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The Truth about Trade

RSS By: Dean Kleckner, AgWeb.com

Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.

An Open Letter to Oprah: Come to My Farm and See Why Biotech Crops Make Sense

May 10, 2012

By Tim Burrack:  Arlington, Iowa

 

Dear Oprah,

Come to my farm. Visit the land that I’ve worked since I was a boy. See this place so that you’ll never again let bad articles on agriculture tarnish the pages of your magazine or the pixels on your website.

If you accept this invitation to have a firsthand look at how an Iowa farmer produces healthy food in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, you’ll perform an important service to your readers and viewers--because right now, they’re receiving a very mistaken impression about what we grow and what everyone eats. 

In the May issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, writer Rachel Mount discusses genetically modified food. She asks a fair question: "What impact do GM foods have on our health?" But her answer--"no one really knows"--is absurd.

No one really knows?

That’s not what a number of globally respected organizations say: The American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the Research Council of the National Academies of Science, and the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization all agree that GM foods are safe and nutritious.

Yet Mount doesn’t look to any of these authorities. Instead, she runs straight for the anti-GM busybodies who have made it their profession to protest mainstream American farming. One source compares GM crops to DDT and "countless other harmful chemicals." Another suggests that we won’t know for another 30 years what science has to say about food with GM ingredients.

This is nonsense on stilts. It’s like saying we shouldn’t heat our food with electromagnetic radiation because we just can’t be certain about the long-term health effects of microwave ovens. Many of us didn’t grow up with these tools in our kitchens, but they aren’t exactly an unproven technology. 

Neither are GM crops. We’ve been growing them for almost a generation, all over the world. Farmers have harvested billions of acres of them. People have eaten trillions of servings of food derived from these sources. Although they haven’t caused a single health problem anywhere, Mount hints darkly at "the possibility of creating brand-new allergens."  

If she’s going to say that, she should also inform her readers that no scientist has ever shown GM food to make anybody so much as sneeze.

Mount even claims that one study shows that hamsters lose their reproductive abilities when they’re fed a diet of GM soy. This is junk science: Dozens of other animal studies contradict this finding and show that biotech food is safe to eat. 

But I didn’t start this note with the intention of issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of a willfully ignorant article. I recognize that you don’t copy edit everything that goes into your magazine.

Instead, I mean to invite you to my farm.

If you come here, you’ll see why biotech crops make so much sense. Farmers are able to grow more food than ever before--more food on less land, compared to just a few years ago. This is good for the environment. Because GM plants have a built-in resistance to bugs and weeds, we’re using fewer chemical sprays. This is good for everyone. 

As a result, our food is abundant, affordable, and nutritious. Yet even in the United States we continue to struggle with feeding everyone. More than 16 million American children suffer from food insecurity, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

Given this harsh reality, does it make sense to demonize GM crops? In their absence, food would become less available and more expensive.

On my farm, you’d see these realities with your own eyes. Or you could visit the farms of several friends. In Hawaii, Ken Kamiya can show you how biotechnology saved the papaya industry from a deadly virus. In the Philippines, Rosalie Ellasus can describe how GM crops helped her put three sons through college after she was widowed. In Kenya, Gilbert Bor can discuss why he thinks biotechnology is so important to feed the people of Africa. 

And if you don’t have time to visit with us, would you please send a memo to Rachel Mount? If she writes on GM food in the future, she should give us a call.

Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm.  He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology.  www.truthabouttrade.org

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COMMENTS (1 Comments)

Ric Ohge - Belmond, IA
The Round Up Problem
The herbicide doesn't destroy plants directly. It rather cooks up a unique perfect storm of conditions that revs up disease-causing organisms in the soil, and at the same time wipes out plant defenses against those diseases. The mechanisms are well-documented but rarely cited.

Roundup: The perfect storm for plant disease

More than 30% of all herbicides sprayed anywhere contain glyphosate--the world's best-selling weed killer. It was patented by Monsanto for use in their Roundup brand, which became more popular when they introduced "Roundup Ready" crops starting in 1996. These genetically modified (GM) plants, which now include soy, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beets, have inserted genetic material from viruses and bacteria that allows the crops to withstand applications of normally deadly Roundup.

(Monsanto incentivizes farmers who buy Roundup Ready seeds to also use the company's Roundup brand of glyphosate. For example, they only provide warranties on the approved herbicide brands and offer discounts through their "Roundup Rewards" program. This has extended the company's grip on the glyphosate market, even after its patent expired in 2000.)

The herbicide doesn't destroy plants directly. It rather cooks up a unique perfect storm of conditions that revs up disease-causing organisms in the soil, and at the same time wipes out plant defenses against those diseases. The mechanisms are well-documented but rarely cited.

The glyphosate molecule grabs vital nutrients and doesn't let them go. This process is called chelation and was actually the original property for which glyphosate was patented in 1964. It was only 10 years later that it was patented as an herbicide. When applied to crops, it deprives them of vital minerals necessary for healthy plant function—especially for resisting serious soil borne diseases. The importance of minerals for protecting against disease is well established. In fact, mineral availability was the single most important measurement used by several famous plant breeders to identify disease-resistant varieties.

Glyphosate annihilates beneficial soil organisms, such as Pseudomonas and Bacillus bacteria that live around the roots. Since they facilitate the uptake of plant nutrients and suppress disease-causing organisms, their untimely deaths means the plant gets even weaker and the pathogens even stronger.

The herbicide can interfere with photosynthesis, reduce water use efficiency, lower lignin, damage and shorten root systems, cause plants to release important sugars, and change soil pH--all of which can negatively affect crop health.

Glyphosate itself is slightly toxic to plants. It also breaks down slowly in soil to form another chemical called AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) which is also toxic. But even the combined toxic effects of glyphosate and AMPA are not sufficient on their own to kill plants. It has been demonstrated numerous times since 1984 that when glyphosate is applied in sterile soil, the plant may be slightly stunted, but it isn't killed (see photo).

Glyphosate with sterile soil (A) only stunts plant growth. In normal soil (B), pathogens kill the plant. Control (C) shows normal growth.

The actual plant assassins, according to Purdue weed scientists and others, are severe disease-causing organisms present in almost all soils. Glyphosate dramatically promotes these, which in turn overrun the weakened crops with deadly infections.

"This is the herbicidal mode of action of glyphosate," says Don Huber, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University. "It increases susceptibility to disease, suppresses natural disease controls such as beneficial organisms, and promotes virulence of soil borne pathogens at the same time." In fact, he points out that "If you apply certain fungicides to weeds, it destroys the herbicidal activity of glyphosate!"

By weakening plants and promoting disease, glyphosate opens the door for lots of problems in the field. According to Don, "There are more than 40 diseases of crop plants that are reported to increase with the use of glyphosate, and that number keeps growing as people recognize the association between glyphosate and disease."

Roundup promotes human and animal toxins

Photo by Robert Kremer

Some of the fungi promoted by glyphosate produce dangerous toxins that can end up in food and feed. Sudden Death Syndrome, for example, is caused by the Fusarium fungus. USDA scientist Robert Kremer found a 500% increase in Fusarium root infection of Roundup Ready soybeans when glyphosate is applied (see photos and chart). Corn, wheat, and many other plants can also suffer from serious Fusarium-based diseases.

But Fusarium's wrath is not limited to plants. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, toxins from Fusarium on various types of food crops have been associated with disease outbreaks throughout history. They've "been linked to the plague epidemics" of medieval Europe, "large-scale human toxicosis in Eastern Europe," esophageal cancer in southern Africa and parts of China, joint diseases in Asia and southern Africa, and a blood disorder in Russia. Fusarium toxins have also been shown to cause animal diseases and induce infertility.

New Study Is First to Show That Pesticides Can Induce Morphological Changes in Vertebrate Animals, Says Pitt Researcher
When exposed to the popular herbicide Roundup®, tadpoles change shape in ways that are normally induced by predators
Mar 30, 2012
Contact: B. Rose Huber
rhuber@pitt.edu
412-624-4356
Cell: 412-328-6008

PITTSBURGH— The world’s most popular weed killer, Roundup®, can cause amphibians to change shape, according to research published today in Ecological Applications.
Rick Relyea, University of Pittsburgh professor of biological sciences in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and director of Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, demonstrated that sublethal and environmentally relevant concentrations of Roundup® caused two species of amphibians to alter their morphology. According to Relyea, this is the first study to show that a pesticide can induce morphological changes in a vertebrate animal.
Relyea set up large outdoor water tanks that contained many of the components of natural wetlands. Some tanks contained caged predators, which emit chemicals that naturally induce changes in tadpole morphology (such as larger tails to better escape predators). After adding tadpoles to each tank, he exposed them to a range of Roundup® concentrations. After 3 weeks, the tadpoles were removed from the tanks.
“It was not surprising to see that the smell of predators in the water induced larger tadpole tails,” says Relyea. “That is a normal, adaptive response. What shocked us was that the Roundup® induced the same changes. Moreover, the combination of predators and Roundup® caused the tail changes to be twice as large.” Because tadpoles alter their body shape to match their environment, having a body shape that does not fit the environment can put the animals at a distinct disadvantage.
Predators cause tadpoles to change shape by altering the stress hormones of tadpoles, says Relyea. The similar shape changes when exposed to Roundup® suggest that Roundup® may interfere with the hormones of tadpoles and potentially many other animals.
“This discovery highlights the fact that pesticides, which are important for crop production and human health, can have unintended consequences for species that are not the pesticide’s target,” says Relyea. “Herbicides are not designed to affect animals, but we are learning that they can have a wide range of surprising effects by altering how hormones work in the bodies of animals. This is important because amphibians not only serve as a barometer of the ecosystem’s health, but also as an indicator of potential dangers to other species in the food chain, including humans.”
For two decades, Relyea has studied community ecology, evolution, disease ecology, and ecotoxicology. He has authored more than 80 scientific articles and book chapters and has presented research seminars around the world. For more information about his laboratory, visit www.pitt.edu/~relyea/.
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12:16 PM May 11th
 
 
 
 
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