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Biotech Crops Help Feed the World

Published: Friday, January 31, 2014

The following is from Larry Bucher, a LaPorte County farmer.

It is only January and my wife is already anxious for me to head back to the fields. I think she is tired of my stories about people who know very little about the food they eat. During the winter months, we farmers have more time to socialize and I am almost always the only real, live farmer in whatever social setting we find ourselves.

The first question I usually receive is, "What crops do you grow?" and invariably the second or third question is, "Are any of the crops you grow genetically modified?" That is when the trouble begins.

I have learned, the hard way, that the first thing I need to do is establish common ground on what "genetically modified" means to the questioner. More often than not, the questioner is unaware of the differences between hybrids, genetically modified foods and organic foods.

Genetically modified foods are those that are derived from organisms whose genetic material, or DNA, has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally. Do you know how many vegetables or lettuces in the produce section of your local grocery are genetically modified? Potentially, two. There is a small chance that some of the zucchini and yellow summer squash on the shelf is genetically modified. Do you know how many fruits are genetically modified? One, the Hawaiian rainbow papaya.

Read the labels on processed foods to see if they contain corn and soy. If they do, they likely have a small amount of genetically modified content, as corn, soybeans and cotton are the three major genetically modified crops.

Typically, over half of the dinner party guests think all food is genetically modified, but they are mistaking genetically modified with hybrids. If I cross breed a cucumber plant that has high yields with another breed that seems to do better in dry weather, that is a hybrid. Creating better and better hybrids is something man has done since he first cultivated the earth.

Organic production is a method of growing food with no synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

People who are against the use of genetically modified foods would like to rid the world of these seeds. Doing so would eliminate 20 years of technological gains and thrust growers back to the less environmentally friendly farming methods of the '70s and '80s.

Genetically modified seeds allow me and other crop farmers to apply fewer herbicides and pesticides. We are also able to use less water and diesel fuel, and we release less carbon into the air through reduced tillage. The dinner party guests do not like it when I tell them that. It does not fit in with their "green" lifestyle choices. They often tell me that they have read something on the Internet that said genetically modified crops cause farmers to use more chemicals and less water and diesel fuel. I do not even have to explain that "just because it is on the internet does not mean it is true." They usually see the look on my face and come up with that one on their own.

We have had genetically modified crops in our food for 18 years now. The Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Assn. and the National Academy of Sciences say they are safe, as do scientists at universities such as Purdue and Iowa State. Even the World Health Organization states on its web site: "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."

As humans, the fear of the unknown often elicits a powerful emotional response, and that is where the dinner party conversation heads after I lay out the facts. Most of the following questions start with "what if" or "what happens" or "what about the increase of allergies?" Sometimes, if I am feeling ornery, I ask if they believe in global warming. When they say they do, I ask why they accept global warming so easily but when the same scientific organizations that document evidence of global warming also claim that genetically modified foods are safe.

Why am I writing this when I would rather be bloodying my knuckles preparing my corn planter for spring? It is because the growing trend toward "right to know" legislation is about to hit everyone right in the pocket book. Connecticut and Maine have already passed mandatory labeling laws that take effect if neighboring states approve similar measures. Mandatory labeling was defeated on the ballots in California and Washington, but over 20 other states have legislation pending.

If taken too far, I believe this labeling movement will be devastating to the poor of this country and the world. Higher production costs and less environmentally friendly farming methods will increase the cost of non-genetically modified foods. Lower production levels, hopefully, would be the only consequence of this policy, but it's possible that labeling could lead to the elimination of genetically modified crops. If that happens, the current population would need to ration to food levels that we produced 20 years ago.

I believe the voluntary labeling path that has been taken with organic produce offers a way forward and that the pro-labeling supporters should steer their efforts in that direction. That way, if a consumer wishes to pay more for that product due to the higher cost of production, they have that option, just like they do with organics. If there is demand for the labeled products, more choices will become available to capitalize on that demand. General Mills is trying to do just that with the Jan. 2 announcement that the company will begin to label Cheerio's as not having any genetically modified material inside.

Voluntary labeling has another major advantage: Our government does not have to figure out how to define, measure and enforce mandatory labeling on top of figuring out how to pay for all of the new bureaucracy. If you do not trust the government's science that says genetically modified foods are safe, would you then turn around and trust its testing and oversight? The most important advantage of genetically modified foods is that the world does not need to ration food or increase the price of food for the poorest among us.

The snow is pretty and the dinner parties are entertaining, but I long to be in my fields producing the food we all enjoy so much. My job as a farmer is to provide you, my customers, with a choice. Producing all non-genetically modified crops will drive up prices, lower production and turn back the clock on environmental gains. Let's trust science and not make labeling mandatory.

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