A serving of science is a good thing.
That’s the Wellman family’s recommendation when talking about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Third-generation farmers, the Wellmans have grown genetically modified crops on their farm near Syracuse nearly two decades, and have used these biotech crops the same as conventional ones for years.
They know GMO can seem like a scary term to some people, and they don’t fault consumers for having those fears. But they’ve also taken the time to understand the science behind GMOs.
“We take great pride in the quality and safety of the grain we grow on our farm,” Steve Wellman says. “By personally discussing the viewpoints with scientists, policy decision makers, farmers and consumers from across the globe, I’ve realized the positive impact biotech crops provide to our global supply of food, fuel, fiber and feed.”
Tom Clemente, the Eugene W. Price professor of biotechnology at the University of Nebraska, can tell you exactly how biotechnology works. Plant breeders can identify and use desirable traits from one plant or organism and introduce them into a plant they want to improve. The process, he says, is not that different from conventional plant breeding.
But is that modified plant safe to eat? Based on the research and thorough regulatory process, Clemente says yes.
Genetically modified crops typically spend in excess of 10 years filtering through the regulatory process that most agriculture products never experience, Clemente says.
Four agencies must approve genetically modified crops within the U.S. regulatory framework: the Food & Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. These agencies evaluate for safety in the context of human consumption, animal feed and the environment, he says.
“What we can say with absolute certainty is the products that went through this safety assessment are as safe or safer than any conventional variety because no other commodity has ever been put through this safety assessment,” Clemente says.
Good for the Environment
The enhanced plant varieties help farmers with insect and virus resistance and herbicide weed control management, which result in a host of environmental benefits good for all of society, Clemente says. By 2016, consumers will see a direct benefit with the introduction of a genetically modified soybean that can produce a vegetable oil with the same functional characteristics and health attributes of olive oil, Clemente says. Soybean oil today is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the U.S.
The Wellmans say the advent of biotechnology makes their family farm better.
“I grow genetically modified because it helps us with soil conservation, water conservation and managing our natural resources,” says Wellman, a corn and soybean farmer and past president of the American Soybean Association.
He grows 100 percent genetically modified corn and soybeans in southeast Nebraska.
Yet, myths abound. Statistics strike down the myth that only big farmers grow GMOs. In reality, almost every row-crop farmer in Nebraska grows them. About 96 percent of corn and nearly all soybeans grown in Nebraska are genetically modified, according to the Nebraska Corn Board and University of Nebraska.
Another myth in the marketplace is that GMOs produce toxic chemicals that humans consume, Clemente says. Rather, GMOs available to farmers today are bred to resist insects and viruses, and tolerate herbicides.
“There is absolutely no sound scientific data to imply that any of these traits have a negative impact on human or animal health, nor negative collateral impact on the environment,” Clemente says. “GMOs are not just important to Nebraska. They are important to our plentiful and safe food supply.”
In addition, people often believe all crops are GMOs. In fact, fewer than 10 commercially grown crops in the U.S. may be genetically modified, according to gmoanswers.com. The website, endorsed by the Nebraska Corn Board, provides direct access to more than 100 experts to answer consumer questions.
Kelly Brunkhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board, stands convinced of the benefits of GMOs.
“I’m advocating for the same technology that I am feeding my children,” he says. “Our hope is that when consumers understand the science, research and regulatory process, they understand that it’s very similar to a non-GM product also.”
1. Genetic engineering is not radical technology.
The thousands of varieties of apples demonstrate that genetic engineering has been around for a long time. Selectively breeding plants with desirable traits is a rudimentary form of genetic engineering that largely relies on random chance and can result in unwanted or unintended traits emerging as well. GMO techniques are more precise than traditional breeding because specific traits from DNA in another organism can be identified and incorporated into the target plant, resulting in relatively small changes to the DNA but significant trait improvements.
2. GMOs could help feed the world.
“GMOs are just one tool to make sure the world is food-secure when we add two billion more people by 2050,” says Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “It’s not the only answer, and it is not essential, but it is certainly one good thing in our arsenal.”
3. Genetically modified crops are used for a variety of purposes.
Two of the widely grown GMOs, corn and soybeans, are largely used for feed for livestock and producing biofuels. Some of the foods made with GMO ingredients include vegetable oil, sugar and other sweeteners. Many packaged foods also contain ingredients made from GMOs, as well as other products ranging from cotton shirts to insulin.