Farm vs. science: GMOs in our food

Local professors and farmers sat down to talk about the hot button topic of genetically-modified organisms Wednesday evening in a panel discussion held by the Ohio Farm Bureau.

The event, held at Marietta College, featured Marietta College biology professors Eric Fitch and David Brown; Washington State Community College biology professor Andrea Sites, and Ohio farmers Tom Witten and Kristen Reese.

The panel discussed the ongoing national feud that pits environmental advocates who disapprove of the idea of chemically altering crops and livestock against corporations, farmers and proponents who think that GMOs are vital to the future of American agriculture.

“It’s the idea of wanting a bigger kernel of corn that’s higher on the stalk so you don’t have to break your back to reach it,” Fitch said. “We’ve come up with this science with various advantages to humans, but the problem is we’re doing it with incomplete knowledge.”

Proponents of GMOs, which were introduced as a chemical procedure in the U.S. around 1996, say that enhancing livestock and crops with modified substances improves taste and nutritional content and helps prevent disease that kills off crops.

“We need to be progressive and we need to be more efficient about our production of food, because there are people out there going hungry and we need to be able to feed them,” said Reese, who helps run her family’s small farm in Baltimore.

Both Reese and Witten, who owns Witten Farm Market and Greenhouse in Lowell, agree that the public should embrace what technology has to offer.

“It’s one thing to be in Marietta where we get food for pennies on the dollar, but there’s an entire population of Africa that does not get to have those choices,” Witten said. “The overages we produce in this country goes over there, so to refuse technology that could create more, that scares me.”

Fitch noted that by 2025, an estimated eight billion people will populate the earth.

“If we want to produce enough food to feed everyone, something’s got to give,” he said.

Panelists noted that though GMOs can produce larger quantities more efficiently, the 13-year process to have a product approved by the FDA, USDA and the EPA mean that the output is still labor-intensive.

Many opponents of GMOs often protest companies like Monsanto, an international company that produces genetically engineered seeds and herbicides under the Roundup brand, for putting chemicals in foods without knowing the potential harm.

Currently, the U.S. and Canada are two of few countries in the world that do not ban or require labeling of GMO products.

“Maybe some are safe, but maybe some aren’t,” Sites said. “We need to make sure everything is labeled if it contains GMOs. We’re consuming it, we should be able to see it on the labels.”

GMO practices usually occur in crops like canola, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. Typically, the DNA of the crops are chemically-manipulated to contain herbicides and pesticides, and in livestock the process can produce more nutritious meat.

The negative side to that practice is that the crossbreeding of crops can contaminate non-GMO crops, and environmental destruction can occur when plants can no longer survive in normal growing conditions.

Fitch said health effects are still relatively unknown when it comes to GMOs, but the pesticides that are engineered to be within plants can easily spread to non-GMO crops, and the uncertainty can leave room for unanticipated side effects.

“If you put a chemical in a plant or modify its DNA, you don’t know where it will end up,” Brown said.

When asked if the concept of chemical modification and the surge of the “mega farm” hurts family farms, Reese said that argument is not quite fair.

“As long as we can provide a product that people want, family farms will do fine,” Reese said. “And still, 96 percent of farms in this country are family farms, whether big or small.”

Witten said the growing “fear” campaign and the trend of buying only organic foods can prevent a positive change that GMOs and new technology can provide.

He cited cases in the Philippines, where mass populations are going blind due to vitamin A deficiencies. Monsanto recently developed a genetically-modified kind of rice crop that is rich in vitamin A, but the company can not get the food approved.

“Anti-GMO people say to slow down, but there is a real need for this technology,” Witten said. “‘Slow down’ is not coming from a blind person in the Phillippines.”

Reese also stressed the statistic that the average farmer feeds about 157 people, but with a shrinking amount of land, GMO technology is a pathway out of the problem. She stressed to those who are concerned to try to buy as locally as possible, so that information about the source of the food is more readily available.

“We’ve been manipulating the DNA of plants since 1950, but the science we have now is new. We just need to be able to communicate what it is to the public,” Brown said. “We just don’t have all the answers right now.”