Despite vociferous objections from the majority of its members, the European Union was poised this week to approve its second genetically modified corn crop in the past 15 years.
DuPont Pioneer initially sought approval of its TC-1507 variety in 2001. But the EU has the world's tightest regulations on importing and growing biotech crops, and it took 12 years for the seeds to wind their way through an arduous approval process. Other U.S. companies have complained repeatedly that EU standards ignore basic science, and those concerns prompted Monsanto – the world’s largest seed producer – to announce plans last year to withdraw all applications for its products.
Paul Yeager examined the controversy surrounding genetically engineered crops and filed this report.
In the early 1970s, scientists found a way to add microscopic strands of genetic material from one species to that of another. For the first time, two or more species’ DNA – the genetic material that dictates how an organism looks and acts – could be linked in a lab in a way that wouldn’t happen naturally. Twenty-five years later, U.S. farmers began planting crops that were considered transgenic, meaning they contained genetic traits of other organisms. The innovation opened a world of possibilities for improved food production, but it also drew fire from critics.
Bob Hartzler, Iowa State University Extension: "I think the agricultural world was pretty excited because this was a quick way of making modifications to a plant that could not have been done before. For the general public, there was a small segment that was concerned because it's easy to think of some horror stories of how plants can be modified in a way that could cause problems. So a small segment of society was concerned and still remain that way."
Despite some reservations, the amount of farmland being planted with genetically modified, or GM, crops has grown steadily since their commercial introduction in 1996. According to a leading biotech advocacy group, a record 18 million farmers in 27 countries grew biotech crops in 2013.
Greg Jaffe, Center for Science in the Public Interest: “There was not adoption in other places like Europe where farmers and the public were not in support of the technologies and these crops. There was large adoption in South America.”
As the technology spreads, scientists are watching the responses of certain plants and insects to biotech crops. The concept of natural selection – in which only organisms that are best adapted to their environment survive – comes into play. Individual weeds may have traits making them less susceptible to herbicides. And the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds revealed that 232 weed species have shown resistance to at least one type of herbicide.
Bob Hartzler, Iowa State University Extension: “We need to find other ways to fit into the current production system for farmers to control the weeds because we have selected weeds that have highly adapted to herbicides and evolve resistance very quickly.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration believes many genetically engineered products are similar to their conventional cousins. And the onus is now on the company marketing the food to ensure its safety. Nevertheless, some believe the federal government needs more rigorous approval standards.
Greg Jaffe, Center for Science in the Public Interest: "We’ve looked at the safety data for the current crops that are grown in the U.S. and we are comfortable telling consumers that the foods made from the current crops with genetic modifications in the United States are safe to eat. We do feel that the Food and Drug Administration, whose job it is to ensure that we have safe food, that they haven’t done an adequate job of oversight of the genetically engineered crops. Their regulatory process is a voluntary consultation process and they don’t have a mandatory pre-market approval process."
Major developers of genetically modified seed face sharp criticism over potential risks of their products. But officials at DuPont Pioneer, a leading seed producer, say their approval process involves 150 tests and requires an average of 13 years and $130 million.
Jim Gaffney, DuPont Pioneer: “I think the European regulations use what we call the precautionary principle, which, in a way, is saying, ‘Since we don’t know for sure, let’s not use the technology.’ That’s the precautionary principle. If we were to use the precautionary principle in our lives on a regular basis, we would probably never get out of bed in the morning. One would be correct to state that we don’t know for sure but we know within a fair amount of certainty that we are in a good spot here with this technology.”
Some states and consumer groups are seeking mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, while others insist the government should be more involved before the products hit the grocery store shelves.
Greg Jaffe, Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Our view is if you are worried about the safety of these foods, you shouldn’t be trying to get mandatory labeling but what you should be doing is trying to get the FDA more authority so they can determine whether these are safe before they get to market. Determining safety after they are at market with labeling is the wrong way in our minds. That’s the wrong public policy.”
Those developing new GMO crops, however, argue that lives are already being lost due to bureaucratic red tape. At the dawn of the 21st Century, nearly 1 billion people all over the world were hungry. Since the United Nations projects world population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, the agency is calling for a 100 percent increase in food production by mid-century. According to the U.N., 70 percent of the additional production will be realized through the use of efficiency-enhancing technologies. And proponents believe genetic engineering offers a way for crops to be grown on land previously viewed as unsuitable for food production.
Ambassador. Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation: “It's a challenge that I have come to call the single greatest challenge in human history. Can our planet produce enough grain and cereal and food sustainably to feed the 9 plus billion people who will be on our planet by the year 2050?”
World hunger notwithstanding, some caution that U.S. farmers are overusing GMOs in some regions, and may need to consider alternatives.
Greg Jaffe, Center for Science in the Public Interest: “With any technology, whether it’s genetically engineered or other varieties that farmers have adopted, one has to use them in a judicious fashion, and in an integrated and sustainable fashion, and what we are beginning to see is that farmers have not done that with genetically engineered varieties, and we are beginning to see that they’ve overused them and abused them. It’s just one tool in the toolbox that scientists can use to help farmers to their job.”
For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.