The Positive Impact of Biotechnology on the Sustainability of the Agricultural and Food Industry

This is a copy of an article I wrote for the BIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, it’s longer than a usual post.

Where does our food come from? Most of us don’t really think about this question, even when we are enjoying the fruits of the production of crop and livestock farmers. This question is addressed, however, by teachers throughout Illinois in a program called Ag in the Classroom. It is directed primarily at elementary and middle school students to raise their awareness of and provide a better understanding of our food supply and the critical role played by our farmers.

Many of these students don’t know or realize that milk comes from dairy cows on area farms and cereal is processed from grain grown on farms across the prairie. And we adults are so used to the vast supply and variety of foods available at our choice of many outlets that we, too, rarely think about the origins of this food supply.

Yet the evidence is right in front of our noses. We see the farms as we drive down the state’s highways. We see the trucks and rail cars transporting grain, livestock and milk to stops along the food processing and marketing chain. And we find the result of all of this activity that we take so much for granted on the shelves and in the coolers or display cases of the many outlets at which we shop. It is always there when we want it, so it is worth our time to think about how all of this happens to create an abundant, safe and reliable food supply now and in the future.

Farming in Illinois is huge. According to the 2012 Illinois Farm Bureau Farm & Food Facts, annually the state is either the #1 or #2 producer of corn and soybeans in the U.S. Last year Illinois farmers produced 416 million bushels of soybeans and 1.9 billion bushels of corn, which totaled to $17.2 billion. Annually Illinois’ 74,600 farms export about $3.1 billion in soybeans and $1.7 billion in feed grains, most of which is headed to Canada or China.

Illinois is also home to the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology companies and processors. The Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO) just completed a comprehensive study on the Illinois biosciences community, which found that over 8,000 Illinois citizens are employed in the agricultural feedstock and chemical sector, earning an average salary of $103,465. The sector has one of the highest employment multipliers; for every one job in the sector, an additional 9.6 jobs are supporting it in the community. The ag-feedstock sector contributes $28.4 billion in Illinois economic output and $572 million in state and local taxes. Our universities are drivers of innovation, increasing R&D expenditures in the agricultural sciences by 20.6% since 2006.

Of the 1.9 billion bushels of corn produced last year, 85% was genetically modified (GM) in some way, as was 90% of Illinois soybeans. It is a very safe bet that almost everything in the boxes, cans, bags and other containers on the shelves at your local Super Target contains ingredients that comes from genetically modified crops. And this scares a lot of consumers. One survey found that 90% of people would support some sort of labeling on packaged goods stating that it contains GM ingredients. This fear is almost ingrained in our psyche from TV, newspapers, magazines and movies that often say GM crops are unnatural, potentially dangerous, may cause a zombie apocalypse or at very least are not nearly as nutritious as naturally grown food.

Over the past three decades, when researchers started modifying genes not the way farmers have done for centuries (via traditional plant breeding) but instead with the new tools of biotechnology, anti-GM activists thought they were protecting the public from large multinational corporations and saving the environment. They helped build the fear that GM crops were unnatural and the fear spread in our dreams like nightmares. Activists took on a anti-science movement and portrayed GM crop scientists as mad scientists, playing with the building blocks of life. In some world areas, their campaign was very successful; in just a few years GM crops were banned in much of Europe, India and Asia.

Mark Lynas was one of the original architects of this campaign. Until 2008, Lynas participated in the anti-GM movement by speaking at events and writing articles about the dangers of GM crops. It wasn’t until one day in 2008, when he was reading through the comments of one of his online articles, that he stopped to think about a particular comment left by a reader: “Are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big auto companies?”

Deciding to arm himself with the science behind the anti-GM movement, Lynas started researching studies on biotechnology and GM crops. What he learned was that one by one each of his beliefs about GM crops were no more than green urban myths.

  • He assumed that GM crops would increase the use of chemicals instead of decreasing them
  • He assumed that GM crops only benefitted large companies, whereas billions of dollars were going to farmers
  • He assumed that no one wanted GM crops, but illegally sourced GM cotton is used heavily in India and Roundup-Ready® soy was used in Brazil — because the farmers wanted it
  • He assumed that GM crops were dangerous, but it turns out that they are safer and more precise than conventional breeding
  • And he believed that cross-species mixing of genes was the work of mad scientists, but it is done by viruses all of the time — it is called gene flow

Lynas now appreciates and talks publicly about the naturalistic-fallacy that is at the core of the anti-GM and pro-organic debate. That is the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad.

An example on why this is a fallacy: In 2011 German organic bean sprouts caused the same number of deaths and injuries as the Chernobyl disaster. An E.coli infection from using animal manure as a fertilizer infected the seeds of the bean sprouts. Fifty-three people died and 3,500 suffered serious kidney failure. These people chose the organic because they were scared of the trivial risks from highly regulated chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In fact many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop has been altered so the plant can protect itself.

Now, how is this not organic?

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant stated, “They (GM crops) are the most-tested food product that the world has ever seen. Europe set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has now spent €300 million ($403.7 million), and has concluded that these technologies are safe.” In fact the majority of the science done so far indicates that GM food poses no known threat to consumers. The board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a letter recommending against the special labeling of GM food and quoted from a recent E.U. report on GM crops:

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding.

This puts those warning about the threat of GM food in a very similar position to global warming skeptics— defying the mainstream scientific consensus, calling into question the quality of the studies that form that consensus and seeking out dissenters who share their doubts. Environmentalism is supposed to be science-based, but the anti-GM-food forces have too often been anti-science.

The American Midwest this past summer has experienced practically a biblical drought. By the end of July, over 60% of the United States was experiencing some form of drought–the largest area in more than half a century. Corn yields fell by at least 16%, and prices rose to record highs as farmers confronted fields of dust. The drought of 2012 was a significant event, costing the economy as much as $18 billion. It may be the beginning of a longer change in climate.

Short of being able to change the weather, we need to find a way to produce crops that are more resistant to drought conditions. And that is what agribusiness is hoping to achieve with new GM crop strains that are designed to endure arid conditions. Monsanto is working on a hybrid line of corn that is designed to increase yield in dry soils. Hundreds of farmers in the western end of the U.S. corn belt are field-testing this new strain, and Monsanto says early results indicate that the GM crop might improve yields by 4% to 8% over conventional crops in some arid conditions.

“This year magnifies how important it is to have drought tolerance,” said Monsanto CTO Robert Fraley.

Monsanto’s Genuity DroughtGard corn hybrid comparison from an on-farm trial in Nickerson, Kansa on July 3, 2012.​​

One result of the anti-GM movement’s push for more government oversight and regulation of GM crops is that it has greatly extended the amount of time it takes to introduce new crops to the market place by at least five years. The latest estimate by the advocacy group CropLife America is that it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialization, so an open-sourced science, nonprofit approach really does not stand a chance to be successful. Large corporations are the only vehicle that can afford to develop these innovations.

“What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it,” said Mark Lynas.

Other than addressing the fallacy that GM is a danger to society, labeling poses a number of economic constraints on the food and the agricultural industries. More devastating than the cost to label products as containing GM ingredients could be the cost of taking steps to avoid the label on non-GM foods that may nevertheless contain trace amounts of GM material. In the United States, the highest-grade corn can contain as much as 2% foreign material, like crop residues. In Europe, a food product can contain as much as 0.9% GM material and avoid a GM label. But Prop 37, proposed in California last year and a likely model for future labeling legislation, would have imposed nearly twice as stringent purity standards, tolerating only 0.5% GM content in non-GM food.

Such a high purity standard would likely require farmers to invest in separate planting, harvesting, storage, hauling, processing and packaging equipment for GM production in order to avoid revenue losses and liability from contaminating their non-GM operations or those of competitors. Because the costs of risk reduction generally increase exponentially in the level of safety, this stringent purity standard may be a death sentence to GM producers who could spread the high fixed costs of contamination avoidance across only the low levels of production that the market would initially support.

Ultimately the threat of the increased cost of food related to the rules surrounding the purity standards, and the potential for multiple costly lawsuits related to meeting those standards, led to the demise of Proposition 37 in California. But the anti-GM labeling activists succeeded in gaining a national platform and have been working in more than 20 other states to introduce labeling legislation for GM foods, including right here in Illinois.

In the same Wall Street Journal article mentioned before, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant said that he would welcome a discussion about labeling of GM foods, but as a community, we need to do a better job communicating the benefits of GM foods to meet the growing global demand, changing environmental climate and addressing malnutrition and food safety.

We hope that this article contributes to the ongoing dialog about these critically important issues. We believe that GM crops are the answer to many of the problems that we are faced with, and we want to see the community that supports this industry in Illinois and throughout the Midwest continue to succeed and most of all, grow, in order to feed populations around the world.

This is a conversation, not an editorial. Did I forget something, get it wrong or do you agree? Please Comment, Like, Re-Tweet and Share

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