By Robb Fraley, Executive Vice President & Chief Technology Officer
Sometimes the differences between those who support genetic modification in agriculture and those who criticize it are exaggerated. There’s often more common ground than is recognized. That truth was in evidence when I engaged in a “debate” that was more like a friendly discussion with Jennifer Kuzma, distinguished professor and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. In an appearance at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, which you can watch here, you see that we agreed on some very basic points.
Jennifer agreed, for example, that genetic modification has delivered benefits to farmers, reduced pesticide use, and facilitated the adoption of conservation tillage. And she agreed that modern biotechnology, in which genes are transferred from one species to another, is often more precise than the techniques that preceded it, like mutagenesis and selective breeding.
Finally, she agreed that the pace of change in the regulatory oversight of GMO products and technologies has been generally sufficient to keep up with the changes in the science over the last 20 years. She studied that issue, she said, and to her surprise, she found that “it’s paced pretty well, honestly.”
So maybe the GMO issue isn’t quite as polarized as it often seems. How refreshing, in any case, to have a conversation with someone who in some ways is a critic of modern biotechnology but who is also willing to acknowledge some of its benefits and to be guided by the evidence, as she reads it.
That’s not to say that Jennifer and I didn’t have our differences.
- We disagreed on the extent to which regulation should be overhauled as GMO products and techniques evolve. She sees a greater need for “a change in the governance paradigm.” I see a system that has done a stellar job of protecting safety while also enabling the tremendous benefits to farmers and consumers worldwide that she appeared to acknowledge.
- Jennifer believes we can address most of the world’s growing food demand by reducing food waste and changing diets. I agree that these steps need to play a role. But in my view, the increase we’ll see in food demand over the next 35 years – it will double, according to many estimates – is so enormous that we absolutely are going to need new tools and techniques to meet it.
- She believes we need more study of the long-term health impacts of eating small quantities of genetically modified organisms. I think the science on that question is settled, and the question now belongs in the court of the opponents.
That question is: What’s the risk to human health if we don’t move forward with some of the agricultural improvements that genetic modification can provide us? What’s the risk to the 900 million people who are already hungry in the developing world? To the more than two billion more who will be born there over the next 35 years? To farmers in places that are being scorched by droughts? And to social stability in the dozens of countries afflicted with hunger and drought?
I’ll be the first to admit that we still have work to do in bringing greater public awareness to the importance of these questions. At the same time, it’s heartening to see that when we engage in dialogue with our critics – instead of ignoring them, as we did for far too long – we sometimes find considerable common ground. And at a minimum, a rational conversation.
That’s what happened with Professor Kuzma. And that’s what I hope will continue to happen as we go on listening and talking with people on all sides of these crucial issues with which we grapple every day.