by Steve Wagner
When freshman Pennsylvania legislator Mindy Fee became a state representative, she did so with an acute awareness of farming in her district. On Nov. 7, this interest manifested itself in the form of a farmer’s breakfast held in Manheim. She was fortunate to get Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary George Greig to be the main speaker.
As the event got underway, Penn-Ag’s Jennifer Reed Harry gave a thumbnail presentation of some issues that resound with farmers, including GMOs.
Last March, the grocery chain Whole Foods Market became the first retailer in the U.S. to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move some experts maintained could radically alter the food industry.
The Non-GMO Project is an organization dedicated to the undoing of GMOs. Their website puts it this way: “GMOs, or ‘genetically modified organisms,’ are plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance is ringing in with support for GMOs. “Many of our farmers plant GM seeds for reasons such as protecting their crops from adverse weather. Some of our farmers choose organic production. All of these methods of production contribute to meeting consumer demands for food products as well as producing healthy choices for everyone and protecting the environment. Farmers also use GM seeds for a number of reasons — to reduce crop damage from weeds, diseases and insects as well as from adverse weather conditions such as drought or flooding. GM seeds often allow farmers to be more precise about their use of inputs like nutrients, pesticides and water needed to grow crops.”
“The Washington state proposition to label foods containing ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants stimulated a lot of spending, particularly by groups opposed to labeling,” says Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding and genetics focusing on developing genetic materials to improve corn productivity. She leads an extension program at Cornell to help farmers and the general public better understand plant breeding and genetic engineering. “The argument against labeling from large agricultural industries is that genetically engineered product labels imply some negative effect in foods produced from a genetically engineered crop variety, but no such effect has been detected for such crops. On the other hand, groups who support labeling are concerned about knowing whether genetically engineered crops are in a food product for various reasons, ranging from health and safety concerns to opposition to large corporate influence and control over genes in our food supply.
“For the genetically engineered crop varieties that are being grown commercially in the U.S. at present, there is no credible evidence of food safety concerns. However, there is a strong tradition in the U.S. for people’s ‘right to know.’ There is generally large public support for labeling when the question is framed as a ‘right to know’ question, so it is not surprising that genetically engineered labeling bills have become more and more common. On the other hand, if the question is simply ‘what type of information do you think is missing from food labels?’ there are very, very few people who will come up with genetically engineered labeling in their answers.”
The Washington State vote “is even more reason that we need to educate these people,” George Greig said. “When the first farmers produced a crop, they would take the best and plant the highest yielding. We have been changing our food supply forever, since agriculture began. I think a lot of this comes from Europe because there has been an effort against GMOs in European countries. We’ve met with quite a few different countries including Germany to form an ag co-op. Their concern is that they won’t be able to produce the food for their population. So they came here to talk to the Department of Agriculture. They also talked to Penn State to see what they could do. They were interested in how we’re keeping up with our population, and still have food to export. I don’t know the answers to what people’s fears are with GMO. There have been studies done at Penn State and the University of Michigan which have stated that conventional food supplies are as safe as organic and non-GMO products. I would say that we have to keep educating our people. Germany’s cash receipts were about a little over a third of what Pennsylvania’s are. In other words, Pennsylvania produced more food — which was enlightening to them to learn that they are not quite so big a country as they thought they were.”