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A Short Narrative About GMO's

The health and safety of food from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been debated for years and is a highly charged topic. Those with strong opinions on both sides of this issue have had and are still having their say in all forms of media.

On this website, the definition of GMO is given as “a plant or animal whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered through genetic engineering/biotechnology techniques (insertion/deletion of genes) to produce a genotype that possesses a modified trait that is not found in naturally occurring plants of that species. When genes are inserted, they usually come from a different species. The principle of producing a GMO is to add new genetic material into an organism’s genome. In agriculture, genetically modified crops are developed to 1) contain desirable traits such as resistance to pests, herbicides, and/or environmental stresses, and 2) improve storage life and nutritional value.” This is as good a definition as any so that is what I will work from.

I am a scientist by both training and profession, and I will come down on the side of good science in every debate. And good science has overwhelmingly determined that GMO food products are safe to eat. What’s more, they are more likely to be unaffected by the myriad insect, fungal, and bacterial pests that adversely affect so many of the foodstuffs we consume. Thus, much of the current effort with GMO plants is toward protection against or resistance to these pests.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about food from GMO plants and animals. But I do know that I am unswayed by the flap over the “safety” of GMO products. I buy and consume them because I know they have been proven safe in exhaustive tests and trials. I do not waste my time reading a food product label to see if it contains components from GMO plants and/or animals because I do not fear this content. If a product is appealing in appearance and if it suits my tastebuds, then that is what I consume because I know this country has in place myriad safeguards to ensure the safety of our food. This has never been more true than it is with foods derived from GMO plants.

In a recent blog in Delta Farm Press entitled “Former Greenpeace Activist Terms Opposition to GMOs ‘a crime against humanity’”, Hembree Brandon links to an article that presents points from a talk given by former Greenpeace Foundation Canada President Patrick Moore. A summary of that presentation (click here) by Tracy Frank presents the following quotes attributed to Mr. Moore.

  • The more food we grow per acre, the better it is for nature because the more food we grow per acre, the less nature has to be cleared to grow our food and fiber crops. Intensive agriculture is important and that means using science such as biotechnology and the genetics that we’ve learned in the last couple of decades in order to improve yields and improve the nutrition of foods.

  •  There’s a very strong anti-science movement these days and unfortunately much of it is associated with the environmental movement.

A case in point is where golden rice, which is genetically modified to include beta-carotene, which the human body converts to Vitamin A, has been disparaged by Greenpeace. According to their website, “If any hazardous, unexpected effects would develop from genetically engineered (GE) ‘Golden’ rice, the GE contamination would affect countries where rice is an essential staple and put people and food security at risk”. They further state that “Greenpeace opposes the release of GE crops, including GE ‘Golden’ rice, into the environment. GE crops are prone to unexpected effects which can pose a risk to environmental and food safety”.

Mr. Moore said, “two million children die from Vitamin-A deficiency every year. It’s the biggest cause of death among children in the world today.” He calls this unfounded campaign against golden rice a “crime against humanity”. In my opinion, and based on the data he provides, I agree.

In a 2013 speech (video) by former anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas, the speech is started with “For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment”. (Notice the word option). Other quotes from Mr. Lynas’s speech (text) follow.

  • So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

  • I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide

  • I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

  • I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

  • I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

  • I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

  • The GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.

  • So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.

The biotechnology industry (the most honest of the diverse GMO-debating parties in its devotion to scientific principles) has an online resource that is designed to provide honest answers (in my opinion) to questions about the use of GMO’s in agriculture. It can be accessed at This initiative is committed to providing truthful information about GMO’s and their use in agriculture and their presence in food. The site is designed to welcome and answer questions on all GMO topics, and to make GMO information easy to access and evaluate. Answers to the many submitted questions about various GMO topics are provided by academicians and other experts in agriculture.

In my opinion, we (the world) have two options.

  • We can control world population growth so that the demand for food from an increasing population will not increase. That will not happen.

  •  That leaves the second option–to continue to use proven new technology to support an infrastructure that continues to increase yields of food, feed, and fiber products, and to improve the quality and storability of those products.

I regret that the audience I would like to read this blog will not. So if you are a Mississippi farmer and you read this article, please keep it handy; better yet, if you think it worthwhile, make copies to give to your non-farmer friends who are food consumers, or email them the link to this article so they can explore for themselves the resources that are provided above.

I also regret that the condensed requirement of this blog prohibit me from providing many of the information sources that provide overwhelming support for the continued and increased use of GMO’s in today’s agriculture systems.

A final point. I grew up on a farm in the 1960's where “organic” agriculture was practiced. That system required a lot of manpower (actually youth power back then), and resulted in low yields of generally poor quality food products. We were always fighting weeds, and had little answer for insect and disease infestations that robbed crop yield (How may of you remember a cabbage head or a tomato that had a worm or worms in them? I do. How about sweet corn that when shucked had to have about 1/3 of the worm-ruined end cut off and discarded. I do.). Also, the US farm demographic back then supported this labor-intense system; i.e., a large number of people were employed on America’s farms. That is no longer the case and in all probability will not be in the foreseeable future.

So to the GMO naysayers who believe in subsistence agriculture, enjoy your niche. But leave the vast majority of other farmers alone who believe in spreading the food wealth, and quit trying to dictate a policy that is self-serving, shortsighted, and scientifically wrong.

I close with a favorite quote of mine (anonymous), which I titled “Food” For Thought: “When and where food is plentiful, there are many problems; when and where there is little or no food, there is only one problem”.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Apr. 2015,