GMO ethics, issues at center stage

Unbiased view to be presented How comfortable are you with genetically modified crops? Are you proud to plant and sell insect resistant corn, cotton or potatoes or herbicide resistant crops? Or, are the anti-GMO activists making you wonder whether you can justify growing and selling this new technology?

Daily news reports, designed to frighten uneducated consumers, are bound to throw at least some doubt and concern into your mind. Will the anti-biotech activists make it impossible for you to sell genetically enhanced crops?

If there is one person who can rid your mind of unnecessary concerns about GMOs, it is Charles Opperman, professor of plant pathology and co-executive director of the new genomics laboratory at North Carolina State University. Opperman is a keynote speaker at the upcoming AgTech 2000 and Southeast Vegetable and Fruit Expo in Greensboro, N.C., on Dec. 11-13, 2000.

Years of genomic research give Opperman a unique, scientifically based, and unbiased view of this rapidly expanding technology. Working in this field for more than 20 years, Opperman was a member of the first research group to publish research on transgenic nematode resistance in crops. His talk will cover the Issues and Ethics of Genetically Modified Organisms.

"I don't have anything to present other than the facts," Opperman says. "I believe, if the public, including Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups, will learn the facts, opposition to transgenic crops will decline and eventually disappear. This technology brings too many benefits for it to be anything but successful."

But, for the technology to become widely used and universally accepted, the public must become better educated.

"We in the industry of agriculture, (industry, university scientists and farmers) must do a better job of getting the facts to consumers," Opperman says. "People deserve to know what is in their food. If they understand what a GM crop is, they are much less frightened of the technology. People must be given enough information so they can think for themselves. They should not just take the word of a university professor or someone in industry or someone from an anti-GMO organization. One of the biggest challenges facing this industry is getting everyone to work together to get the facts to consumers."

Farmers too should learn to be patient as this technology continues to develop. The technology, Opperman says, is continuing to improve, rapidly. Along with insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, future GM crops will offer drought tolerance, higher yields and improved nutrition.

While most of those traits are primarily beneficial to producers, the technology also offers major benefits to society.

"This is `Green Technology,'" Opperman notes. "It is environmentally friendly. It allows us to reduce pesticide applications. It allows us to grow more food and fiber on fewer acres. We are already using most of the arable land for farming. As the world's population grows, we either have to increase the amount of land we are farming or increase the yield on the land we are already farming. I see no way around it.

"Everyone is disturbed about deforestation in the Amazon. That's not for building condominiums, it's for agriculture, people trying to feed themselves. If this doesn't stop, the world's ecosystems will change drastically and we will have other problems to overcome.

"We have the capacity and the technology to feed people," Opperman says. "Transgenics have to be a part of the solution."

Before that can happen consumers must first be convinced that transgenic crops are safe and wholesome. The task of getting that message across was made more difficult recently when transgenic corn (a variety not yet approved for human consumption) was found in taco shells in the U.S.

"From an academic point of view, this is just a tempest in a teapot," Opperman says. "Of course the activists are taking advantage of the situation to scare consumers. We need to help consumers understand that so called natural products are not ever tested for allergic reactions in humans before these products are sold. Any time a crop is altered, of course it is tested. This particular brand of transgenic corn is simply going through the same testing all transgenic crops go through. There is no evidence that this corn will produce allergic reactions in humans."

Opperman does not excuse the individuals who allowed the corn to get into taco shells before it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He points out, however, that this situation is similar to a pesticide being used in a manner inconsistent with the label. There is a reason to help insure that non-labeled uses are prevented. But, there is no reason to ban the pesticide. Similarly, there is every reason to make certain that transgenic crops are produced, harvested, stored, distributed and consumed by animals or humans in full compliance of all laws and regulations.

A major challenge facing the agricultural industry is the need to work with what Opperman calls "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) who are currently attempting to scare the public away from transgenic crops.

"Credibility is the big issue here," he says. "We have government, ivory tower academics, make-a-buck industry and NGO activists pushing agendas. What we must do is pull all of these organizations, from the FDA to Greenpeace, together to study the facts and educate the public."

He uses the example of genetically enhanced "Golden Rice," which has increased levels of vitamins and nutrients. The transgenic rice has the potential to feed millions and prevent blindness in tens of thousands.

"How can anyone be against that," Opperman asks. "You have to give people an option to live and be healthy before they can take care of other problems. This and other transgenic crops offer that kind of hope.

"I understand people's concerns. As some activists present it, genetically modified sounds scary. We have to help consumers understand that what is being done with genetic modification is not that different than what is being done with conventional breeding, only genetic modification allows us to make improvements faster."

Some activists continue to say that most currently available genetically modified crops offer benefits to farmers but offer very little if any benefits to the public. They often use Roundup Ready soybeans as an example.

"All they see is a company making money on the technology and farmers gaining benefits from an easier production system," Opperman says. "They are overlooking other tangible benefits. Consumers are exposed to fewer herbicides. Roundup breaks down very quickly in the environment. Farmers who plant these transgenic soybeans usually don't plow the land. They make fewer tillage trips. This leads to less fuel use, less soil erosion, less pollution and less negative impact on the environment. All of these are indirect benefits to everyone.

"Groups like Greenpeace and others who continue to oppose transgenic crops have got to stop spreading fear and become part of the effort to understand this technology. We intend to do all we can as scientists to provide the public with the facts they need to make rational decisions about GMOs. After a while the public will adopt GMO foods," Opperman says.

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