By RICK A. RICHARDS
NEW YORK, N.Y. — It wasn’t long after genetically altered food became available that it was labeled “Frankenfood.” The name stuck and ever since, agriculture has been trying to figure out how to distance itself from the label.
The issue of biotechnology was debated during the Nov. 16 U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance Food Dialogues at The TimesCenter in Midtown Manhattan. Six panelists discussed the pros and cons of the issue.
Fred Kirschenmann, with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture at Iowa State University, said the goal was to make crops more resistant to pests. He called biogenetics a “rifle shot” approach where a large problem is attacked by a narrow response.
“Maybe we need to discuss how to get rid of pests to begin with. Why is a pest a pest?” he asked.
For Cheryl Rogowski, an organic farmer in upstate New York, dealing with pests is something to be done up close. While that can’t be done on a large scale, she said she’s able to look her customers in the eye at the farmers’ market and explain where their food comes from and how it’s grown. “There is complete transparency in what I do and I think that’s what consumers want,” she said.
Bob Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, said biogenetics is a useful tool in making sure the food chain is safe and free from pests. “I stare at DNA all day long,” he explained. “I can tell you that there is not one crop being produced today that wasn’t engineered at some point in its life. It may have been hundreds of years ago, but it happens naturally.
“There is a misperception of what we do. We need to separate the science of what we’re doing from the other issues that surround agriculture. We live in a country where we spend only 5 to 7 percent of our income on food, and that’s because of genetics research.”
Goldberg said it’s a myth that genetically modified (GMO) crops are “Frankenfood” and he blames an “us versus them” mentality between organic farmers and mainstream agriculture.
Jerry Slocum, a soybean farmer from Mississippi, said biotechnology is good for U.S. agriculture. “We raise corn, soybeans and wheat more efficiently with lower costs and more profitability with biotechnology. And our environmental footprint is smaller because we don’t need to use as much herbicides and pesticides,” he added.
While Rogowski said she doesn’t believe in using biotechnology in crops on her farm, she also doesn’t think her views ought to be foisted onto others – nor that the views of others should be directed at her.
Kirschenmann made it clear he’s not opposed to technology, but he wonders what will be in store in the future. “The question ought to be ‘How do I make my farm resilient?’” he said.
There have been pickets and confrontations outside some supermarkets were GMO food is sold. Julie Howard, chief scientist for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said GMO food is safe to eat, something that’s been shown in study after study.
Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at Center for Science in the Public Interest, said there are issues that need to be explored. “We need to make sure we’re not adding allergens to food, for instance,” he noted.
For Kirschenmann, the issue is being too narrowly focused. Instead of single crops, he said research ought to be done on entire ecosystems to see what kind of changes are taking place through the use of genetically engineered food. “We just don’t know. A small impact in one area could result in a big impact in another area. We don’t know if we’ve asked all of the questions we need to be asking,” he said.