Polar Opposites Debate Value of GMO Crops at Ag Issues Forum

6/7/2014 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

LANCASTER, Pa. — If you can imagine a soccer mom getting into a verbal tussle with the Marlboro man on the subject of the merits or dangers of genetically modified crops, then you can imagine the scene on May 30 at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center during a forum sponsored by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Ag Issues Forums are breakfast meetings held six times a year and attended mostly by people who serve farmers — lenders, consultants, lawyers, feed vendors and others. The 60 people at the May 30 meeting were double or triple the usual turnout, most likely due to the subject matter.

Soccer moms were represented by Zoe Swartz, the founder of GMO Free Lancaster and also eastern director for Moms Across America, an advocacy group opposed to GMOs.

The Marlboro Man was Val Giddings, tall, slender and articulate with a piercing gaze and striking looks.

Giddings is a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. Giddings is very much in favor of biotech — he never said GMO — crops.

Swartz and Giddings were two-thirds of a panel that also included Sean High, a Lancaster County native and lawyer who is a research fellow for the Penn State Agricultural Law Resource Center, where his duties include researching agricultural law issues and presenting his findings to the public.

High is officially — and from everything he said during the forum, actually — neutral on the subject of GMOs.

High was first to speak. “I came home last night,” he said, “and stayed at my parents’ house. We had dinner and my mother asked me what I was going to talk about. I said, GMOs.’ ”

She asked, “What’s a GMO?”

High’s point was that for all the heat stirred up by the debate about genetically modified organisms, it’s still not in the forefront of many people’s minds, even smart people like his mom.

High told the group what he had told his mother. People, farmers in particular, have been using selective breeding to control the genetics of plants and animals for centuries. That is a natural process.

In the GMO process, the genetic coding of an organism is altered through manipulation in a laboratory, sometimes by inserting genetic material from one species into the genetic material of another.

There are sizable numbers of people who believe the consuming public has a right to know whether the food they buy is a result of this manipulation of the genetic process. Those people want the labels on their food to reveal whether they contain ingredients from GMO crops.

The GMO labeling issue has been gaining momentum, High said. In 2002, an Oregon voter initiative to require labeling was defeated by a 7-3 margin. A similar initiative in California in 2012 was narrowly defeated by a 51-49 margin despite opponents outspenting supporters by $45 million to $8 million.

A 2013 Connecticut law requires GMO labeling if four other states, including one that borders Connecticut, pass their own laws. Maine has a similar law with a similar contingency clause.

But on May 8, Vermont passed a law requiring GMO labeling by the year 2016, regardless of whether neighboring states pass similar legislation.

The state-by-state approach presents practical and constitutional issues, High said. Can one state burden another state with its requirements? Is labeling a free speech issue? Will the FDA assume jurisdiction over the whole issue? How will food marketers deal with a multitude of labeling requirements, and how will they deal with the economic issue of processing both GMO and non-GMO materials?

Zoe Swartz was next to the podium. The first thing she said was that if her listeners wanted to know about GMOs, they could find everything they wanted to know on the Internet.

Swartz wanted to talk about glyphosphate, more commonly known as Roundup, the weed killer that’s designed to be used with Roundup Ready crops produced from GMO seeds.

She pointed out that the ag world knows a lot about the effects of glyphosphate. She held up a paper tablet and drew a circle on it with one of her daughter’s magic markers. The circle represented all the knowledge in the universe.

Then she drew a pie-shaped section in the circle. “This what we know about glyphosphate,” she told the audience. She drew another pie-shaped section. “This is what we know we don’t know.”

Then she talked about what she believes are glyphosphate unknowns. Originally patented as an antibiotic, she said, it can interfere with and even destroy the beneficial microbes that live in the human gut. She said she believes it can interfere with soil health, too.

One of the things that she knows, she said, is that glyphosphate residues can be found in the breast milk of nursing mothers. As part of her work with Moms Across America, she was one of 10 women who tested their breast milk for glyphosphate. Three of the tests were positive.

The Tuesday before the Ag Issues Forum, Swartz was part of a Moms Across America group that met with EPA officials in Washington. According to Swartz, the officials found the glyphosphate residue experiment with the 10 nursing mothers “interesting.” And, she said they wanted to see the results of a second round of tests currently being organized by Moms Across America.

In an email after the forum, Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokeswoman, said that while agency officials did find the breast milk study interesting, they questioned the results.

Milbourn added that the agency routinely considers studies using appropriate scientific methods and is happy to work with anyone conducting such a study to review the protocol and study design elements.

In her email, Milbourn included this statement about the agency’s views on glyphosphate: “It was suggested that glyphosate was found in samples of tap water, breast milk and urine. Although EPA does not have information on the data’s quality, it’s important to note that none of the reported levels would result in human health concerns using our current methodology.

“The agency always strives to base its decisions in sound science,” she wrote, “and is open to considering information to inform its understanding of potential risks from pesticides.”

Val Giddings was the last presenter to take the podium. Obviously filled with passion for his subject, he backed his arguments up with graphs and numbers projected on the wall at the front of the room.

Giddings grew up in Arizona with 80 acres of cotton out his front door, 10 acres of alfalfa out his back door and surrounded on all sides with citrus orchards. As a child, he loved standing out in the cotton fields when the crop dusters were flying low and slow, delivering their load to the field, seeing if he could manage to stay standing as he was hit by the propeller wash.

Giddings arrived in Washington in 1984 to join the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, where he worked on studies related to biotechnology, the environment and regulatory policy. He also has served as an expert consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank, USDA and USAID.

Giddings said that his issue with the anti-biotech advocates is that they can’t back up their claims with science. He cited flaws in the studies they use to support their claims and said the studies themselves often appear in journals that are not highly regarded by serious scientists.

Meanwhile, he said, science has proved that glyphosphate is harmless to humans and that biotech crops have been a boon to farmers.

Giddings said farmers are skeptical. If something doesn’t work, they’re not going to use it. Then he said that 18 million farmers in 27 countries have overwhelmingly adopted biotech crops. From the first plantings in 1996, the number of acres worldwide soared to 4 billion in 2014.

Giddings said biotech crops are good for the environment because, by making existing farmland more productive, the need to create cropland out of forest is reduced.

He said synthetic pest controls have been dramatically reduced by biotech crops and that biotech crops have reduced carbon dioxide emissions from farmland by an amount equal to the exhaust emissions of all the cars in England for a year.

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