GMO Crops: A Growing Concern
Genetically modified organisms, such as certain strains of corn, soybeans, and other farm fare, aren’t as safe as proponents would have the public believe. Pro or con?
Update! Podcast: Hear the experts respond to your reader comments. Download or listen here
Pro: Suspect Practice
Genetically modified crops have been hailed as a way to make agricultural products safer and more affordable, but they have accomplished neither of these goals.
One persistent danger lies in the prospect of crops unapproved for human consumption becoming mixed with the food supply. In 2000, Friends of the Earth and other groups discovered an unapproved strain of genetically modified corn on grocery store shelves. StarLink corn, which had been deemed safe only for animal consumption because of human allergen concerns, was showing up in Kraft (KFT) taco shells. The discovery led to recalls, mill closures, halts in exports, and buybacks of contaminated corn.
Safety concerns related to genetically engineered crops can also create larger-scale economic risk. Just look at what happened to the U.S. rice market in 2006, when illegal varieties of genetically modified rice were found contaminating the U.S. rice supply. Some estimates indicate that this incident caused more than $1.2 billion in damages and additional costs to the U.S. rice industry, whose export sales dropped dramatically.
Another problem: The modification of some crops to improve their resistance to herbicides has given rise to a rapidly growing population of herbicide-resistant weeds, which has led to more herbicide use. This can cause economic hardship for farmers who find it harder to grow crops and have to spend more for herbicides. It also results in more chemical runoff into streams and rivers. Furthermore, increased herbicide use threatens humans, because it means potentially higher levels of toxic chemicals in our food.
Americans concerned about food safety and economic stability would be well advised to take a cue from their neighbors in Europe, and demand more stringent oversight in regard to the genetic modification of crops.
Con: Safe and Abundant Sustenance
Today Americans enjoy one of the safest and most abundant food supplies in the world’s history. But access to healthful and nutritious food is not enjoyed by everyone. According to the United Nations, more than 850 million people worldwide suffer from malnutrition. This situation will likely worsen by 2050, when the world’s population will increase by 50% and the cultivable land will decrease by 50%, placing new pressures on global agriculture.
How do we address this international crisis? While there is no easy and singular solution to starvation, we know that biotechnology can expand and enhance the global food supply. Over the past decade agricultural biotechnology has improved plant productivity and crop quality, increased farmer income, supported stewardship of the land, and contributed to a safe food supply. Biotech crops constitute part of the diet of billions of people around the world without one single documented health problem.
In the U.S., biotech crops receive scrutiny from three separate federal agencies—the Agriculture Dept., the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration. There they undergo intensive safety review, from the research lab to field trials and ultimately to commercial plantings by farmers. No conventional or organic crops undergo this level of premarket testing, review, and regulation.
This safety record is backed by a broad range of international scientific organizations—the American Medical Assn., the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Dietetic Assn., the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization—who all endorse biotech crops as safe.
Sometimes, biotech crops are actually safer than conventional or organic crops. An Iowa State University study found that biotech corn contains substantially lower levels of cancer-causing compounds and mycotoxins linked to cases of spina bifida.
In the future, consumers will likely have access to nutrient-enhanced biotech foods, which could serve as powerful tools in combating famine and malnutrition in developing countries.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.