The GMO Controversy

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(Host) Commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on the debate over genetically modified crops.

(Grubinger) If there’s a more controversial issue in agriculture than GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, please don’t tell me! Vermont is at the forefront of the GMO debate, and here’s why it’s taking so much time and energy.

The use of GMOs brings into conflict two very different beliefs about technology. One is that science is largely responsible for progress. If problems arise from new technologies, we just need to tweak them using additional knowledge. Science and business working together can find the solutions.

The other belief is skeptical of technology – not so much of science, but of how it’s applied. Since risks may outweigh benefits, a precautionary approach is needed, especially to temper the influence of scientists, corporations and government that so effectively promote their own interests.

On top of these opposing belief systems, there are three areas of uncertainty about GMOs. None can be easily resolved because the facts are equivocal.

One uncertainty is the spread of GMOs – not genetically engineered vaccines or farm animals – but genetically modified crops. GM crops contain genes that allow them to tolerate herbicides or to resist being eaten by insects. There are tens of millions of acres of GM crops in the U.S., and several thousand acres, mostly corn, in Vermont. Just how far will the pollen from these crops drift? And to what extent will GM crop seeds turn up where they are not wanted? It’s hard to say for sure.

The second area of uncertainty is unintended consequences. To say there will be none from GM crops is unrealistic. Throughout history new agricultural technologies, from the plow to fertilizers, have had unanticipated effects. But how significant will the effects of GM crops be? Herbicide resistance genes from GM canola are now found in wild mustard, and insecticide-containing GM crops can have at least some impact on non-pest insects. But the significance of these effects is hardly understood, let alone agreed upon.

The third uncertainty is the impact of GM crops on organic farming. The national organic standards prohibit the use of GMOs, but they don’t say that an organic farm has to be de-certified by accidental GMO contamination. Of course, organic farmers want to avoid all GMO seeds or drift. How can they be adequately protected? That’s a contentious issue.

Organic processors, regardless of the standards, have been demanding that the products they buy from organic farmers are free of GMOs. If a farmer loses their market because of GM crops, who is liable? The farmer that grew them? The company that sold them? Nobody?

These are not easy questions, and efforts to find middle ground have fared poorly. Both sides believe they’re right, so the debate is likely to continue for some time.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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