Debate Continues Over Genetically Engineered Food

Mar 11, 2014

Genetically Engineered food has become a hot button in this country.  Supporters say cross breeding plants is as old as farming itself. Opponents fear today’s high tech methods have created something that may be dangerous in the long run.

A comment period by USDA ended last week, as scientists and activists continue the debate over the idea of genetically modified crops.

A documentary called “Seeds of Death” excoriates the idea of genetically engineered food for an hour and a half.  Comments, marches, and public outcry have accompanied the advent of GMOs, calling it “Frankenfood.”

“We’re not producing genetically modified animals for the food supply but we are producing genetically modified plants and they’ part of international commerce now and it’s been that way since the late 1990s,” says Eric Hallerman, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. 25 years ago, he was involved in the first experiments with genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Hallerman wrote papers about his concerns about it back then. “Now a lot of the environmental risks of biotech, looking back, were overblown.  But some of them were for real and we know a lot more now about which threats are real and which are not real.”

Hallerman is working on a review of how GE crops will fit into sustainable agriculture and food security in the developing world and he’s still sorting out the ideas in his own mind.   “I would go so far as to say that GM plants have a role in improving the sustainability of crop production globally.  It will increase production, which is important.  It will decrease the environmental footprint of agriculture.  It will improve the nutritional qualities of grain.”  

“The genie is out of the bottle we can not get away from them even if we wanted to,” says Stan Davis, General Manager of Eats Natural Foods in Blacksburg. The name of his store also described his own eating habits, but….. “We do not carry any products that we know are GMO. It’s very difficult to know if you have a GMO product or not. The American people want to know but the industry will not tell them so we just stick with strictly organic products as much as we can.”

Mike Hanson is a biologist and ecologist at Consumers Union. “We don't think genetically engineered food should be banned. We just say this is a new technology just like a food additive or any new thing you want to put into the food supply, there should be required safety assessments before the foods come on the market and there actually should be labeling too.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau does not support labeling saying it would be a logistical nightmare. Some producers take it upon themselves to label their food non-GMO and some retailers plan to label it in the next few years.  China too is struggling with the idea of genetically modified food. “China’s just reaching the point now where they have their own natively produced, genetically modified crops," says Hallerman.

Hallerman is part of a team from Virginia Tech working to share expertise on GMOs and assist the Chinese in importing and growing their own. “And they just reached the decisions on whether to adopt them for agriculture.  And some of the politicians are nervous about it.  They need some reassurance that the risks are understood well, that we know how to oversee them in the United States. Your structures in China look pretty good.  Go ahead and start making regulatory decisions.  It’s OK.”

But those assurances don’t work for many Americans, parts of Europe and the developed world, as the developing world searches for ways to feed its undernourished populations.  In the US, some producers already take it upon themselves to label their food “non GMO” and some retailers plan to label it in the next few years.