The Future of Food and Medicine
by Karri Hammerstrom
As a mother and a consumer, I want to know that the food I eat and prepare for my family is safe and nutritious. I also want to know that technological advances are occurring to keep the food safe and that those same technological advances include research to protect my family against disease and find cures for existing diseases.
I have spent many hours educating myself on the pros and cons of biotechnology and genetically modified foods. I have read numerous articles, searched the internet, listened to renowned experts on the subject, and talked to friends and family regarding biotechnology which is the refinement of conventional breeding of plants and animals to achieve desired, beneficial traits. I have also tried desperately to understand what, in my opinion, are the misguided and unjustified fears of those vehemently opposed to biotechnology. My conclusion is that rather than having opposition based on reality or fact, that those opposed, or posing as the opposition, truly just dislike the United States' government (which ironically allows them to freely have an opposing view), successful multi-national corporations, and anything that flies in the face of their organic dogma which really has very little to do with organic farming.
Corporate verses Family
That is where I saw The Future of Food crossing the line. You see, in addition to being a mother and a consumer, I am also a farmer. I consider myself and my peers to be environmental stewards of the land, as well as farmland preservationists. Like 99 percent of all U.S. farms, my farm is family owned and operated. In fact, according the 2002 Census of Agriculture only less than 1 percent of America's farms and ranches are owned by non-family corporations. And, about 94 percent of U.S. agricultural products sold are produced on farms like mine that are owned by individuals, family partnerships and family corporations. Non-family corporations account for only about 6 percent of U.S. agricultural product sales.
In spite of burdensome regulations and increased urbanization, California is still the number one agricultural producer and exporter in the United States. Contributing almost $30 billion to the economy, California farmers raise more than 350 different crops that supply food, fiber and flowers to the world. California agriculture also supports over 1.1 million jobs or nearly 8 percent of all the jobs in the state. Farming is by no means an easy profession, but it is a noble one and I am proud of what I do and how I do it.
First, conventional farming and the use of biotechnology are safe. For centuries, humankind has made improvements to plants through selective breeding and hybridization - the controlled pollination of plants. Plant biotechnology is an extension of traditional plant breeding with one very important difference - biotechnology ensures the transfer of beneficial traits in a precise, controlled manner. Crops developed through biotechnology are subject to testing and monitoring at three levels of the federal government which secure food and environmental safety of biotechnology derived products. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) makes sure the products are safe to grow; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure the products are safe to eat; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates crop protection characteristics.
Critics of biotechnology have claimed that some crops are not tested and pandemonium may occur by growing unchecked crops. The emergence of a new genetically modified plant variety on the market is not the beginning, but the end result of a research and development process that can take as long as six to 12 years and can cost from $50 million to $300 million (Agricultural Biotechnology at the Crossroads, Bio Economic Research Associates, 2003). The level of pre-market evaluation done on every biotechnology crop is far greater than for any other type of food crop. As previously mentioned, the monitoring and tests include both food safety and environmental impact assessments. In addition, the USDA, EPA and FDA each have the authority to recall products from the food chain if new science-based information identifies a public or environmental health hazard.
Second, I do not see this as an either/or situation, meaning organic verses biotech. Organic farming and conventional farming involving biotechnology can and do coexist. Biotechnology can make the food we eat safer, more nutritious and free from allergens. The use of biotechnology in agriculture has enhanced the wellbeing and environmental stewardship of communities through reduced pesticide use and exposure to other environmental factors. Allowing farmers the ability to choose what and how to grow is the very essence of free market. Organic and biotech choices are tools in a farmer's "toolbox" which allow for farmers to choose to utilize the widest range of technologies available to produce a safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food supply. In other words, there is no justification for restricting the farmers' ability to utilize the kind of breakthroughs and ingenuity we celebrate in every other facet of life. In a world of iPods, cell phones, Palm Pilots and GPS technology, why should farmers be made to use the outdated equivalents of cassette players, rotary phones, Rolodexes, and pre-satellite navigation?
Third, there is no evidence that organically produced food is any safer than food produced by any other method of farming, nor is there a clear nutritional bonus to eating organic. However, I uphold organic farming as an option for any farmer wishing to incorporate organic farming practices into their operations. In fact, I truly believe that organic products are enjoying great niche-market success, in part, because of misguided media hype that buys into propaganda that The Future of Food promulgates.
Fourth, there is no evidence that genetically engineered foods currently on the market pose any human health concern or that they are any less safe than those foods produced through traditional breeding. "To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population," (U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects, 2004). Furthermore, no commercially available, genetically engineered food product contains genetic information of DNA sequence derived from an animal (i.e. fish-headed tomatoes are mythical).
Fifth, because of biotech crops, the world has benefited from a reduction in pesticide use. In the state-by-state study, Impacts on U.S, Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2003, conducted by the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy, they evaluated biotechnology's impact on two of California's commodities - corn and cotton. The study concluded that the biotech varieties increased the state's food and fiber production by more than 10 million pounds, improved farm income by nearly $33 million and reduced pesticide use by 776,000 pounds annually. At a genetically modified foods debate at U.C. Davis in October 2004, Professor Rick Rousch, Director of the Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, cited studies that found pesticide poisonings among Chinese cotton workers have dropped by 75 percent, and insect resistant corn reduced the fungal toxins on insect-damaged corn in Africa where toxins are the likely culprit behind a high incidence of throat cancer and liver problems. Rousch also cited a 2001 European Union report that reviewed $65 million in research by some 400 research groups showing no new risks to human health or the environment compared to conventional plant breeding; and, in fact, that more precise technology and greater scrutiny probably made genetically modified (GM) crops safer than conventional ones. Plant biotechnology provides new options for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs, reduces the overall use of pesticides and enables soil-conserving management practices.
Sadly, the ideology behind many organic supporters is not backed by sound science, or even a love for the land. Many biotech foes oppose the industrialization of the agricultural industry, yet few have actually farmed or have a true understanding of agriculture other than a trip to the grocery store. An all orgranic world is neither "sustainable" nor an efficient use of the land. Organic farming is less efficient and certified organic produce is more expensive than traditionally farmed produce. By comparison, traditional or conventional farmers incorporate many technologies into their cultural practices to achieve sustainable agricultural that is often rejected by many organic farmers.
Over eight hundred million people-13 % of the world's population- are poor and malnourished. They live on less than a dollar a day and cannot be sure that their fields will yield enough food or that they will earn enough money to buy food. Twenty thousand children die every day from malnutrition and another twenty thousand adults also die from the same thing. Norman Borlaug, Ph.D, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Texas A&M University Professor, believes that biotechnology is a necessary component to feeding the world. "I believe the world will be able to produce the food needed to feed the projected population of about 8.3 billion in the year 2025 but it cannot be attained without permitting the use of technologies now available or without research to further improve and utilize new technologies, including biotechnology and recombinant DNA."
According to the Director of the San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture, Maarten J. Chrispeels, he also stresses the need for biotech crops in an effort to successfully feed the word. In a recent article in Plant Physiology entitled "Biotechnology and the Poor", he writes, "The answer to the problems of the poor, according to a number of organizations that oppose GM crops, is more organic, regenerative agriculture. We certainly need more sustainable regenerative agricultural practices, but "organic" farming is the type of agriculture already practiced by the poor, primarily because they do not have the means to buy fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation equipment. According to Dyson, sub-Saharan Africa, where most food crop production is "organic," is unlikely to see much improvement in its already dismal food situation. Exhaustion of the soil caused by the lack of fertilizers is depressing yields and pushing agriculture onto more erodible soils. Organic agriculture is nearly always nitrogen starved unless land is set aside for the sole purpose of producing green manures, a luxury the poor can ill afford. Agriculture as it is practiced now in much of sub-Saharan Africa is environmentally unsustainable and a new approach that will require considerable investment in agricultural research is needed. This new approach must be research-driven and will most certainly include GM crops ("Biotechnology and the Poor," Chrispeels, Maarten J., Plant Physiology, September 2004, Vol. 124: 3-6.).
In short, the world does not have enough land mass to support an all-organic food and fiber production society. In order to preserve wilderness lands and the biodiversity they offer, higher crop productivity that is not feasible with organic crops is necessary.
I have been a direct beneficiary of biotech medicines. When pregnant with my first child, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. I was unable to control the disease with diet alone and was insulin dependent. In 1982, human insulin to treat diabetes became the first commercial application of biotechnology.
Biotechnology is being used to develop food and fiber crops that are salt water tolerant, drought resistant, have enhanced antioxidant properties, contain trans-fat free oils, possess increased protein and resist viral infections like Pierce's disease. Cynics attack the notion that private donors fund university research. In agriculture, it is an acceptable practice for private industries to fund university research projects and educational programs. Public funding for agricultural research is not readily available, so without private contributions and matching funds university research would not be conducted.
As a result of the research, subsequent discoveries and unlimited possibilities, it is no wonder that world authorities such as the American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, Institute of Food Technologists, World Health Organization, and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations support biotechnology. They recognize food biotechnology as a safe, environmentally-friendly, useful tool to help feed the world.
Dr. Patrick Moore, Environmental Consultant and Co-Founder of Greenpeace, warns the skeptics, "The campaign of fear now being waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic." Groups opposing genetically modified crops on ideological, philosophical, or economic grounds have not brought forth scientific evidence to support their claims of negative health consequences or environmental impact (Foods from Genetically Modified Crops. San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture, www.sdcma.org. page 16.).
In October 2004, the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology released a statement on behalf of the California State University System stating that science is the driving force behind innovation and technology advancement and has been a key driver for California's agricultural success and there is no credible scientific evidence to question the health and environmental safety of approved, commercial biotech crops.
Other Biotech Falsehoods
Several California farmers successfully farm conventional, organic and biotech crops. They do so by creating buffers between crop varietals and implementing practices such as crop rotation and monitoring.
Royalties: The film criticizes royalties paid to seed companies for the use of their seed. In the agricultural industry, royalties are paid for conventional, organic and biotech varieties of commodities such as peaches, plums, cotton and roses. For example, a farmer may pay a royalty fee to the University of California for a stone fruit variety they developed; the royalty fee helps to offset their research costs and funds further research.
Seed Harvesting: Seventy-five percent of the world's farmers save seed, but in the United States it is only about ten percent. In other parts of the world, they are saving seed because they do not have access or resources to the commercial varieties. In the Percy Schmeiser case, the Supreme Court found that Schmeiser knowingly (and fraudulently) saved and sold seed using Monsanto-derived technology, and, therefore, this had not been accidental contamination.
Superweed: In regard to the creation of a superweed, good cultural practices dictate the rotation of crops and implements to prevent resistance or tiring of the soil. If all scientific advances were halted out of fear of the unknown, life-saving technological breakthroughs such as penicillin, the pasteurization of milk, or the polio vaccine would have never been made available to the world.
World Acceptance: World cultivation of plants from modern biotechnology is increasing year by year. More than seven million farmers in eighteen countries planted a total of 167.2 million acres in 2003, up fifteen percent from 2002. At present, there are about sixteen varieties approved for commercial cultivation. The four major countries are Argentina, Canada, China and the United States.
Exaggerated Fear Campaign: The Future of Food is just another exploit in a long line of many acts of hype. North Dakota wheat farmer Al Skogen fervently describes his opinion of the environmental movement against biotech, "It's clear to most farmers that the environmental movement completely has neglected the fact that biotech crops are a solid step forward for the environment. Unfortunately, most environmental activist groups sold their allegiance to the environment a long time ago in exchange for a fully funded fear campaign supported by trust funders, organic promoters and professional agitators."
As a farmer, I look to biotechnology in hopes that research will avail new types of crops and livestock that improve product quality, reduce labor, reduce insecticide use, reduce soil erosion, improve air and water quality, etc. In addition to increased yields and less environmental impacts, I can anticipate better health because I will no longer be exposed to certain insecticides when growing insect-resistant biotech crops.
As a consumer and a mother, I believe biotech or genetically modified foods can offer lower prices, better nutrition and fewer pesticide residues. So, I will continue to buy them without hesitation. In the same manner, I will also continue to exercise my freedom of choice to purchase organically and conventionally grown foods and products as I see fit.
Biotechnology is not the silver bullet and it is not without its shortcomings.
However, with an increasing world population and rampant disease in third-world
countries, I am confident research will continue to "grow" solutions
that will benefit us all. It is a powerful tool to increase food production,
protect the environment, improve the nutritional value of food, and produce
invaluable pharmaceuticals. I encourage you to educate yourself on the
issue and make you own informed decision on the biotech issue. I am confident
you will reach a similar, if not the same, conclusion I did.