Intelligence Squared hosted a lengthy entertaining debate with a timely premise--GMOs, yes or no? Charles Benbrook (Center for Sustaining Agriculture) and Margaret Mellon (Union of Concerned Scientists) argued against the motion. Robert Fraley (Monsanto) and Alison Van Eenennaam (UC-Davis) spoke for the issue.
The audience post-debate vote went in favor of the GMO argument, but we'll let you study the facts and decide. The CAST organization has published two papers about biotech, and Dr. Van Eenennaam has been involved with both.
At the debate, Van Eenennaam opened her statements this way: "In the future, more people are going to need to be fed better with less environmental impact. GM foods offer one of those scientific solutions." Van Eenennaam is the 2014 Borlaug CAST Communication Award recipient, and she chaired the task forces for two well-respected CAST publications that are related to the biotech issue: (1) The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Food in the United States, and (2) The Science and Regulation of Food from Genetically Engineered Animals.
GMOs--Then and Now Down on the Farm
The First Biotech Fish
When we fished the farm creek in the early '60s, we were after bullheads and chubs, and I doubt any of us pre-teens would have known how to spell "salmon," let alone catch one. We definitely would not have understood genetic modification, and I don't recall Flash Gordon genetically engineering much of anything in the early science fiction I read by the glow of the night-light back then.
But looking back on it, I think we did have genetically engineered fish. The chubs all looked clone-like. They were shiny, small, and void of any personality, like minnows on steroids. We threw them back as soon as we could get the hooks removed. We older kids would then thread a freshly dug night crawler onto a barb for the little ones and toss our cork bobbers into a deeper area by a fallen tree or on a bend in the pasture. We wanted to catch our version of a science-fiction fish. To a ten-year-old, bullheads had to be the result of genetic engineering: oily skin, flat heads with beady eyes, and stingers ready to paralyze careless kids.
We only caught a few bullheads and none of us was stung. Bumble bees, poison ivy, and wayward hooks were more treacherous. But we kept hoping to catch the big one. We knew a monster bullhead was lurking somewhere in the deeper backwater areas of the creek.
Occasionally we had a few odd fish to take home, but Mom wasn't much interested in cooking up the remains of the day. We lived in hog and cattle country, so fish was not one of our basic food groups.
Roundup Weeded Out Us Bean Walkers, Too
Genetically modified plants? Roundup ready soybeans? I’ll leave the debate to others, but it’s a fact: The soybeans grown in my home state of Iowa are at least 90% GMO, and that’s not likely to change soon. Fields look like English gardens, with precision rows and soft breezes rippling along the tops of weedless soybean plants. In one respect, it’s a shame. In the pre-GMO days, soybean fields had personality.
The classy ones were neat and orderly, with maybe a few weeds along the fence rows and waterways. The owners kept their cultivators sharpened, and they pounced when weeds showed above the bean rows, especially if drivers could see them from the road.
The casual soybean fields were mixed but salvageable. Wayward stalks of corn would shoot up, cocklebur patches hovered low and menacing, and sections of off-green buttonweeds tried to hide among the soybeans. Farmers usually battled these weeds, with varying results.
A few fields were fashion disasters. Clumps of volunteer corn dotted the rows, burrs and buttonweeds took over sections of the field, and iron weeds looked like sapling trees. Occasionally, thistle patches would get so out of control, somebody would just have to post an “Enter at your own risk” sign.
In the 1960s, soybean fields made for good talking points. By June it was obvious which would need to be “walked”—weeded by stoop laborers…or teenagers…or us. Farmers would hire youngsters to go row-by-row to pull weeds. My brothers, cousins, and I started walking beans on the home place about as soon as we were potty-trained, but Dad let us hire out to neighbors by the time we were 12 or so. Child labor laws were flexible then, and the 50 cents an hour wage that first year didn’t bring the IRS down on us.
We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ sneakers, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like outer space triffids. Heat, thirst, and blow flies were irritating, but mud clod fights with a cousin eight rows over could be dangerous. It was satisfying to see the field get “clean and tidy” several rows at a time, but we were really after pocket money to buy a top-40 vinyl record or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.
I’m not blaming the GMO crowd, but soybean fields are soul-less now—bland and beautiful, like some type of cloned fields of dreams. As I said, I’ll let others debate the ethics of genetically modifying plants, but I do know that you should be careful of what you wish for. Today’s soybean fields are what we worked so hard to get back when we were doing hand-to-hand combat with cockleburs, thistles, and “stink weeds.” Roundup weeded us bean walkers out too.
by dan gogerty (GMO pic from boulderweekly.jpg)