The Promise Of Genetically Modified Crops Outweighs The Fears

William H. Danforth
January 9, 2000
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The dispute over genetically modified crops is not over goals. Both sides want agriculture that produces safe, nutritious food available throughout the world. Both aspire to farming practices that do not deplete the topsoil, pollute rivers and oceans, harm beneficial organisms or otherwise degrade the environment. Both believe they are acting in the interests of farmers and consumers. One side, however, maintains that the modern techniques of genetic modification are dangerous to human health and to the environment. They contend that strict regulatory processes should preclude planting and consumption of GM crops. The other, which includes the vast majority of agricultural and plant scientists, believes genetic modification is not a great change in a biologic sense from the centuries-old process of improving plants through selection, hybridization and forced mutation. They see little risk and unprecedented opportunities to improve nutrition and slow or even reverse environmental degradation.

I am convinced that achieving the above goals requires the continued development and use of genetically modified plants for animal and human consumption. My association with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is the result of my convictions, not the cause of them.

First, increasing agricultural productivity is essential.

Today 850 million people are undernourished. Yet world population increases, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6 billion today and likely to 8 billion by 2025. Using current agricultural methods, we cannot long sustain today's rate of food production, let alone feed another 2 billion people. Fortunately, agriculture can be more productive. Each year the European corn borer ruins up to 30 percent of the world's corn crop. Last year the mosaic virus destroyed 60 percent of Africa's cassava crop, the single largest source of calories for Africans. Control of these diseases would aid farmers and consumers. While food distribution can and should be improved, doing so is not by itself a solution. Better distribution requires more energy and resources for transportation. Developing countries lack the money to purchase food, and replacing indigenous farm products with imports could result in massive social disruption.

Second, current methods of agriculture are degrading the environment.

Each year the volume of topsoil lost worldwide is equivalent to the amount that covers Missouri. The topsoil, on which our life depends, takes hundreds of years to replace. Modern farming methods contribute to the pollution of streams, rivers and oceans and deplete the supply of fresh water. We are using up agricultural capital that should be passed on to future generations.

Third, the potential benefits of genetically modified crops far outweigh the potential risks.

In this area there are a number of considerations.

Food Safety -- No food has ever been totally safe. Salmonella infections and hepatitis regularly result from flawed handling of food. Toxins associated with peanuts can be dangerous. Many of us have food allergies. There is some small danger of an adverse reaction any time one of us eats something new. Monitoring our food supplies, however they are produced, is necessary and desirable. But we must recognize that risks always exist and accept reasonable reassurances about safety. The tens of millions of acres of genetically modified corn, soybeans and cotton with no reports of damage to the environment or to human health must surely be recognized as strong evidence of their safety. Similarly, the benefits to farmers and consumers of decreasing the use of carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides are clear.

The Transfer Of Genes -- Some have worried that genes introduced into agriculture will be transferred to wild plant, creating a new difficult-to-control hybrid or "superweed." Genetic information is always being changed by outside forces. In addition, genes move naturally among the some 30 million or more species in the world. Farmers have been taking advantage of gene variation by modifying crops since the dawn of agriculture. They have selected some plants over other plants and have used cross-pollination to produce high-yield, nutritious crops that resist drought and disease. Precise genetic modification using modern techniques works more quickly with individual species, but against the large background of changes that have been going on for millions of years, the additional risk of modifying plants scientifically should be much smaller than the risk posed by agriculture as it now must be practiced.

Resistant Pests -- The introduction of plants genetically resistant to insects, bacteria or viruses may favor evolutionary changes in the invading organisms so that, after a time, they are again able to attack the previously resistant plants. As bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, so organisms will likely evolve resistance to plant defenses. But who thinks we should give up antibiotics and retire from the battle against infectious diseases in humans? To do nothing gives all the advantage to the invaders that are regularly evolving better methods of attack, no matter what we do.

The Promise Of Modern Science -- Plants have already been modified so as greatly to reduce the use of pesticides. The development of a strain of rice to produce a precursor of Vitamin A, will aid hundreds of thousands of children who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and the tens of thousands blinded as a result. I envision further developments that will reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizers. Higher yields will spare prairie lands and forests from cultivation. Human nutrition will be greatly improved. Vitamins, protectors against atherosclerosis and cancer antagonists will enrich the food we eat. Costs of food and products such as plastics will be lower. Crops can be more resistant to drought and cool weather. Less plowing will be required, saving topsoil. Each generation will be able to meet its needs without robbing those who come after. The arguments about genetically modified foods will likely continue, for we humans can never predict the future with certainty. Moreover, scientists can never prove a negative. We do know, however, that hungry people abound in the world and that our current agricultural practices are risky and are not sustainable. We do know we humans cannot turn the clock back a thousand years to a time when the world was more pristine and the population much smaller. We do know we can only go forward using all of our intelligence, wisdom, good will and idealism. We do know that for some 10,000 years our ancestors have been able gradually to increase food supply using the most effective techniques at their disposal. To realize the promise of a better world we must do the same.

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