This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Genetically modified (GM) crops were on the agenda at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center on Thursday morning with an appearance by environmentalist Mark Lynas. He told the crowd about his own journey from one side of the debate to the other.
“It’s somewhat ironic that I’ve become famous for making an apology because, as my wife will tell you, apologizing is something I’m not very good at,” he laughed.
Lynas, a former anti-GM advocate turned supporter, was visiting the center to speak to dozens of guests. His message was that bioengineered crops were a safe and effective methodology for food production, a conclusion he said is based on his own conversion to hard scientific evidence.
“Science was so simple and so beautiful and I started thinking that maybe this is the greatest gift that humanity has bestowed on itself over the past four centuries,” he said. “It’s learning to have reasoned use of objective data.”
‘Tinkering with nature’
Many may agree that science is beautiful, however, not everyone views GM foods as Lynas does. Moreover, the problem lies along a sensitive cultural fault line within the green movement. Some view the promise of bioengineered crops as a doorway to a future of bumper harvests that will help feed underserved areas of the planet in a sustainable way. Others are suspicious of GM’s effects and look to a more decentralized, less corporate model of sustainability based on locally sourced produce and a return to smaller family farms using traditional organic methods.
At the crux of the debate are advancements in recent years that have allowed humans to alter the basic structure of plants at a genetic level. Doing so has added new possibilities and build on the earlier “Green Revolution,”an era of worldwide agricultural advancements in the mid-20th century. Today, seeds can be designed to sprout plants that will contain natural resistance to pests and are engineered to withstand specially tailored companion herbicides.
The issue is especially prominent in St. Louis, where the Danforth Center continues to make the city’s emerging biotech sector a major player on the national plant-sciences scene. On the other side of Olive Boulevard is the world headquarters of Monsanto, producer of Roundup herbicide ,which is created for use on the company’s genetically modified plants.
Both locally and nationally, voices from all parts of the debate are straining to be heard.
“My concerns are that they (GM crops) haven’t really been adequately tested” and scrutinized, said Mark Bohnert, an organizer of Safe Food Action, a local group that opposes GM.
Bohnert also worries about such things as contamination of non-GM fields by GM crops that spread there by accident.
“We saw recently where GM wheat has been found in Oregon in a field even though genetically modified wheat was never really released,” said Bohnert, referring to a recent incident in which an unapproved Monsanto crop strain was located growing on a farmer’s acreage.
Some U.S. wheat exports were banned from Japan in connection with the incident. Monsanto did not respond by the time this was published to requests for comment fbut in other media reports, it called what happened a “random isolated occurrence” that could have been an accident or sabotage. The incident has sparked a lawsuit by farmers in neighboring Idaho.
Bohnert believes the potential consequences for society of genetically modified food are not yet understood and that worries him.
“It’s really a massive experiment on our seeds and our food that we really don’t know what the end result will be,” he said.
Zack Kaldveer, spokesman for the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, said he also believes GM crops need more testing and that long-term effects of such foods remain murky. He said the onus should be on the industry to prove the plants are safe.
“There are a host of problems with us tinkering with nature in this way without adequate study first,” he said.
He disputes the idea that GM crops have brought about more robust harvests. He cited a Union of Concerned Scientists report from 2009 entitled “Failure to Yield,” which concluded that increases in corn and soybean yields over the previous decade and a half were mostly not due to bioengineering but to other factors like traditional breeding or better practices.
“…a hard-nosed assessment of this expensive technology’s achievements to date gives little confidence that it will play a major role in helping the world feed itself in the foreseeable future,” said the report.
Kaldveer expressed concern over what he called “a pesticide arms race,” which he said is merely building hardier insects and tougher unwanted plants necessitating the use of ever larger amounts of chemicals.
“Now that weeds and bugs are becoming resistant, it is requiring even more pesticide and herbicide to be dumped on these crops,” he said.
Moreover, he worries that biodiversity may be under threat as farmers turn to an increasingly small set of crops leaving fewer and fewer heirloom varieties and promoting a dependence on certain staples like corn.
“When you create one giant monoculture of corn, you are taking away all the different kinds of plants and crops we used to grow,” he said.
‘Solving the problem’
Danforth president James Carrington said that his organization just keeps an eye on the science, rather than favoring traditional agricultural methods or GM.
“We’re not taking a position advocating for a particular viewpoint or technology when it relates to solving a problem,” he said. “We’re interested in solving the problem.”
Carrington said that, in some ways, the differences between organic farming and GM aren’t as substantial as they might appear. For instance, on the pest control side of the equation, much of the work in bioengineering focuses on building an organism known as bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the plant. The bacteria then produces a toxin that acts as an insecticide.
However, Bt toxin is no alien substance. Carrington said it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon and is actually sprayed on many organic farms as a natural pesticide.
“If you don’t use Bt corn, for example, you can apply Bt and if you apply it, it fits the organic definition,” he said.
Carrington said he was familiar with the Union of Concerned Scientists report but noted that it was not a research institution but an advocacy group with a long history of opposition to genetic engineering. He said the question of yields was a complicated one but he felt that GM was a viable answer.
“Compared to synthetic chemical application, I cannot tell you that the Bt approach is a higher yield strategy. But I can tell you that without treatment of the pests, yield will go way down,” he said. “Some kind of treatment is necessary.”
Carrington said Bt had been extensively researched and that bioengineered crops had been shown repeatedly to be safe for human consumption in dozens of studies.
“The overwhelming conclusion is that there is no evidence of any unique hazard associated with the technology,” he said.
In a report released last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science agreed calling GM products “the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.”
“Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe,” it said.
The American Medical Association came out against GM food labeling last year saying GM consumption had "no overt consequences on human health" over the past two decades. However, it did note a "small potential for adverse events exists" due to potential allergens or toxicity. It recommended mandating pre-market safety assessements of such foods by the FDA.
The World Health Organization notes that it is not possible to make a blanket statement on the safety of all GM foods. However it said all such foods currently on the market had passed risk assessments and were not likely to present dangers.
“In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved,” it said.
The WHO paper does list concerns about GM crops however, including unintentional spread of the gene and detrimental effects on plant biodiversity.
Carrington said that while GM crops do sometimes spread to non-GM fields, the issue is not a major one and can mostly be prevented with proper precautions.
“There are specific instances where it could be a problem but in the grand scheme of things, this has not had a significant impact on commerce or on contamination of varieties.”
Carrington agreed with GM opponents that lack of biodiversity was a genuine problem. He said it was a challenge agriculture has faced for decades, not a new phenomenon that arrived with the advent of bioengineered crops. He said that better crops have been bred through traditional methods for years, long before GM existed.
“These took the place of more niche farming and they took over from a much more diverse farming ecosystem,” he said. “The reason they took over is because the economics and farming practices both promoted large-scale farming.”
Carrington said that synthetic chemical usage has been reduced by GM crops. He agrees with Kaldveer that pesticide and herbicide resistance poses a problem. However he said it is a problem that predates GM and results from overuse of such substances, a practice that is discouraged by GM producers who push buyers to adhere to federal guidelines.
Mark Lynas has seen both sides of the sharp divide. A longtime environmental crusader, he recently parted ways with his former colleagues in the green movement over bioengineered crops. He now believes these crops are a positive development for the environment and present hope for feeding the world’s hungry.
He told his audience that his former view opposing GM was based on ideology rather than science.
“If I had a report or a piece of literature which had a Greenpeace logo on it, I considered that to be gospel,” he said, “even if the references at the back of the Greenpeace report tend to be to Friends of the Earth and the references in the Friends of the Earth report tend to be to Greenpeace. At the time, that was good enough for me.”
As an activist, he helped to take part in “direct action,” including everything from the destruction of GM crops in fields to hitting an opponent in the face with a cream pie at a book signing.
“One of the reasons I can’t complain about being called a traitor or worse now is that I have to recognize how intolerant of alternative viewpoints I was personally at that stage and how authoritarian was my belief system,” he said. “I knew how everyone should live their lives and I was determined to make that happen.”
Lynas said he came to his new worldview while studying global warming, something which made him feel passionate about the scientific method. However, he said a deeper examination of the science revealed that while he was right on climate change, he had been wrong to oppose GM crops. His last article against GM was in 2008.
“I think writing that was what made me realize that I no longer believed it,” he said. “This was my aha moment.”
Today, Lynas still considers himself an environmentalist, something he feels is consistent with GM. He said Bt crops had reduced pesticide use by a tenth since 1996.
Meanwhile, some groups still find themselves on that agricultural fault line. Slow Food St. Louis, a group which emphasizes sustainable locally produced agriculture and biodiversity, has a number of members who dislike GM products but the group itself doesn’t take an official position, said Kelly Childs, co-organizer.
However, Childs said Slow Food does favor GM labeling requirements so that individuals can know how their food was grown and make choices for themselves.
“A big portion of our mission is educating people about food production and not just us offering it but encouraging people to educate themselves and ask the questions,” she said.
On the question of labeling, even Lynas softens to a degree.
“I’m very torn about this,” he said. “It’s obviously a losing proposition to say you don’t have the right to know what is in your food.
“On the other hand, stamping a skull and crossbones on the nation’s food supply is not a winning proposition either,” he adds. “What is the (common) ground between these two things? Is there some kind of a sweet spot where you can say, yes, we will label because we think what has gone into this food is an improvement?”
Just this week, a bill to require labeling for GM products was wending its way through the Maine legislature just as a Connecticut measure became law. However, both are contingent on neighboring states adopting similar statutes to prevent competitive disadvantage.
Vermont passed legislation on the issue last month becoming the first in the nation to require labeling, according to USA Today.
Opponents of the idea say it would bring about unnecessary expense while creating a public impression that a safe, ordinary food is somehow different or suspect.
Interviewed after his presentation, Lynas said that, in the end, the two factions share certain values. Both want to create food security in an environmentally responsible way.
“We need to have a much wider debate where there is less trench warfare and where we can have a bit more rational, evidence-based approach on how we can farm more sustainably,” he said.