The uproar over genetically modified organisms is not an ethical issue, says Charles Opperman, co-director of the Genome Research Lab at North Carolina State University.
"World starvation, the spread of AIDS in Africa, those are ethical issues. I don't see GMOs as an ethical issue. I do think there should be discussion on both sides," he says.
Speaking at the Southeastern Vegetable and Fruit/AgTech 2000 Expo in Greensboro, N.C., it was clear where Opperman stood on the biotech battleground.
Few options left "Grain production has increased four-fold since 1950, yet acreage has remained constant. Given the fact that most of the arable land is currently being used, we have few options if we're going to feed people," he says.
Citing the example of newly released Golden Rice, genetically modified to add genes for beta carotene production, Opperman says it could save the lives of a million children annually and save the eyesight of another 350,000.
"Everybody wants choice, and they want low product prices. Everybody is concerned with risk. We have to have safe food. That's huge. But there are toxins already in the food supply so there are risks inherent with eating food. Americans consume more natural pesticides made by plants than they do organically-produced pesticides," he says.
Environmentalists should welcome biotech crops, which offer the potential for reducing pesticide usage, Opperman says. "Growers who used herbicide-resistant soybeans in 1998 used 40 percent less herbicides than in previous years, and soil conservation was maintained with less tillage. Herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape had a 50 percent herbicide reduction. This is a fairly `green' technology."
Questions being asked Europe's furor over Mad Cow Disease fed resistance to biotech crops, he says. "There are now rumors that a hormone from feed caused Mad Cow Disease. So now you have people wondering if a genetically modified tomato will cause it."
Europeans also worry about the extensive reach of the multi-national corporations which control most biotech research. "Greenpeace is concerned it will lead to the increased power of the multi-nationals. Unfortunately, groups like Greenpeace don't often operate with factual information," Opperman says.
Scattershot policing of the biotech industry contributed to the problems, he thinks. "Government regulations have been a mishmash. A number of agencies are attempting to regulate genetically modified organisms," he says.
Most people don't realize a crop is genetically modified every time a plant breeder makes a cross, Opperman says.