Source: Gary Brock videoGMO farmer Hugh Vance talks about how GMOs have made farming better, more efficient and good for the environment.
By Gary Brock
COLUMBUS — The European corn borer crawls up the young stalk of corn and takes a tasty chomp out of one of the tender leaves. Less than eight hours later the insect is dead. So are all its friends.
A Japanese agriculture official in Washington, D.C. tells a group of Ohio farmers that, in essence, scientific facts are trumped by the safety concerns of his consumers, who simply want … what they want.
A central Ohio farmer sings the praises of a soybean that is heart-healthy, easy to grow and full of nutrition. But it is a GMO soybean, so will there be a market for it in the future?
All three of these — the toxic cornstalk, the soybean farmer and the Japanese official — have one thing in common; the raging debate over the use of GMOs versus non-GMOs in our food supply.
And Ohio farmers are caught right in the middle of this increasingly political and complex issue; one that will affect their financial bottom line in years to come. What does this “GMO versus non-GMO debate” mean to Ohio farmers? A lot.
GMOs – genetically modified organisms – have been used widespread in the United States for nearly 20 years. In Ohio more than 80 percent of the corn and soybeans grown come from GMO seeds. In this article, one of in a package of articles on the issue of GMOs, Rural Life Today looks at the main issue of debate – the safety of food made from GMO produce.
Is there room for both in our future?
Ohio farmer John Motter, who grows both GMO soybeans and corn on his 750-acre Hancock County farm, says the introduction of these new seed varieties has had a tremendous impact on Ohio farmers, all beneficial. But he feels the “debate” between GMOs or non-GMOs is actually over, and that advocates on both sides of the issue are raising unnecessary concerns about the health and safety of GMOs.
“The question isn’t one or the other. There should be room for all types of products – GMOs, non-GMOs and organic,” he said. He says Ohio farmers have seen increased yields in their fields, less need to use pesticides on the crops and greater use of “no-till” methods all attributable to the use of GMO corn and soybeans.
Motter grows a new GMO strain of soybeans, “high oleic” beans that contain less saturated fats and result in healthier oil for cooking and other products. The beans have been in development for the last five years, and Motter hopes the GMO bean can dominate the market in the future. (See related article)
But not everyone sees GMOs as a positive for agriculture.
Seneca County farmer Daryl Moyer uses only non-GMO seeds. “Those using GMOs don’t know what kind of effect GMO feed will have on the animals and people eating GMO food,” he said. “People are not going to know the affect of this for a couple of generations. They are monkeying with stuff that I just don’t think they should be monkeying with,” he said.
And there is a marketing effort under way against GMO products.
Consider the following:
– On June 3, the global health care company Abbott announced it was offering a “GMO-free” version of its popular Similac Advance baby formula based on “input from parents.” They said other non-GMO formulas will likely follow;
– In April, Chipotle announced it had gone GMO-free. “That means none of the ingredients will be genetically modified — for its tortillas, rice, chips and salsa, and also in the marinades used to cook its meats. Chipotle is really showing that there’s a better way to do fast food,” Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells told CNN at the time. Stores began posting “Celebrating GMO-free” on their windows.
– In February, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conducted a poll of 520 Ohioans and announced in March that 87 percent of Ohio voters want GE (genetically engineered) foods labeled and 61 percent disapprove of GE food and that this support crosses party lines with 89 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats, and 85 percent of Independents support GE labeling.
– In 2014, after an activist group questioned GMOs in their cereal, General Mills said that it has changed the sourcing of ingredients for its original Cheerios. “We switched from what we were using to non-GMO corn and non-GMO pure sugar cane,” said General Mills (GIS) spokesman Mike Siemienas.
The case for the safe GMO?
If you are talking about food, you are talking about an issue very near and dear to peoples’ heart, John Motter pointed out.
Motter says he believes the debate about GMO food safety is over. “They have been doing this for 20 years, we’ve fed well over a trillion meals to people across the globe and there is not a proven case of anyone getting sick through this technology. The evidence is formidable that this is safe to use, but again there is a group that uses the fear of technology. They use Europe as an example, yet Europe is the number two importer of genetically modified seed and grain on the globe. I don’t think the average citizen in Europe is that concerned about GMOs. But it is those that speak loudly that are heard.
Non-GMO farmer Daryl Moyer doesn’t agree.
He feels the health concerns of GMO technology is a couple of generations away. “I am concerned about the health of animals eating GMO feed. And we will be eating the animals, so I would think that this would carry over into their genes and into the milk or whatever we are eating.”
But he does not think the health concerns about GMOs will lead to a reduction or even ban in the use of these seeds. “There will always be GMO seeds. Monsanto is a big company and they will always be pushing their seeds.”
Ohio State University Associate Professor and Entomologist Andy Michel says he does not see any health difference between a GMO product and a non-GMO product.
“From what I have seen, my assumption is that the corn is basically the same. You are just inserting one gene and that gene is producing a toxin. I think in both cases, that toxin doesn’t last a lot. The expression of the protein doesn’t last; the proteins decay over time,” he said.
“I don’t see any difference, if you take a GMO corn and you take the same hybrid that doesn’t have the gene, they are almost identical, except for the fact that one has the GMO protein.”
When asked about which he would consume, he did not hesitate. “If I had three choices between conventional corn, a GMO corn or even an organic corn — I would take the GMO corn. Why? Because I know it has less pesticides associated with it. Conventional corn would probably be sprayed a couple of times, and even organic corn … there are some chemicals approved for organic production, organic pesticides. One approved for organic, in fact, contains the same BT toxin that is used in the GMO plant. It is the same toxin,” he said.
“Somehow, the one is labeled organic, and in some cases, the other is labeled scary or potentially harmful. To me that almost defies logic.”
The right to be cautious
But Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association based in Columbus, says the public has the right to be skeptical of “GMOs are safe” claims from proponents of the technology.
“Is it safe to ingest (GMO products)? And is it safe to grow? To do the kind of long term studies we really need would be incredibly difficult, and I don’t know if we will ever get those kind of studies,” she says. “But the public has been told for years that things ‘were safe.’ Think about DDT and asbestos, and tobacco and leaded gasoline, then later we found out there were considerable health and environmental consequences to these things,” she pointed out.
“The public has earned the right to be cautious and that (more research) is the responsible thing to do.”
Clinton County farmer Hugh Vance finds the anti-GMO health claims frustrating.
“I think if there is a market for the non-GMOs, that is fine, but as time passes there will be less opposition (to GMO products). Their testing that says GMOs are not safe, their claims against GMOs are just not scientifically backed. All they have is a lot of talk. That could get me in a lot of trouble but… yeah, a lot of talk.”
Vance believes there will be more GMO products in the future. “Organic foods are still pretty popular in the stores. I would call them very prosperous families who prefer to pay the extra money to have the food that they regard as better quality. But to me, that is debatable,” he says.
Vance was asked if he has any safety or health concerns with GMOs? “No, not at all. If it were three years after GMOs were introduced, I can see the concerns. But we have have them almost 20 years, and nothing has happened in that time period.”
He said many people mistrust government agencies. “But the FDA and USDA employ a lot of people to ensure that our food is safe, and I trust those people. That may sound nice to say, but I trust them because the United States has the safest food in the world — they are doing their job. If you go to a restaurant today, or a store, you know that the food will be safe. The percentage is pretty high.”
Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of state and national policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, has no doubt that GMOs are safe.
“GMOs have been in the marketplace for more than 17 years, and in that time there has been absolutely no scientific evidence or reputable scientific study showing that there is any detrimental health effect at all or health safety issues to the consumer,” she said.
She added that it is frustrating that farmers are still trying to figure ways to get the message out that GMOs are not only safe for the consumer but also, “the method we need to look to for feeding the world in the future. Not only do we need to figure how to stop vilifying this production method by to also help consumers understand that in an African country where they need to have a drought resistant GMO crop, that GM production is what has allowed them to have such a crop and is what is feeding them.”
Fear of what isn’t known
Opponents of GMO technology express two arguments about the research showing GMOs are safe. The first is that there has not been enough time to determine this safety, and the second is that much of these studies are sponsored by the very people selling GMO products.
Lipstreu likens it to putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
“One of the arguments made frequently is that the public just doesn’t understand the science, and if they only understood the science then they would not mind the use of this technology in their food. But I think that there are concerns when you talk about this science,” she said.
Number one, a lot of the science is industry sponsored science, she said. The goals of a company is to maximize value for for their shareholders. “I am not saying that they are not concerned about the public or public health, but that is not their key concern, right? To totally rely on industry-sponsored science is a little like putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” she said.
This is a tough issue for Lesicko, who’s Ohio Farm Bureau represents both GMO and non-GMO farmers. She said the OFB’s “big tent” approach is to support all production methods. And that includes support for the safety of GMO production.
“The GMO is not something new, where we are trying to find out the repercussions. We are there — 17 years in – we know it is safe, so we need to move on and see how it can be used productively,” she said.
But is approximately 20 years “long-term? “It’s all opinion if 20 years is long enough. The interesting part is that while it has been 20 years since we have been using genetic techniques, this is just an extension of something that agriculture has been doing forever. What scientists took many years to do before in crossbreeding, scientists have now been able to take into a lab and do on a quicker basis. This idea of working to produce the strongest seed and using the best traits for the farmer has been going on for years. There is nothing to this science that isn’t based on what farmers have been doing for years,” she said.
And the claim research supported by corporations is tainted as a result? “It takes a lot of money to do the research and get a GMO product approved. It first takes the individual corporation to do its own research to demonstrate that it is safe and then the government entity uses that research as their foundation. So the government entity doing the approval uses the research to ask detailed questions, drills down the research, reviews the research to ensure it is safe for the consumer and the environment,” she added
She said that while research has to be done by the corporation, there is a lot of independent research being done, such as the USDA, world health organization.
Motter finds such criticism frustrating. Motter says there are no health or safety issues with GMO products. “It has been tracked since 1996, and shown to be safe. Those who worry about GMOs and criticize it, they will never be satisfied. How much testing do they want?
Dr. Laura Lindsey, Ohio State University agronomist who has researched both GMO and non-GMO soybeans, says there is a fear of the unknown driving some of the anti-GMO sentiment. “There is a concern about risk, but it is understandable,” she said.
She and other researchers say they do receive grant funding from private companies, but she says that doesn’t mean the research is slanted or bias.
One of the biggest studies on GMOs was conducted in 2014 at the University of California, Davis. In November of last year, researchers at UCD released the report and found no harmful effects to livestock of GMOs. The Washington Post reported in December: “Researchers from the University of California at Davis looked at health data on more than 100 billion animals and found no ill effects — in fact, no effects at all — attributable to a switch from non-GMO feed to GMO.”
The study found: “… no unexpected perturbations or disturbing trends in animal performance or health indicators. Likewise, it is not possible to distinguish any differences in the nutritional profile of animal products following consumption of GE feed. Animal agriculture is currently highly dependent on GE feed sources, and global trade of livestock feed is largely supplied by countries that have approved the cultivation of GE crops.”
However, GMO opponents frequently point to another study, released in September, 2012 by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen. He and his colleagues said rats fed on a diet containing NK603 — a seed variety made tolerant to dousings of Roundup — or given water containing Roundup at levels permitted in the United States died earlier than those on a standard diet. The study said the animals on the GM diet suffered mammary tumours, as well as severe liver and kidney damage.
Reuters News Service reported at the time that researchers said 50 percent of males and 70 percent of females died prematurely, compared with only 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group.
However, a year later, the publisher of the French study withdrew the paper after a year-long investigation found it did not meet scientific standards. Reed Elsevier’s Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT) journal, which published the study said the retraction was because the study’s small sample size meant no definitive conclusions could be reached. But the study is still frequently sited by GMO critics.
Perception and the bottom line
Ohio GMO corn and soybean farmers have expressed concerns about the growing skepticism of their food, and where the trends are in foreign markets.
In March, a group of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation member/farmers traveled to Washington on their annual trip to meet with federal officials regarding farm issues. One of the stops on the trip was the Japanese embassy.
In Japan, consumers prize non-GMO soybeans, such as those shipped to Japan by Bluegrass farms in Fayette County. It has been hard for the GMO soybean producers to break into the market.
In a large meeting room the farmers asked Japanese trade consulate Naritoshi Takayama, Counselor (Agriculture), Economic Section, a number of questions regarding trade and agriculture products. And then one of the Ohioans asked the question on everyone’s mind: Are you (Japanese officials) educating your citizens about the safety of GMO corn and soybeans and the many studies saying the products are safe?
What consulate Takayama had to say gave the farmers little comfort.
“The biotech issue is always big in this country (Japan). I know the producers in (the United States), most of them with the new technology like GMO. Yes, I am aware there are many studies have been done here in the U.S. to show how good and great the new technology is for the producers and effective,” he said.
“Back in Japan, we have been doing some outreach to Japanese consumers and Japanese food industry people. First of all, when it comes to the GMO issue, the issue of food safety is crucial. So our regulators back in Tokyo oversee that we have food safety, even with GMO. While at the same time, we have a question of consumer confidence, or I should say consumer perception issue. So we have to challenge this about food safety. and how to make consumers confident with the new biotechnology,” he told the farmers.
The bottom line? Japanese consumers will be a hard sell to accept GMOs over non-GMOs, despite any American studies saying GMOs are safe.
OSU’s Andy Michel says he sees the GMO debate as an important issue for Ohio consumers and Ohio farmers. “I’ve done some work with the Ohio Soybean Council and I think this consumer perception of GMOs is one of their biggest concerns. They did their own surveys and they know this is a big concern. They see the value in these crops for their farms’ production. And if they see that consumers don’t want it because of their perception that GMOs are bad — that issue is important to them,” he said.
“I would think farmers would hate to go back to the ‘old ways’ because of costs, pesticide use and production,” he said.
Earlier this year, the OEFFA conducted its own study on Ohio consumers’ perception of GMOs. Lipstreu said the results surprised even her.
She said 61 percent of those surveyed opposed GMO (they referred to it as genetically engineered) food and 87 percent wanted to see the food containing “GE” include mandatory labeling. She added that the biggest surprise was that concerns about GMOs cross political lines, with 89 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats, and 85 percent of Independents support GE labeling.
Dr. Lindsey says she has a two-year-old and, “As a consumer and mother I do not have any problems with GMOs, none at all,” she said. I tend to buy what is cheapest at the store. Sometimes organic or non-GMO food is cheaper, so I buy that, but if the conventional or GMO food is cheaper, then I buy that. I have no problem with that.”
As a researcher and scientist, she thinks both are good to have. “There is a market for GMO food and market for non-GMO food. As a researcher and scientist we need both. A number of farmers can get a premium for growing non-GMO crops, so there is a financial incentive for them. So that is completely justified. But there are a lot of benefits to GMO crops,” she says.
“I do research on both GMO and non-GMO crops and they are both interesting. I hope there is a future for both.”
Clinton County’s Hugh Vance thinks it is all a question of global hunger in the future. “I think we have a hungry world, and there is the possibility that GMOs will improve peoples’ lives. It is possible that someday hunger will be very minimal.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.