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GMOs: Research Says They’ll Help End Starvation, but Americans Remain Wary

October 14, 2014
by Stacy Finz
Corn with GMO printed on it

With global warming, drought and the shrinkage of American farmland, will there be enough food to feed the world? It’s a question with which experts are consumed—and should be. “Millions of people are going to die from climate change,” says Kathryn De Master, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of agriculture, society and the environment.

And experts say some of those millions are going to starve.

So to UC Berkeley’s David Zilberman, the solution is straightforward: genetically modified crops. The professor of agricultural and resource economics contends that regulators, by failing to approve more GMOs, are wasting one of the best tools modern agriculture has for fighting climate change, growing more with less, and making more affordable food. His study The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops, published in the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, touts the economic benefits of bioengineered farming—including cutting prices for consumers of meat, dairy and processed foods.

He cites at least 300 traits of genetic crop modification—including technology that would make some crops drought resistant—that aren’t being used due to pressure from an anti-GMO lobby he regards as elitist.

“Why not take advantage of these new molecular discoveries?” he asks. “Small organic farming is nice. But if we really want to deal with climate change and with our growing population, then we have to take advantage of science.”

Farm field

Listen closely and you’ll hear a collective gasp. GMOs (the acronym for genetically modified organism, meaning that a plant, fish, mammal, insect or even bacteria has had its genetic material altered in a laboratory) is as controversial as global warming itself.

Many people are troubled by the idea of messing with nature, and say they don’t want their meals turned into “frankenfoods.” They are worried that taking genetic material from one organism and putting it in another could not only unhinge the ecosystem, but threaten people’s health, including introducing more allergens into foods, diminishing the usefulness of antibiotics and even causing sterility.

Unlike global warming, which an overwhelming consensus of scientists accept as real and inevitable, there is less agreement about the value of GMOS. Many scientists on both sides of the controversy say there is no conclusive evidence that eating genetically modified foods is directly harmful to human health. But that’s where the consensus stops.

“There has been too much emphasis on individual health of particular foods people consume, rather than the overall health effects maintaining this kind of industrial agricultural system, and the effects on the environment and the economy,” says De Master, who is anti-GMO.

So far, the federal Food and Drug Administration has rubber-stamped a limited assortment of genetically modified crops, including corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets and cotton. Most are used to feed livestock or as ingredients in processed foods. (Genetically modified cotton is used to make clothing.) Also approved are limited varieties of produce, including papaya, squash, plums, cantaloupe, radicchio, tomatoes, potatoes and sweet corn.

As of yet, these GM fruits and vegetables are not commonly found in supermarkets. And even when they are, they aren’t labeled, at least not in California where legislation to require such notification has thus far failed.

Most GM plants have been engineered to better fight weeds, pests and insects with fewer or even no spray chemicals—but whether there has actually been a decrease in the use of pesticides and herbicides has been the source of great debate. There are some viruses so destructive that certain species, such as the Hawaiian papaya, would have been wiped out without intervention.

The economics to Zilberman is simple: GM crops are heartier, therefore less expensive to grow and produce higher yields. His study found farmers in China, Argentina and India saw yield gains of from a quarter to more than a third higher when they used insect-resistant genetically engineered Bt cotton (cotton modified by the insertion of one or more genes from a common soil bacterium know as Bacillus thuringiensis, which organic farmers for years have sprayed on crops to fight pests). Estimated yield gains in the developed world are smaller, with the United States only expected to see a 10 percent increase in crop production, according to the study.

“The implications of six big businesses controlling agribusiness is disastrous.”

Bt corn has an estimated yield of 34 percent more in the Philippines, 11 percent in South Africa, 9 percent in Argentina and 5 to 6 percent each in the U.S. and Spain, according to his study. Again, simple economics: As supply increases, price decreases.

Zilberman, who says his study was paid for by his UC Berkeley salary and not by corporate funders, estimates that without bioengineered crops, the price of food would be 5 to 10 percent higher than it is now—particularly for meat, poultry, eggs, milk and processed food. Cotton would go up 30 to 40 percent, he says. “The poorest people will suffer the most,” he says, adding that the cost will be borne mostly by people in developing countries, where many of these foods are already difficult to come by.

He says that the major opponents of GM crops don’t look at it from an economic perspective. “They’re idealists and I respect them for that,” he says. “But at the same time, their idealism is elitism.”

In his view, it’s also inconsistent. Zilberman says 25 percent of new medicine today has been genetically manipulated. “You don’t hear people complaining about these life-saving drugs.”  

But scientists such as De Master and Claire Kremen, a Berkeley professor of conservation biology, say more is at stake than just our pocketbooks.

Kremen believes that in order for farming practices to be sustainable over a long period of time, they must encourage diversity, build soil fertility and improve pest control and pollination at a low cost. GM technology contradicts that, she says—instead it’s based on monocropping, a farming strategy that calls for growing one crop on a large piece of land, year after year. Monocropping is far more likely to cause the soil to lose its fertility, not to mention triggering a host of other ecological problems, including ground-water contamination and loss of natural pest control and pollination.

“My biggest concern is that GMOs are designed to fix one problem instead of looking at the whole,” Kremen says, adding that the seeds, which often require ancillary products, are expensive for growers and can contribute to environmental hazards. For example, many GMO corn and soy seeds are coated with a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. A Harvard study, published in the Bulletin of Insectology, found that two commonly used neonicotinoids—imidacoprid and clothiandin—are linked to harming bee colonies. And the collapse of bee colonies is serious: Not only is honey a $14-billion-a-year business, but crops from fruits to nuts and beyond require honey-bee pollination.

“It’s not even clear that these neonicotinoid coatings are necessary,” Kremen says. “A better approach would be an integrated pest management system that only targets pests when necessary. But with seeds that fight pests and insects, you’re treating the pests whether you need to or not.”

This of course raises concerns of resistance. Monsanto has patented GM seeds for soybeans, corn, alfalfa, canola, sugarbeets and cotton that are called “Roundup Ready,” meaning they are designed to withstand any harm from applications of Roundup, the company’s weed killer. Most non-GM plants couldn’t withstand Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide popular with homeowners with weedy backyards. By many scientists’ standards, Roundup, or glyphosates, is the lesser of herbicide evils because it’s not as toxic as other weed killers.

“Is it 100 percent safe?” says Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist Peggy Lemaux. “No, but it’s not as toxic as most other weed killers and it breaks down more quickly. Before we were using herbicides that were much more noxious than Roundup and it wasn’t good for the environment or farm workers.”

Man riding a tractor

Scientists on both sides of the GMO debate agree that pests, especially weeds, are developing resistance to Roundup as well as to pesticides that have been put into GM plants. “If we have a war between weeds and crops, nine times out of ten times the weeds are going to win,” Lemaux says. “I’m not opposed to genetically modified plants. What I’m concerned about is the lack of choices on the market.”

She and other scientists fear that with so few different types of herbicide-resistant seeds available, the resistance problem will only get worse. Farmers, she says, should be alternating herbicides, not using the same ones over and over.

“The implications of six big businesses controlling agribusiness is disastrous,” says De Master, pointing to chemical powerhouses such as Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow and BASF. “We shouldn’t be looking at one particular technology. We should be looking to learn from a whole range of resources and stores of knowledge.”

The other major concern about GM crops, which is no small one, is the risk of gene flow to non-GM fields and to natural land. According to Zilberman’s study, here’s the problem: “A gene that makes a certain crop heartier might spread to a related weed species and make that weed more invasive. Organic farmers particularly worry about the spread of genetically engineered material from adjacent farms to their fields. Such accidental transfer of transgenic material jeopardizes access to organic markets.”

Luckily, genetically engineered crops are not typically planted near their native relatives, reducing the risk of traits spreading into wild species, he says. But he admits that it’s a conundrum scientists and farmers have yet to resolve.

“GMOs are not perfect, but they’re not harmful to us. Everything has to be balanced.”

Patricia Zambryski, a professor of plant and microbial biology at Berkeley, is well aware of the drawbacks. But she says we can’t ignore the potential benefits of bioengineering crops. She uses the Hawaiian papaya as an example.

“If not for GMOs, the papaya would’ve been wiped out from the papaya ringspot virus long ago,” she says. “Just like we are vaccinated against infection by viruses like polio, the GMO papaya plant has been engineered to block infections with the papaya ringspot virus.”

Zambryski also contends that genetic modification may be the only way to save oranges, one of the latest crops to be besieged with citrus greening disease. Left unchecked, the disease could end a billion-dollar industry in Florida and California as well as snuff out America’s favorite form of Vitamin C.

“GMOs are not perfect,” she says, “but they’re not harmful to us. Everything has to be balanced. But you’re an idealist if you think we can all be organic. One positive aspect of the GMO debate may be getting people thinking about our agricultural practices, and that is good, since we desperately need more sustainable practices.”

Regardless of the science, the debate over GMOS shows no end in sight. Next month Oregon’s voters, who like their California counterparts previously rejected a ballot measure to require labeling of GMOs, appear more likely to approve the idea the second time around. And if Oregon becomes the first state to require GMO labeling, chances are it won’t be the last. Polling by the New York Times has found an overwhelming public wariness: 93 percent of Americans support requiring GMO labeling, and three-quarters of them have reservations about eating any food that has been genetically modified. That’s more than twice the percentage of Americans who express major concerns about what almost all experts agree is the major threat to our food supply: global warming.

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