Panel Speaks on GMOs and Biotech
Agriculture and food sustainability is a growing interest in the community and as technologies change, varied practices lead to clashing opinions on the best agriculture methods and safety. To address some of the latest controversial topics in the industry, the Molokai Farm Bureau hosted a presentation last Tuesday, led by three independent experts in ag technology. They answered questions and provided educational outreach to the community advocating scientific advances in biotechnology and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
“A lot of what’s going on in agriculture right now is because somehow the technology and communication have not synced,” said Mae Nakahata, an agronomist at Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Company on Maui, secretary of the Hawaii Farm Bureau and vice president of the Hawaii Agriculture Foundation. “Technology has leapt forward but somehow the communication of what that technology is to everybody has not connected. That’s why I think it is good we have everyone here tonight so we can try to foster that communication.”
The event’s panel included Nakahata; Dr. Steve Savage, author of “Modern Pesticides: Why They Matter and How They’ve Changed” and an ag technology consultant with more than 30 years experience in the field; as well as Dr. Peter Davies, author of “GMO Crops and Food: Fact & Fiction” and biotechnology professor at Cornell University.
Attendees of the event were given the opportunity to ask a question via comment card after a short presentation. While there are a variety of concerns about GMO crops, panelists last week addressed questions on genetic engineering (GE) from a scientific background rather than a farming standpoint. Below are some of the questions and answers from the night.
Question (Q): What are the potential concerns, if any, about GE?
Peter Davies (PD): The first thing to note is that genetic engineering is a process, not a product. From what we have seen in 25 years since this was first done, it has not lead to any notable problems. It’s all what you put in it. If you put in a gene that made a toxic natural product, you could have a toxic plant as a result. But that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s GMO and no sensible scientist is going to do that. It’s a huge effort to make one of these GMO crops—the figure is about $150 million—and it’s not going to be something you can easily do in your garage. Nobody is likely to do that and I can assure you the body of scientists would immediately object if a toxin was put into a plant intended to be a crop.
Q: Are organic crops safer than GMO crops?
Steve Savage (SS): It would depend on where we’re talking about. If you were in the parts of the world where we don’t have something like an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), yeah, you’d be way better eating organic. But they do find pesticide residues in both organic and non-organic produce. In a recent Canadian study, they found at least some kind of pesticide residue on 43 percent on the organic samples. It wasn’t anything scary; it just wasn’t all that different. So is organic safer? I would say no, not on the whole.
Mae Nakahata (MN): I think with organic, as long as you follow procedures like proper composting, you can grow safe produce. It’s when people start taking shortcuts that you have a problem. It’s the same with GMOs. The basic GMO technology I believe is very safe, but if you’re growing the crop incorporating unsafe practices, the product can be dangerous.
Q: Why are there so many countries banning biotech if it’s safe?
PD: In many places, activists have told the public that biotech is not safe, which is not correct, but that is what the public has come to believe in many cases. Most people don’t understand the science and they don’t go researching it in depth. We now come to the fact that a large number of the population has been scared and they lobby their politicians. Most politicians are more interested in getting reelected and if you’re going to be reelected, you have to do what most people think is important. A lot of the politicians don’t understand it either and they don’t have time to go and investigate. So it’s all political.
MN: We’re living in a society where a lot of people don’t understand the sciences. Too many people think science is something very foreign, and as a result, the basic understanding is not there. If you don’t understand what happens, you have fear. When you have fear, that’s where these myths start. I think it’s not just for agriculture, it’s for everything. Fear is one of the most powerful motivators.
Q: Why do the myths exist and who is starting them?
PD: This is something that those of us in science find very peculiar. In the early 1990s, if a scientist was working on genetically modified plants at a university, they had to do it in highly secured greenhouse with locks on the doors and filtered air because we didn’t know what the situation was. But if you go to a university now, all these restrictions have gone. We now know that plants that are changed using these methods are just the same as any other plant — it might have a new characteristic but they’re just the same. It was still a little bit scary way back at that time.
At that time activists said, “Oh we can’t let this get out of the lab,” so they became anti-GMO starting from this time. One of the main organizations is called Green Peace. I and many other scientists consider this a non-scientific organization, but you know, it’s rather like addiction–once you start on something, it’s very difficult to stop. These organizations get hundreds of millions of dollars each year from donors. What are they going to do, suddenly say, “Whoops we made a mistake?” Also there are people who have become convinced that these incorrect rumors are correct.
I’m a scientist. I’m doing this because I feel it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately there are not enough scientists who are willing to stand up and say what I’m saying because scientists do not get rewarded for this. They get rewarded for research and teaching, they don’t get paid to do community events like this. It’s sad that this is occurring because GMO benefits the farmer with high yield and less use of insecticides because of insect resistance. It benefits the consumer because you have less potential for residues. We’re going to need this technology more and more in the future.
Q: Is the dust dangerous from drift from seed farms or pesticides used by them?
SS: A lot of pesticides are not water-soluble and generally, you don’t really want them to be water-soluble. You want them to stay on the waxy surface of a leaf; you don’t want it going into the water, and for the most part, that means when they actually get associated with the soil, they bind pretty tightly. But then you could say when the dust drifts, it has the pesticide on it. Whether the dust has that chemical depends on how long the chemical has been there because they’re breaking down over time. Dust that blew a long time later may not have any residue present or not enough to ever be an issue.
If there is drift, there are things that are done to mitigate the risk. If you look at the labels, there’re maximum wind speeds, there’s guidance in terms of the droplet size that should be used, and it depends on the type of sprayer. So if you’re in an orchard with an air blast sprayer trying to get up to the highest leaves, obviously that is going to have a lot more potential for drift than a herbicide application where you’re just trying to hit the ground and you keep the boom close to the ground. If the grower is doing things right, there really shouldn’t be enough drift to be something worried about.
Q: In your opinion, is it possible for Hawaii to become self-sustainable when it comes to food, if so how much do you think it would take?
MN: A couple years ago, I was working with the civil defense people because they are very concerned about what happens during emergencies in the state of Hawaii. Their big concerns are not tidal waves, earthquakes, etc. Their big concern is pandemics. The first thing we need is that we have the maximum amount of land for agriculture. As long as the land is being used for agriculture, you can quickly start growing stuff if you have seed material. I think having the capacity to grow is the most important thing. That’s why as the Farm Bureau, we support all kinds of ag so we have diversity. We need all different kinds of agriculture and we need to strengthen our exports. Hawaii’s highest level of self-sufficiency existed when we had our highest level of exports because we have a huge production capacity. So say we get an emergency here, we’ve already got the production to stop sending it out and have something to depend on.
The discussion concluded before all questions were asked, however some attendees left feeling the event raised more questions than answers and didn’t present all sides.
“This [discussion] will only divide us more,” said Walter Ritte, a local activist, leading community efforts against GMOs. “This approach can only do us more harm than good.”
Others thought presenting a different side of the issue was important for community discussion.
“It can be difficult to present science to a community at large,” said Ray Foster, president of the Molokai Farm Bureau and site manager at Monsanto Molokai. “But I think it was well done and the speakers brought a new level of understanding to the table.”