By Steve Wratten
I am writing to respond to several topics in the article by Kayann Short (Lyons Recorder, Sept. 1) about her concerns over genetically-modified (GM) crops. To avoid misunderstanding, GM crops have had a gene inserted into their chromosomes to confer a new desirable trait. Ms. Short’s article consisted mainly of her opinions, which frankly do not agree with those of U.S. Federal regulatory agencies (EPA, USDA, FDA), nor those of states and many foreigncountries, who have approval authority over such technology. Scientists at these agencies have access to extensive safety testing data, and reach decisions based on scientific assessments rather than on allegations found on activist Internet sites.
I am familiar with GM crops, having worked 27 years at Monsanto, before my retirement. For the final ten years I was global regulatory lead for the Roundup® family of herbicides. I personally made the initial application to EPA for approval of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides) treatments over-the-top of glyphosate-tolerant GM sugar beets and canola, and was involved for years with this GM use pattern in soybean, corn, and cotton.
For clarity, although gluten was mentioned in the title of Ms. Short’s article and in the first sentence, the occurrence and properties of gluten proteins are not linked in any way to genetically-modified crops. It was merely the origin of Ms. Short’s interests.
Ms. Short raised her concern “…now that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are entering our diets.” Had this been the late 1990s, this may have been a timely statement, but today, GM crops are a well-established part of US food production. USDA statistics show that GM soybean varieties, first introduced in 1996, now comprise 94% of all US soybean acres. For corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beet ,the percentages are 88, 90, 90, 93, respectively.
Together these GM crops are grown annually on about 162 million U.S. acres, or about half of harvested U.S. cropland. Ex-U.S., total GM cropped acres approximately equal the U.S. total, bringing global GM acres to more than 300 million. By comparison, organic crop production is practiced on about 2 million U.S. acres, or about 1-2% of the GM acres. After its initial introduction, GM technology was quickly embraced by growers nationwide, and has been a big part of U.S. agriculture over the last decade. GM crops are obviously neither new nor unknown technology.
Ms. Short touched on a variety of her concerns about GM crops, but the central focus seemed to be human health and safety, and especially the potential for allergenicity. Methods for safety assessment of GM-derived foods have evolved a great deal over the past two decades, in both the U.S. and internationally. Today, regulators require extensive scientific comparisons of GM and non-GM forms of the crop for nutritional and compositional equivalence, along with direct toxicity testing of any newly introduced substances. Most often, these are proteins, and demonstrating their lack of allergenicity is a key component of the required data. Many volumes of study reports are provided by applicants, and, generally speaking, the science-based evaluation of these studies has concluded they are completely safe for human consumption. Even in Europe, which has had a broad moratorium against growing GM crops for many years because of cultural, agronomic, religious, and ecological reasons, has generally concluded that foods derived from GM crops are safe, and E.U. has allowed grain and food imports.
As a specific example, the European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel wrote the following in July this year about a proposed Pioneer soybean variety they had reviewed: (http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/2310.htm)
“In conclusion, the EFSA GMO Panel considers that the information available for soybean 356043 addresses the scientific comments raised by the Member States and that the soybean 356043, as described in this application, is as safe as its conventional counterpart with respect to potential effects on human and animal health and the environment in the context of its intended uses.”
This is typical of the EFSA, and other regulators’ conclusions on questions of human safety.
Ms. Short identified a recent and intriguing study of which I was unaware. It reports detection of the Bt-derived protein (code named CryAb1) in women’s (pregnant and not) and umbilical cord blood samples (A. Aris and S. Leblanc Reprod. Toxicol. 2011 May; 31(4):528-33.) This protein is the insecticidal ingredient produced in GM corn and cotton that defends against ear worm and boll worm pests. Ms. Short stated that Aris and LeBlanc had “…found the Bt gene in the bodies…” allowing readers to possibly infer that functioning genetic material had been transferred to the women. Happily, this inference is wrong; it was the protein (CryAb1) rather than the gene (DNA) that was the subject of the study. While on the surface this is a notable and unexpected result, there are substantial methodological questions about the work (see for example: http://www.biofortified.org/2011/04/nonsense/), and we must await further follow-up to determine if the results can be verified. In any case, the authors did not suggest any toxicological concern due to the low parts-per-billion level detection of CryAb1 in blood. The women in the study were themselves healthy and had normal deliveries of healthy infants. Extensive testing has already shown that the Bt protein is not toxic to mammals, even at much higher exposure levels, and it has been used against insect pests for decades, many years prior to GM crops. The Bt protein is so safe for humans that it is one of relatively few insecticides that is allowed by USDA in organic agriculture.
Currently, Boulder County is considering adoption of a new policy concerning the use of GM crops by farmers that lease county land, prompted by local growers’ requests to plant glyphosate-tolerant sugar beets. Boulder County has no fundamental regulatory control over a grower’s choice of agricultural practices; federal and state agencies hold that authority. However, growers can be constrained through contractual land-lease provisions. Based on the acreage figures cited above, growers have rapidly adopted GM crop technology where it is offered, and continue to use it year after year because they find compelling benefits in yield, ease of crop management, and net profit.
This is why local growers requested to cultivate the GM sugar beets on county land. Ms. Short stated her opposition to allowing GM crops on county-owned land, partly based on her concerns about pollen drift into her organic production. It is worth mentioning, for those with similar concerns, that sugar beets are grown commercially as an annual crop (spring-planted, fall-harvested). The plant however is biologically a biennial, so flowers and pollen, which would appear in the second season, are never formed in commercial production because the beets are harvested before reaching that stage. So there is no sugar beet pollen drift issue for Colorado growers.
One of the crucial challenges of the 21st century is to provide food for the world’s growing population. The World Health Organization and others have estimated that there will be 9 billion humans by the year 2050, about a 30% increase from today. Agricultural productivity or arable land acreage must therefore increase to the same degree, just to keep pace. Above all, “sustainable agriculture” must sustain the world’s population. GM crop technology is one important tool available to increase yields and meet this very certain need. It is unconscionable to imagine that we would not apply our best science to this endeavor, merely because the last doubters hold tight to a political agenda, refusing to be convinced that risks are insignificant in light of what’s at stake.