Fears of GMOs not grounded in science

I read with interest the March 16 article, “Nature center grant from Monsanto still rankles despite policy change” and March 17 editorial, “Nature center handles touchy topic well,” concerning biotechnological advances in the agriculture industry, with interest.

If you follow agricultural biotechnology (also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs) as I have with my research, it becomes clear Internet myths drive the negative emotions of today’s debate. Few in the public understand mankind has been manipulating the DNA of our food for over 10,000 years. Only the methods used to alter the DNA of food have changed over time. Genetic engineered (GE) crop breeding is by far the most precise method ever invented. This fact is lost when the fear generated by false information about GE crops and the companies that make them fill the Internet.

The science is clearly on the side of continued development of GE crops. “The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques,” notes the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It is very common to read stories alleging neonicitinoid insecticides and GE crops are causing the collapse of bee populations. Neither is true. The connection between neonicitinoid seed treatments and bee health is very tenuous at best. There is no connection between GE crops and colony collapse disorder of bees according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you doubt either, investigate the Western Canadian situation where more than 90 percent of the GE canola seeds are treated with neonicitinoids and the bees are doing just fine.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is often put forward by environmental groups as the way forward for global agriculture. Unfortunately, the project was a total failure and was a good example of “green-washing.” A 2013 European National Academies of Science report said: “There is compelling evidence that GM crops can contribute to sustainable development goals with benefits to farmers, consumers, the environment and the economy.”

Critics of GE crops love to conflate this technology with one company. It is called “argumentium ad monsantium". Monsanto is a world leader in GE crop development. It is easy to see why so many are myth-informed about GE crops and this one company. The Internet is full of false information. It is said Monsanto sues small farmers for GE crops ending up in their non-GE fields. Another myth is that organic farmers are losing their certification from GE crops “contaminating” their fields. Neither is true. No North American organic farmer has ever lost certification for trace amounts of GE in their products. Monsanto has never sued for adventitious presence of GE in non-GE fields.

One can read how Monsanto is trying to take over the world’s food supply. For this to be true Monsanto would have to make far more money than the roughly $15 billion they actually make. To give perspective, Whole Foods made about $14 billion last year. Why is no one accusing Whole Foods of tying to take over the world’s food supply?

Monsanto is accused of extreme political lobbying. But a quick look at a MotherJones article shows Monsanto did not even make the top 75 lobbying companies between 1989 and 2010. Last year they did not make to the top 50, according to opensecrets.org.

A definition of blackmail (to force or coerce into a particular action, statement, etc.) very much describes the activities of activist Bob Burns when he said money to fund the children’s education program on pollinators came with explicit requirements. The irony is thick considering that the original $5,000 donated by Monsanto came with no strings attached, according to the nature center spokesperson, Elissa Bass.

A group of activists forces a nature center to abandon funding that helped educate children about bees, butterflies and bats. The activists claim it is justified because of what they believe to be true about the donor organization. Unfortunately, far too many people have been misinformed about Monsanto and the real science of GE crops. The March 17 editorial said it very well: “The actions of the donor, not its name or reputation, should drive decisions.” Society definitely benefits from corporate sponsorship in many areas including the arts, culture and education.

Robert Wager has been a faculty member in the biology department at Vancouver Island University in Canada 20 years and is a scientist trained in microbiology, biochemistry and molecular biology. His research includes genetically engineered crops and derived foods with an emphasis on public education.

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