By Nick Weber
On Nov. 18, Food Tank hosted a webinar with Anna Lappe, of Real Food Media, titled, “The ABCs of the GMO Debate: Do we really need GMOs to feed the world?”
Ms. Lappe presented her argument in six parts, speaking on what she called “GMO myths.” I tuned in to the webinar to learn from her perspective, but what I found was an unbalanced presentation with a few inaccuracies that I’d like to address.
Before I do, I’d like to share some areas where I agree with Ms. Lappe. She’s spot on when she says, “Hunger is complex.” In the developing world, transportation, infrastructure and market access are often missing links in the food chain. As a society, we can do better to ensure everyone has access to a balanced meal. At Monsanto, we are committed to partnering with many third parties to strive toward this goal.
In addition, I agree that food waste is a problem. The breeders in Monsanto’s Seminis vegetable seed division have recognized this, and they work to provide solutions that match consumer preferences. For example, our pepper breeders have bred smaller bell peppers so consumers have versatile options for appetizers and main dishes. Their smaller size has the potential to reduce food waste in that particular vegetable.
We at Monsanto have some things in common with Ms. Lappe, and we hope to work with her and others who are interested in helping farmers feed a population that’s expected to exceed 9.6 billion people by 2050.
As for the case Ms. Lappe presents against GMOs, I’d like to address each one:
We don’t need GMOs to feed the world.
We believe it will take all of the tools in the toolbox to feed our growing world—organic, conventional and GMO crops. There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, as farmers face different challenges every year. While GMOs are a part of our business, we also invest approximately 50 percent of our research budget in traditional plant breeding of crops, which includes 18 fruits and vegetables. The traditional breeding programs even help organic farmers, as some of those farmers purchase Monsanto seeds.
And while the majority of row crops aren’t “food,” as Ms. Lappe suggests, these crops go into several products that people eat every day. As a primary source of feed for cattle, crops like corn and soybeans play a big role in ensuring we have a balanced plate of dairy, eggs and other lean proteins. Additionally, there are a few GMO crops from other companies that are coming on the market that will have direct consumer benefits—such as the Arctic® Apples and the Innate™ potatoes. These are in addition to the virus-resistant squash, and of course the papaya, which was saved by the process of genetic engineering.
GMOs don’t increase yields.
Several factors have contributed to the increase yields. Together, better agronomic practices, better breeding techniques and GMOs have increased yields in several crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and many others.
Let’s look at one example of how a GMO assists with increased yield potential. The corn rootworm has been dubbed the “Billion Dollar Pest” by many in agriculture. As a caterpillar, the rootworm munches on the roots of corn plants in the early-to-middle stages of plant growth. If a corn plant has a compromised root structure, the plant is more susceptible to being knocked over by wind. If the plant is knocked down, it won’t produce as much corn.
One way to control the corn rootworm is by spraying a naturally occurring bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt. Many organic farmers use this natural pesticide to control insects in their fields by spraying Bt on the plant. In the 1990s, Monsanto scientists were able to take this beneficial bacterium and insert it into the corn plant’s genome. Corn plants with this bacterium built-in, now considered a GMO, are able to ward off the corn rootworm pest without the use of spraying pesticides. When a corn rootworm tries to eat a corn plant with the Bt protein in its genome, the rootworm dies. The Bt protein is only effective on the rootworm. Humans are not impacted by ingesting the protein.
GMOs aren’t good for farmers.
I could use the above example of corn rootworm, because that GMO product means a farmer doesn’t have to spray his corn with pesticides, which also can harm the beneficial insects in a field, but I have others:
- GMOs can help farmers manage weeds better.
- GMOs can help farmers manage a crop through drought better.
- GMOs can help farmers implement conservation tillage methods, which minimize disruption of the soil and can improve soil health while reducing soil erosion.
There are cases of glyphosate-resistant weeds (“superweeds”), as Ms. Lappe mentions, and we work with a wide range of third parties, including farmers, academics and agronomists, to develop solutions to minimize the impact of weeds in fields. To note, her information is inaccurate, as there are 15 known cases of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the United States, compared with the 70+ that she notes in her presentation.
GMOS aren’t good for the planet.
I’m going to take the final bullet point from above: One tremendous benefit of GMOs has been the farmer’s ability to grow crops in a conservation tillage program. After harvest, farmers can leave the crop residue on the field over the winter to return carbon to the soil and also provide a type of mulch-like weed mat. In the spring, farmers plant into the soil below the crop residue, and typically this is about the time weeds begin to germinate. With an herbicide-tolerant crop, a farmer can spray a herbicide precisely and judiciously, and the herbicide won’t harm the crop. The herbicide application can eliminate weeds and give the crop a better chance to establish itself.
GMOs increase chemical use.
According to a USDA-ERS report, GMOs have played a major role in helping reduce the use of topical pesticides that are designed to help farmers protect their crops. In the publication, “GM Crops & Food,” GMO corn in particular has helped reduce pesticide use by 45 percent worldwide for that important crop alone.
There aren’t any alternatives to GMOs.
There are plenty of alternatives. As mentioned above, at Monsanto, we are supportive of all types of agriculture—organic, conventional and GMOs crops. GMO farming is a great option, and so is organic farming. We believe farmers should have the choice to plant what they want and should use whatever practice works best for their operation, and they do.
I appreciate the opportunity Food Tank and Ms. Lappe offered the public to learn their points of view on food and agriculture, particularly as they relate to GMOs. At Monsanto, we believe it will take all the tools in the toolbox to ensure everyone has access to a balanced plate. We’re committed to learning from others, like Food Tank members and Ms. Lappe, and working with them toward finding common ground to tackle the challenges of nourishing our growing population.
To learn more about our business and about other myths we’ve encountered and answered, please join the Conversation on discover.monsanto.com.