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Is Conventional Agriculture Safe?
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Before starting today’s topic, Kansas reached a bit of a milestone this week. As of this past Tuesday not one square foot of the state is listed as being abnormally dry by the National Drought Mitigation Center located in Lincoln, Neb. In fact, except for a tiny slice of the Texas panhandle/Oklahoma, the region, including Nebraska, is in great shape for soil moisture heading into wheat ripening and harvest and the planting of the region’s summer crops. But as always, producers realize this condition can change fairly rapidly. However, the forecast through June is for above normal precipitation.
There have been a variety of agriculturally themed news releases this week, particularly regarding GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops. There are several areas for consideration: the safety of the crops for human consumption, especially the potential for allergies; the safety of the crops and some of the chemicals involved for wildlife and people, especially for pollinators and cancers in human beings; and the nutritional value of these crops compared to “natural” or “organic” foods. So is it Armageddon? Is it paradise? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Briefly, let’s examine what is known, especially in light of the latest international report of glyphosate, Roundup ®, and cancer this week.
• All reputable research indicates that GMO crops are just as safe as “regular” crops. There is no evidence to suggest an increase in allergies or other negative reactions to GMOs after the past twenty plus years with  billions of meals with GMO foods consumed. Evidence also indicates GMOs are just as nutritious as there non-GMO counterparts.  
• The case for GMO crops, production and the environment is a mixed-bag. First, there has been a substantial decrease in the use of many pesticides, primarily insecticides and herbicides. The pesticides we use with these crops are more environmentally friendly and safer for applicators. The downside is the development of what are termed “superweeds.” These are problem weeds that through the overuse of a single class of herbicide have shifted to resistant populations. The same appears to be happening with corn rootworm. The jury is still out on the possible negative effects of glyphosate tolerant crops on pollinators, especially Monarch Butterflies, but strong efforts are underway to provide required plants for these pollinators in non-cropland areas. One benefit of GMOs is the ability to more successfully implement reduced and no-till systems conserving soil and water.
• GMOs are touted providing a significant increase on total food production to feed those additional people needing fed over the next twenty years. They are useful and result in less crop loss from pests, better yields under heat and drought stress, and so on. But, so far we aren’t seeing a direct correlation between dramatic increases in yields and GMO technologies. Direct yield increases still seem to be the domain of more conventional breeding but the evidence suggests with new and better GMO techniques this is likely to change.   
While GMO technology won’t be able to solve all of the world’s food and environmental concerns, it is making a positive contribution with the data accumulated so far, safe.