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GMOs: Friend or Foe?

Stephen Moose
Assistant Professor, Maize Functional Genomics
Department of Crop Sciences
(217) 244-6308; smoose@illinois.edu
Stephen Moose

As we begin the 21st century, one of the most critical questions facing agriculture is the future of crops produced through biotechnology-more commonly known as "genetically modified organisms" or GMOs. These enhanced crops are developed by combining the latest advances in molecular genetics with established plant breeding techniques to produce varieties that allow more efficient use of inputs, increase yields, and possess new traits that promise to add value on the farm and to consumers. The first wave of GMO crops, such as those engineered for resistance to herbicides and insect pests, have been some of the most successful agricultural innovations since hybrid corn, with a number of other value-added varieties on the horizon.

Despite the many benefits of GMO crops, three major issues concern growers and consumers:

  1. the safety of food products derived from GMO crops and the environmental impacts of GMOs;

  2. uncertainties about whether export markets will accept GMO crops; and

  3. the increasing dependence of growers on multinational corporations for agricultural inputs. Each of these issues directly impacts farm profitability and economic sustainability and has been examined in detail from a variety of perspectives.

Regarding the first issue, Representative Nick Smith (R-Michigan) recently presented to the United States Congress the report "Seeds of Opportunity" (http://www.house.gov/science/smithreport_041300.pdf). This report found that food safety or environmental risks associated with GMO crops are no greater, and probably less, than non-GMO crop varieties. It also recommended more efforts to educate the public on the immense benefits and potential risks of agricultural biotechnology, so that people could make their own informed decisions.

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As for the second issue, a careful examination of the decisions by European governments to block the importation of GMO crops reveals that they are largely motivated by the need to protect an unstable European farm economy from U.S. imports. Public support for these trade barriers is increased through the propaganda efforts of "pro-environment" and anti-corporation organizations such as Greenpeace, which feed upon the general ignorance of well-fed citizens on the global economics of food production.

Finally, the concern about the growing "corporatization" of agriculture is real. However, this is a trend that has a long history and has been brought about by many factors, of which GMO crops are only the latest example.

GMO crops and biotechnology are either beneficial (friends) or not (foes). There is little room for a middle ground. If GMO crops are friends, they must be supported. If they are foes, they must be vigorously opposed. Of course, anyone who struggles to reach a decision on this issue must consider the growing global demand for food and other crop products and the leading role that Illinois and the U.S. play in world agriculture. Supporting GMO crops may result in a temporary loss of certain export markets, and some producers may lose out locally. However, these events will also occur with non-GMO crops.

GMO crops already give growers greater flexibility in crop production and will be one of the tools that will improve the profitability of U.S. agriculture while helping to meet global demands for food and an improved quality of life. The choice is clear: GMO crops are my friends. I hope that you will make them yours as well.

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