SOME THINGS WILL ALWAYS BE ARGUED: Add GMOs to the list

Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone in the assassination of President Kennedy? Should drinking water be fluoridated? Is our climate changing or is it simply a natural cycle? Musial, Mays, or Mantle?

These questions and others like them have been debated for years and no doubt will continue to be into the future. As long as there are issues that invoke passion on both sides, discussion, debate, and argument will follow. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps the rest of us form our own opinions on the topic at hand and hopefully reach an informed opinion.

Agriculture is not immune to longstanding debates. Some of these contentious issues remain within the agricultural brethren. Your average hamburger consumer doesn’t worry much about the calcium to magnesium ratio of the soil, but get the right mix of agricultural folks together and a debate is inevitable. It’s been that way for a long time and I don’t see the issue dying anytime soon, even though the science is pretty clear on the matter.

Everyone has a dog in the hunt when it comes to food; some produce, others retail, and all consume. When genetically engineered crops, or GMOs, hit the market it was not surprising that lines would be drawn and a scrum would ensue. It began in earnest when glyphosate-resistant soybeans were first planted in the mid-1990s and the topic is as controversial today as it was back then. Even with hundreds of research studies in the books and years of GMO growing and eating, the debate marches on. There are producers and consumers in both camps.

Over 90 percent of the corn and soybeans planted nationwide have at least one transgenic trait, most have two or three. It’s been this way for a while. To label all GMO foods in the marketplace would be a pretty massive undertaking; it might be easier to simply label the non-GMO offerings.

CheeriosGeneral Mills recently decided to market its standard Cheerios cereal as GMO-free. This was an interesting move given that the company openly supports biotech crops in general, admits that there are no GMO varieties of oats and wheat — the primary ingredients of Cheerios — and the company doesn’t plan to do the same with anything else in its product line. The only change that needed to be made was with the purchase of non-GMO cane sugar that comprises one gram per serving and non-GMO corn starch that is used in the cooking process. The market share of Cheerios did not increase with the change.

To be sure, it is difficult for consumers to sort fact from fiction on the GMO issue. It goes without saying that a company like Monsanto is going to tout the benefits of biotech crops and an environmental interest group is going to cite the negative consequences of growing GMOs. They both have an economic stake in the game.

Recently I attended a presentation given locally by a zoology professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The program was sponsored by an area hospital and was part of a series of presentations on wellness. The topic centered on GMO research. What I heard from a seemingly credible speaker were a series of unsubstantiated statements and gross misstatements. The speaker’s knowledge of agriculture was marginal, at best, and his propensity to make statements and show pictures without any scientific basis or causal linkage was disturbing. I was disappointed that a hospital would sponsor such a speaker and felt bad for anyone in the room who formulated opinions based on the information he presented regarding GMOs and agricultural practices.

For those interested in reading more about GMOs from some unbiased sources, two papers have recently been published that shed light on our GMO history to date — both good and not so good. The first is a report published by the USDA Economic Research Service titled “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States.” It looks back on our short history with GMOs and discusses what has happened and why.

A second report was written by a quartet of Italian scientists who reviewed 1,783 GMO studies conducted from 2002 to 2012. Their report, An Overview of the Last 10 Years of Genetically Engineered Crop Safety Research, addresses GMO safety and environmental impact. A summary of the findings was recently published in Forbes magazine.

These two publications will not put a halt to public debate, nor should they. Questioning any new or ongoing technology is healthy and appropriate. Whatever side of the debate you fall, decisions should be based on sound reasoning or economics and substantiated by good science rather than sensationalism.

By the way, I’m partial to Mantle.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

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