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Opinion: Why I Grow Genetically Engineered Crops

Guest Opinion: Why I Grow Genetically Engineered Crops
By Jeff Wilson
Commentary from the Food Safety Network

As the genetically-engineered rhetoric reaches new extremes with the upcoming New Zealand federal election, perhaps I can offer a farmer's perspective. I started growing genetically engineered sweet corn and potatoes three years ago on my family-run, 250 acre fruit-and-vegetable farm northwest of Toronto, and am again this year. Both sweet corn and potatoes are high management crops, requiring a high degree of vigilance to produce the quality that consumers demand. The complexity around the decision farmers make is vast, imperfect, not always fair, but at the end of the day, provides an abundant array of affordable food. Genetic engineering, for me, on my farm, factors into that decision-making.

Apparently many other farmers feel the same way. The use of genetically engineered crops in North America continues to increase. While estimates for this year remain preliminary, it is expected that some 70 per cent of canola, 35 per cent of corn and 30 per cent of soybeans grown in Canada will be from genetically engineered varieties this year. In the U.S., about 75 per cent of soybeans, 70 per cent of cotton and 30 per cent of filed corn will be GE. Why? One of the biggest stories at the recent biotechnology conference in Toronto was new research documenting a 46 million pound reduction in pesticide use in the U.S. in 2001 because of genetically engineered crops such as cotton, canola, soy and field corn.

Such crops helped American farmers reap an additional 14 billion pounds of food and improve farm income by $2.5 billion.

The most recent study from the Washington-based National Center for Food and Agricultural also predicted that if the 32 other biotech crop varieties still under development were planted, they would reduce pesticide use by 117 million pounds per year, bringing total pesticide reduction for all biotech crops to 163 million pounds annually.

Field corn resistant to rootworm, for example, could replace 14 million pounds of insecticides used on this crop each year (the complete report, commissioned with a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, and later expanded with industry funding, was reviewed by nearly 70 plant biotechnology scientists from 20 academic and government institutions and is available at www.ncfap.org) Of significance to my operations was the Center's findings for sweet corn and potatoes.

Genetically engineered insect tolerant sweet corn and potatoes have been approved and used in the U.S. and Canada since 1998. However, they are rarely used today because of a circular, self-fulfilling argument that consumers don't want the products. The fast-food chains say consumers don't want genetic engineering so processors like McCain's tell farmers not to grow genetically engineered Bt potatoes. So they get sprayed. A lot.

The NCFAP study predicted that if Florida sweet corn growers used the same genetically engineered variety that I grow, there would be a 112,000 lbs per year, or 79 per cent reduction in insecticide use, at a net savings of $1.3 million. The pesticide reduction for potatoes was even more dramatic.

But there is a flaw in this consumer-is-always-right reasoning, Sure, consumers say on surveys they would be less likely to buy a food product if they knew it was genetically engineered, irradiated, or played with in any way. The limited data on actual consumer decision-making reveals that consumers often say one thing and do another.

For example, while all manner of consumer revolt was predicted before the commercial introduction of recombinant bovine somatotropin or rBST, used in dairy production, the furor subsided once such milk became available in U.S. grocery stores in 1994. Milk consumption went up, not down. The vast majority of consumers refused to pay even marginally more for labeled, rBST-free milk. The pundits were wrong. A supermarket test on irradiation found that consumers preferred the appearance and purchased irradiated papaya over non-irradiated papaya in spite of perceived consumer concerns.

Raw hamburger, irradiated to lessen the risk of E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens is selling well in the U.S. now that is actually available for consumers to buy. Consumers vote at the check-out counter. And they usually vote on the basis of price, taste, nutrition and safety.

For the past two years, the consumers in my farm market -- when actually given a choice -- preferred the genetically engineered sweet corn and potatoes because of the reduced chemical use. And contrary to the pro- and anti-duality of most discussions about biotechnology, this is not about feeding the world; there is already sufficient food supplies.

The real question is what amount of environmental degradation will be required to continue feeding the world, both at home and abroad. Agriculture, after all, is not natural. The high-yield, reduced-input agriculture that some genetically engineered crops help facilitate means that less land is brought into cultivation, fewer chemicals are used, and biodiversity is actually enhanced.

It's about providing food under sustainable conditions and as a farmer, I'm interested in anything I can do to minimize the environmental impact of growing food. Of course, genetic engineering, like any other tool, is no magic bullet. On my farm I explore any production practice -- including organic -- that can make my farm more efficient and friendlier for my surrounding environment. My family lives here.

- Jeff Wilson is a farmer in Hillsburgh, Ont., Canada A 3.5 km self-guided walking trail is now open at the farm and provides consumers a closer look at the challenges, trade-offs and technologies used to grow safe, affordable, quality produce. For those who can't visit the farm, video updates are available at http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca. Contact the author electronically, C/- Doug Powell, University of Guelph dpowell@uoguelph.ca


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