Acton Institute Powerblog

A GMO Thanksgiving

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Let’s face it – if not for genetically modified organisms, many of us wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving in the traditional sense. Instead of turkey, cranberries and sweet potatoes, we’d be reduced to something far less appealing such as, say, Beans-and-Franksgiving.

Unfortunately, some shareholder activists – including those affiliated with As You Sow – work long hours to ensure GMOs are eliminated as a dinner option. According to the AYS website:

The genetic modification or engineering of plants and animals has become a significant economic and environmental issue. As investor advocates, we are concerned that many companies are exposed to material financial risk from the environmental, food security, and public health issues associated with GMOs.

Currently, 85% of corn, 93% of soybeans, and 82% of cotton in the U.S. is genetically engineered. It is estimated that 75% of processed foods in supermarkets contain GMOs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency do not conduct or require long-term safety studies on the environmental or health impacts of GMOs. Independent researchers, however, have documented the increasing environmental impacts and negligible benefits of genetically modified crops, and the significant and growing consumer preference to avoid them.

This, quite frankly, is absurd and more than disingenuous. In truth, GMOs are making tremendous strides when it comes to feeding the world not only on a day set aside for acknowledging our thanks for our food, but as well the remaining 364 days of the year. Take, for example, the recent GMO advancements related to the Innate brand potatoes. According to the Hoover Institution’s Henry I. Miller, M.D., the recently U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved potato shows great promise for assisting in feeding the world cheaply:

They are bruise resistant and contain 50%-70% less asparagine, a chemical that is converted to acrylamide, a carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures. The advantage of lower levels of acrylamide is obvious, but the bruise resistance is important to sustainability because of the potential to decrease waste.

Moreover, Simplot is performing advanced field testing of second-generation Innate potatoes that will contain an additional trait: resistance to the destructive fungus called late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century and is still with us. Potatoes that are resistant to bruising and late blight represent major advances in sustainability, because every serving of French fries or mashed potatoes made from them represents less farmland and water consumption.

This is all well and fine, readers might ponder, but what of pesticides? This, from the American Council on Science and Health:

Despite a plethora of studies over the past two decades providing evidence that GMO (also known as genetically-engineered or biotech) foods are just as safe as conventional foods, along with confirmation from American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency that GM technology does not pose a human health threat, anti-GMO groups still try to look for any reason to reject this life-saving technology. One common argument is that GMOs are causing pesticide inputs to increase. We’ve stated before that GMOs actually reduce pesticide use—and now a new meta-analysis of GM crop impacts provides more evidence to support this fact.

The meta-analysis was conducted by PhD student Wilhelm Klümper and Dr. Matin Qaim of the Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany, in order to examine the effects of GM crops at a global scale. In the analysis, published this week in PLOS ONE, Klümper and Dr. Qaim included 147 original studies from all over the world that report impacts of GM soybean, maize, or cotton crop yields, pesticide use, and/or farmer profits. The authors found that crop yields increased by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. They also found that GM technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent. It was found that yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than developed countries, though both net yield and economic impacts were still positive for developed countries.

Perhaps this overall good will extend further into the holiday season. Remember the first line from Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”? When was the last time readers enjoyed chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Blight decimated the once common holiday staple, but it’s possible it’s making a comeback:

The American chestnut was once a major feature of the Appalachian forests, with its range covering the entire East Coast. But it fell victim to an invasive species: a fungal blight has pretty much wiped out the species in its native range. A few nearly dead trees sporadically send out shoots, and some survivors outside its normal range are the only reasons we’re still able to grow any American chestnuts.

Efforts to restore the tree initially focused on interbreeding with an Asian chestnut that’s resistant to the fungus. But resistance turned out to be complex, conveyed by a mix of seven different genes. That’s made it much harder to produce something that’s both resistant and primarily carries the American chestnut genome. The long generation time for trees has made matters worse.

Researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, however, thought it might be easier to engineer resistance. The fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) that infects the trees causes many of its lethal effects through a chemical called oxalic acid. Many plants carry genes that break oxalic acid down to simpler chemicals. Why not simply insert one of these genes into the American chestnut?

The use of GMO crops is likely to continue to expand—a recent analysis of global data suggests that GMO crops raise yields, lower pesticide use, and increase farmers’ income.

The increasing capability of GMOs to feed the world – safely, cost-effectively and environmentally sound – is something to be truly thankful for. Let’s hope the religious investors of AYS recognize this before all of us face a holiday season without potatoes and chestnuts.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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