By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
June 26, 2005
But a milestone in genetic engineering passed in relative silence this spring, as farmers planted more than 1 billion acres in genetically modified seeds. An estimated 85 percent of the soybeans and 50 percent of the corn crop growing in the United States this year has at least one biotech trait, and bioengineering seeds are available for canola, papaya, cotton, potatoes and tomatoes.
While opponents are still proclaiming biotech a food catastrophe, Kansas corn grower Ken McCauley says he's found nothing negative in his experience using the genetically altered seeds to grow 80 percent of the corn on his 2,000-acre farm.
"Corn is corn," said McCauley, a member of the National Corn Growers Association who serves on the organization's biotech working group. "There's no difference once it's accepted."
McCauley explained that the persistent problem he faced at his northeastern Kansas farm was the "corn moth" or European corn borer. Before the borer-resistant corn seed scientists engineered went into commercial use in 1995, McCauley said he just had to accept the crop losses caused by the moth. The borer eats into the stalk and also carries mycotoxins that cause rot in the corn ear.
The engineered seed McCauley uses is changed to produce its own insecticide, which makes the corn resistant to the borer. Using the seed only reduces the losses caused by the borer, but doesn't result in increased crop sizes, and it's not always 100 percent effective. McCauley said he still has losses when there are heavy infestations caused by variations in rainfall.
McCauley said he listened to the critics, who warned that the technology would result in superbugs, but he said he hasn't found one yet. The 20 percent of his corn crop grown from traditional hybrid seeds is set aside for the corn borers to prevent the development of resistant bugs.
"The naysayers said it would ruin the market, but that hasn't happened, either," said McCauley, who plans to continue using such seeds.
One of the more persistent critics of genetically modified seeds is economist and attorney Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington think tank that monitors the effects of technology on economies around the world.
Rifkin admits that the campaign he led to stop widespread use of bioengineered seeds in the United States failed, but he said he has no apologies for his opposition to the technology.
"It's in the U.S., it's here," said Rifkin. "My views on it haven't changed at all."
Rifkin said public concern about genetic engineering never ignited in the United States as it did in Europe, where many countries still are opposed to using genetically altered plants. Rifkin said his major concern is that wider use of modified seeds results in cross-pollination of wild plants and is altering the genetic base.
Rifkin said the longer-term effects of using gene-altered seeds haven't yet been seen and that it's premature to declare the technology risk-free. He noted that opposition to the technology remains strong in Europe, a market of 455 million.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering wider use of bioengineering, including a proposal to bring to commercial markets genetically engineered fish and proposals to alter genes in plants so pharmaceutical manufacturers can grow drugs.
Kimberly Brooks, of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said her organization's polls have found that public concerns about the technology appear to be diminishing.
In 2001, Pew found that 44 percent of consumers had heard about genetically modified food, but by last year, that had shrunk to 32 percent. Opposition to the idea also has declined over the same period, and most people are unaware they are eating cereals and vegetables that are products of genetic engineering.
Brooks said the response of Americans to genetic engineering contrasts with European skepticism because Americans put more trust in U.S. government regulators to ensure the safety of food sold in stores. She said scandals over how European government agencies concealed key facts involving AIDS-contaminated blood supplies and the "mad cow" epidemic deepened European skepticism about the effectiveness of European agencies to ensure the safety of their food supply.
Dean Kleckner, chairman of an organization called Truth About Trade and Technology and an Iowa farmer, said those opposed to genetic engineering need to realize it's just mankind's latest effort to manipulate foods through crossbreeding and genetic selection and to increase the food supply.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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