Prince Charles will be happy, Jeremy Rifkin ecstatic, and the European Union can rest easy. No genetically modified corn will be planted on my farm this year. Not because I have any doubt about the safety of what are now called GM foods. I’ve certainly never lost any sleep over producing “frankenfoods,” as Greenpeace so charmingly likes to call my corn and soybeans. No, I won’t use these products because fear is triumphing over science and common sense, and I’m afraid it will be hard to find a market for what I produce.
I will plant a few acres of Round Up Ready soybeans, which are also genetically modified, but only because most of my soybeans are processed for domestic animal feed. The corn I produce, on the other hand, may enter the export market, and some is used directly for human consumption. I’m afraid that if I do grow GM corn, I may have to sell it at a discount, if I can sell it at all.
Genetically modified corn produces a natural insecticide, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is deadly to the European corn borer, a pest that causes one billion dollars of damage to Midwestern corn fields each summer. The bacterium protecting the corn against the corn borer was introduced through the manipulation of the corn’s genes.
Corn borers are familiar to anyone who has driven across my part of the world on a summer evening and found a blizzard of moths hitting the windshield. Those moths, at least the ones that don’t end their days as a glutinous mess on your windshield, lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars. The caterpillars, or borers, drill into corn stalks, weakening the stalks and providing a place for disease to enter. The weakened stalks drop their ears before the harvesters can gather the grain.
The billion dollars in damage attempts to measure wasted grain, but doesn’t put a value on the frustration farmers feel as they harvest corn infested with borers. The stalks fall over in the first fall breeze and don’t feed into the combine. Harvest is slowed as I and thousands of farmers like me stop and clear the downed stalks tangled at the front of the harvester. Not to mention the skinned knuckles and bruised muscles and colorful language that accompany each trip to the front of the combine to remove the tangled mess that is a direct result of damage caused by corn borers.
Not surprisingly, then, farmers rapidly adopted the new corn. We are excited about the prospect of increased yields, reduced costs, and more trouble-free harvests.
That rapid adoption of genetically modified crops hit a brick wall this past fall when Japan and the European Union balked at buying genetically modified grain. As if that weren’t bad enough, Gerber has announced that it will no longer use genetically modified grain in its baby foods, and early this year Frito-Lay stopped purchases of such grain. Gerber’s reasoning is hard to take seriously, as Gerber’s parent Norvatis was, at the time of the announcement, one of the world’s largest producers of genetically modified seed.
It would be difficult to be more disingenuous than Gerber, but Frito-Lay succeeded. The producer of potato chips supposedly acted through concern about health, yet the science linking fat and salt to ill health has advanced much farther than any scientific evidence of harm from bio-foods. And then protestors at the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle trashed Starbuck’s during a week-long temper tantrum over the twentieth century, with bio-foods one of their many targets. It’s not clear, at least to me, that there is any connection between corn borers and latte.
Modifying the genes of seeds is different from traditional methods of improving crops, but farmers and plant breeders have been selecting for desirable traits since the science of agriculture began. Instead of adding a whole series of genes with unpredictable results, as breeding does, genetic splicing allows scientists to choose a single gene with a single, desirable trait.
Farmers were shocked when genetic modification encountered protest, especially on environmental grounds, because genetic modification allows us to cut our use of man-made chemicals as we tend our crops. A six-state survey of farmers last fall found that 26 percent of farmers were reducing their use of insecticides because they used Bt corn; fully half of the farmers planting Bt corn were applying no insecticides at all. On the genetically modified soybeans on my farm we will apply only one chemical, and an extremely safe one at that, instead of the battery of four herbicides that will be used on the rest of our soybeans.
In a final irony, if we were to spray the Bt bacterium on our cornfield with an airplane, it would be considered an organic method of pest control. The reason: Bt occurs naturally.
Swiss researchers have added genes to rice that increase the amount of beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, in the rice. If the new technology is adopted in Asia, some of the quarter-million children who each year lose their sight will be spared the curse of blindness. Gilbert L. Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, points out that “millions of transplant, cancer, and hepatitis patients” are benefiting from bioengineering, not to mention the diabetics who depend upon insulin produced by genetic modification. However, none of these products is mentioned when people protest the use of this new technology.
Instead, we hear about the monarch butterfly. It should come as no surprise that Bt is harmful when force-fed to butterflies (as studies have shown). Indeed, it would be more surprising if it didn’t affect them, since they are closely related to corn borers. But the chemical alternatives to Bt corn are tough on butterflies too, along with all other insect life in the area. And as a number of researchers have pointed out, monarchs eat only milkweeds, which don’t appear very often in cornfields. At least I work very hard to make sure they don’t.
Two-thirds of the soybeans planted in the United States and one-third of the corn are genetically modified. Every time a consumer opens a soft drink he or she is consuming a GM product, because the drink is sweetened with corn syrup. Almost all processed foods contain soybeans in some form or other. There is no scientific evidence tying these foods to any health hazard. Genetic modification is making food more affordable, cutting down on the use of man-made plant protection products, and helping agriculture keep up with the worldwide growth in income and population. It would be a crime if those advantages were lost to a cynical campaign by those who use fear when science isn’t on their side.
Blake Hurst raises corn and soybeans with his father and two brothers on their farm in northwestern Missouri.