised water – massively increases the output of vegetables and fruits by up to 30 per cent…”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Chinese Potato Farmer

Photo: ©Jim Richardson

Wang Chun Jun is shown harvesting potatoes high on the hills above Miao Jia Yan village in Zizhou County where there is a very large restoration project going on, planting date trees. Restoration in the Loess Plateau region of China is trying to undo thousands of years of devastating soil erosion.

Provided by National Geographic photographer and travel writer, Jim Richardson, who lives in Kansas and is a friend of this site.

To learn more about the remarkable restoration project in the Loess region of China, see this previous post/video.

How Many Farms Grow Just One, Two, or Three Crops?

Recently, the post “The Days of Diversified Farming are Disappearing” told us that cropland sizes in the U.S. have, on average, doubled in the last 20 to 25 years. We learned that specialization occurred most rapidly between the years of 1945 to 1970, and that now, 22 percent of farms produce only one crop, 30 percent only two crops, and eleven percent of farms produce five or more crops.

The graph above shows us which crops are most likely found on the less diversified farms.

From the USDA:

Less than 5 percent of the value of corn production occurs on farms that produce only corn, while more than half occurs on farms that produce at least two crops in addition to corn. Soybeans, often grown in rotations with corn, show a similar pattern. Among major field crops, rice and hay have the most specialized production, with 30 and 33 percent of the value of production, respectively, occurring on farms that raised only that crop.

Farms with combinations of crops can benefit economically from diversifying against income risks, and can also realize agronomic improvements from rotations that reduce pest infestations and improve soil quality.

SOURCE: Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming

3 Picks: Worthless Ag Cliché, Food Blogging, CEO Farmers

Below, is a selection of recent agriculture-related news.

1) Let’s Drop the phrase “Feed The World”: by Margaret Mellon. “After years of participation in public discussions about agriculture, I’ve developed something of an allergy to the catchphrase ‘feed the world.’ It seems to come up with depressing regularity to justify, among other things, pesticides, industrial-scale monoculture, and biotechnology, all of which we must embrace—all together now—to feed the world. What gets under my skin is that the phrase is so often used by advocates of high-input American corn and soybeans, who otherwise seem not terribly concerned about problems of hungry people or farmers in developing countries….”

2) At Scientific American, Science Writers are Blogging about Food: by Andrew Revkin. “… the magazine today has also launched Food Matters, a group blog taking a multi-dimensional look at the science of food — from the fields where it is grown to the dark recesses of the gut where it is digested and beyond.”

3) U.S. professionals quitting the rat race to become farmers: by Karen Weintraub. “Now, a small but – anecdotally – growing group of Americans are leaving the structure and security of an office job for the gruelling, yet rewarding work of earning money from the land. Some want to be a part of improving the food supply for themselves and their community; others are excited by the prospect of becoming self-sufficient, or simply working outdoors like their ancestors did.”

BONUS: The 20 big questions in science.

Written and compiled by K. McDonald.

ART CREDIT: Cross Road–Still Life, ca. 1933-1934, oil on canvas by Paul Benjamin. Via flickr CC by cliff.