GMO debate a 'wicked problem'

Posted on August 11, 2015 20:49 pm CDT

Joplin Globe
By: Sarah Okeson

CARTHAGE — Peter Carter, scion of the farming family that gave Carterville its name, stood not far from the bins where he has stored the soft winter wheat cut earlier this summer. The 14 acres he planted with that wheat were later replanted with soybeans that Carter hopes to harvest before Southwest Missouri gets its first frost. Those beans could ultimately be shipped overseas. 

"They look pretty good for double crops," said Carter, whose family has farmed in Jasper County since the 1840s. "They need to hurry up and get done."

The soybeans that Carter planted after cutting his wheat are, like nearly 90 percent of the soybeans planted in the United States, genetically engineered, or genetically modified. That puts him and nearly every other soybean farmer in the middle of an often acrimonious debate over what are known as GMOs — genetically-modified organisms.

Questions of food safety and labeling are just two of the concerns of opponents, with celebrities such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow supporting mandatory labeling of foods produced from GMO crops, and others, including Ben and Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream makers, Chipotle's and General Mills looking for non-GMO alternatives.

Carter, who received a bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri in agricultural economics, said he doesn't remember when he first started using GMOs, but he knows he's using them for all of his 600 acres of soybeans.

"We started out on a few acres and gradually converted to 100 percent," Carter said.

Genetically-modified soybeans allow the plant to survive spraying with herbicides, which kills weeds but also can kill conventional soybean plants.

Besides wheat and beans, Carter also has 100 acres in alfalfa and another 500 acres in corn.

That corn — destined for poultry feed — also has been genetically modified, in this instance to include a gene that helps kill corn borer. Those insects would otherwise bore tunnels through his plants causing them to fall over.

"I want to have a safe food supply, too," Carter said. "I haven't been able to see any scientific proof there's any problem."

'Right to Know'

The debate has reached the U.S. House of Representatives, which recently passed a bill that would prevent states from requiring labels on foods that are genetically modified. Three states — Maine, Connecticut and and Vermont — already have approved GMO labeling laws. The bill would still allow voluntary labeling of GMO foods. About 80 percent of all processed food has at least one ingredient linked to a GMO crop, according to the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products. The group says most Americans are eating genetically-modified foods at every meal.

The U.S. Senate has yet to take up the labeling question.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that GMO foods are enough like non-GMO foods that they don't need to be labeled.

The sponsor of the legislation in the House is U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas. U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Missouri, is one of 68 co-sponsors of the bill, H.R. 1599.

In a statement this week, Long said, "Right now, the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) does not have a formal definition of what 'natural' is, and H.R. 1599 would direct the Food and Drug Administration to establish a definition. Labeling a product as 'natural' would then get the same USDA treatment as labeling a product as 'organic.' H.R. 1599 addresses interstate commerce issues, however it does not prevent those wishing to label a product GMO-free from doing so. This will help provide nationwide certainty for producers instead of them having to try and comply with a hodgepodge of regional regulations, which would make it far more costly to do business."

Long also noted that the bill, which passed in the House on July 23 by a vote of 275 to 150, had bipartisan support.

But last month, about 20 people against the bill protested outside Long's Springfield office, some carrying signs that said: "Right to kNOw GMO" and "What's in your food?"

"Everyone has the right to know what's in their food," said Gayla Prewitt of Bolivar who coordinated the protest. Last year she wrote what she called a "political thriller," where only the government is allowed to grow food, owning seeds is illegal, and a group of "seed savers" are on a mission to rescue humanity with "pure seeds" they have hidden that may hold the key to human survival.

She argues that bills such as Pompeo's, known as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, make it more difficult for consumers to find out whether any of the food they eat or drink is coming from genetically-modified sources.

"Do we know how some of these changes could affect a child’s health?" Prewitt asked. "It often takes many years for long-term studies to prove whether something is harmful. Is it fair to make our children the guinea pigs and not even give parents the information to decide if they want to subject their children to such an experiment?"

She and other opponents of Pompeo's bill have labeled it the "Deny Americans the Right to Know," or DARK Act. Prewitt and other opponents of the legislation said they also have concerns about the possibility of allergic reactions to genetically-modified food, as well as the herbicides commonly used with the GMO crops, such as Roundup, which uses glyphosate as its key ingredient.

This spring, glyphosate was labeled as "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the United Nations' World Health Organization.

"These are foods that have been engineered in a way that is not found in nature," said Colin O'Neil of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

But proponents say there is no risk, either to humans or the environment, from genetically-modified foods. An industry group known as the Glyphosate Task Force, which included Monsanto, maker of Roundup, challenged the study. Meanwhile, other studies, including a 2015 Agricultural Health Study, did not find a link to certain suspect cancers. That study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

'Wicked problem'

Advocates of GMO labeling point out that there are many other food labeling requirements, such as saying whether juice is from concentrate and how much sugar and salt is contained in processed foods.

"Most of the labels we have on food are informational," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union in Yonkers, New York. "Actually, very little that is on labels on food is a safety warning."

Curtis Hostetler, who farms north of Springfield and is the president of the Missouri Organic Association, also favors GMO labeling. He raises organic corn and soybeans.

"I don't feel it's right," Hostetler said of GMO crops. "I feel it's messing with God's creation."

Carmen Bain, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, has studied the debate over GMO labeling. She called it a "wicked problem," a term for something that's difficult to solve, and she said the debate includes political opportunism by activists who are not scientists.

"It doesn't just involve scientific facts or issues," Bain said in July in St. Louis at a fellowship for reporters sponsored by the National Press Foundation.

The four-day fellowship on food and agriculture was partially underwritten by St. Louis-based Monsanto, which produces genetically-modified "Roundup Ready" soybean seeds. The fellowship included a day-long tour of the company's research labs in Chesterfield and talks by company executives such as CEO Hugh Grant and President Brett Begemann.

Begemann said at the conference that mandatory labeling will increase grocery costs, citing a Cornell University study that said the grocery bill for a family could jump by an average of $500 a year. The study, by professor William Lesser, assumed that price increases stemming from the use of non-GMO ingredients would be passed on to consumers, although like everything else in the GMO debate, his assumptions also have been challenged.

Monsanto also has growing soybean plants on display at its Chesterfield campus that are infested by soybean looper and velvetbean caterpillar, pests that can strip soybean fields in five to seven days unless crops can resist them. A lab assistant also demonstrated how to genetically modify corn using common soil bacteria, a process that Monsanto scientists invented in the early 1980s. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that produces insecticidal toxins and when genetically enginereed into corn or other crops they become resistant to certain common pests.

GMO engineering has helped make corn that's more resistant to drought. GMO cotton contains a gene that makes it more resistant to bollworms. Other GMO crops grown in the United States are canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and squash. Two others, apples and potatoes, which have been genetically modified so they won't turn brown after they're cut, have been approved by the FDA.

'Hungry people'

Back in Southwest Missouri, cattleman Jim McCann gets testy when talking to opponents of GMOs. He has about 500 cattle on a Lawrence County farm west of Miller, and is a past president of the Missouri Cattleman's Association.

McCann said GMOs have helped increase crop yields. Soybean yield in the United States has grown from less than 30 bushels per acre in 1984 to more than 47 bushels an acre in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"If they're going to force people to have GMO-free food, there will be a lot of hungry people out there," McCann said.

Jared Osborne, who also farms in the Carthage area, echoed those comments, and said genetically-modified corn produces better yields.

"In our area, you can see a 20 to 30 percent increase in corn," Osborne said.

Carter said he doesn't know any organic farmers personally. Most of the farmers in Southwest Missouri are conventional farmers and use GMO seeds.

Like his father before him, Carter is grooming his son, Lathe, to one day take over the farm. The Carter family has been farming in Jasper County for more than 160 years except for a brief period during the Civil War when the family, who were Union sympathizers, fled to Fort Scott, Kansas.

Carter expects his son's future to also include genetically modified crops.

"They're going at it backwards," Carter said of the critics of genetically-modified foods. "If you want to label something, maybe label food that's non-GMO. Our GMO use is so widespread now that it has to be in everything almost."

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