Many of you have likely heard of the discovery of Roundup Ready® wheat in the Pacific Northwest where no of Roundup Ready® wheat should have been. It created quite a stir and heated up the debate regarding GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) and their safety. The problem here was although this GMO wheat had been developed and deemed safe for consumption; it was shelved, never to be released for production. The primary reason not to release this wheat was purely economic. Much of our domestic wheat production is destined for export, especially in an area like the Pacific Northwest, and many of those countries stated they would not purchase GMO wheat, primarily for health/food safety reasons.
While many of us aren’t overly concerned regarding the consumption of GMO foodstuffs, a vocal minority debates the safety and wisdom of the various food and feed stuffs and other items deemed GMO. There is always cause for concern with new chemistries and technologies. And the safety track record for pesticides and other chemicals has a checkered history, especially from after WWII to the late 1960s. Just Google DDT videos and you can see it touted as a miracle designed to eliminate many insects like mosquitos, eliminating diseases. There are videos of school children eating while being doused by DDT to demonstrate its safety. Atrazine was a wonder herbicide for corn production, overused and abused.
We found out things we didn’t know and made adjustments to address these mistakes. That doesn’t help those harmed, but unfortunately it’s the way we sometimes have to learn hard lessons. Better, safer chemistries were developed. Better vetting procedures resulted in better, more thorough testing procedures to determine safety and efficacy. We learned from our mistakes and became more cautious. This is especially true of the development and release of GMO crops. While mistakes are still possible and problems may indeed come to light, these new technologies have been heavily examined to determine safety. The larger issue really is the assertion that because something is natural, it must be safe and if it’s synthetic or manmade it must be bad. Let’s think about that for a moment. First let’s consider a list of natural items.
• Tornados, lightning, and floods
• Cyanide and arsenic
• Botulism and anthrax
Is that list a bit slanted? Of course it is. Natural isn’t necessarily good and manmade isn’t necessarily bad. A classic example in agriculture is synthetic vs. “organic” fertilizers. There is nothing inherently wrong with organic fertilizers, they aren’t “better” than synthetic ones. There are some benefits to using organic sources such as adding organic matter and in some cases cost (think manure). There are two terms in soil fertility, immobilization and mineralization. Immobilization is the uptake of nutrients by organisms in the soil, placing them in an organic form, and making them unavailable to the crop. They aren’t lost to the crop, just unavailable for a time. Mineralization is the opposite process where these organic forms are converted to mineral forms and made plant available. With a few exceptions, plants can’t take up organic forms of nutrients and take up the mineral form. So whatever form you apply, it must be the mineral form for the plant.
So the next time you hear arguments from the extreme of either side of the GMO debate take time to way the evidence and make an informed opinion.
Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.