We contacted Professor Peggy Lemaux of the College of Natural Resources after today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Monsanto’s seed patents, and asked her about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
She acknowledges the heated passions raised by GMO food: “I’ve been involved in this since 1991, and the debate has remained essentially the same,” she says. “But what has changed is the data—we know more than we did then.”
Specifically, Lemaux thinks the evidence demonstrates that the risks posed by genetically modified crops has been greatly exaggerated. She cites the Bt corn/monarch butterfly imbroglio as an example. A decade ago, environmentalists claimed pollen from Bt corn (a maize variety that uses genes from a toxic bacterium to zap corn borer larvae) was wiping out migrating monarchs; but that, says, Lemaux, turned out to be false.
“Several labs conducted research on that,” she says. “Monarch populations were up and down, but it’s clear it was unrelated to Bt corn planting.”
(The book may not be closed completely on monarchs and GMO crops, however. A 2012 University of Minnesota and University of Iowa study linked monarch declines with engineered crops. According to the study, the herbicides used in conjunction with such crops has led to the elimination of milkweed—the essential food of monarch larvae.)
Still, GMO food is essentially safe for consumption, says Lemaux. She cites a recent meta-analysis from France that reviewed 24 studies, all examining the impacts of transgenic crops on animal health.
“The conclusion was that there are no food safety issues,” Lemaux said. “We’ve been eating this stuff since 1995. I’m not saying there haven’t been adverse reactions—but there are plenty of adverse reactions to non-GMO food as well.”
Today’s Supreme Court ruling was likely met with a sigh of relief from agribusiness, Lemaux intimated.
“If it had gone the other way, it would’ve been a very serious blow [to the GMO industry],” Lemaux says. “If any farmer could get the seed he wanted from a grain elevator without signing a contract, there would be no point to developing these crops. There’d be no incentive.”