UI associate professor speaks about GMOs


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Genetically modified organisms — commonly referred to as GMOs — have been the center of both praise and scrutiny for years, and the debate continues to fuel heated viewpoints.

University of Iowa biology Associate Professor Erin Irish led a lecture Thursday night to offer facts regarding GMOs.

The lecture was part of the Sustainability Lecture Series, which is put on by the UI Environmental Coalition and UI Office of Sustainability.

Irish said in regard to the controversy surrounding GMOs, there is no evidence of organic food being more nutritious than GMOs or of GMOs being more harmful than organic food.

“People are making a more conscious choice, but they may not be buying organic because of the environment but because of the avoidance of GMOs,” Irish said. “I buy organic, but it’s not because I’m trying to avoid GMOs, but because organic production tends to be gentler on the environment.”

When first put on the market, genetic modification was used as a selling point to consumers. Irish said now, the market has shifted toward being a selling point to farmers based on efficiency.

“That direct advantage to the consumer is no longer the thing that seed companies are working,” she said. “They are selling the seeds that have the traits that are important to farmers.”

Those desirable traits include increased size, quantity, and quality of crop yield.

Steve Swenka, who farms near Tiffin, said the benefits of GMOs far outweigh the risks because they create healthier plants and yield potential.

“The idea is they put these [genetically modified] traits in there so you can go in and spray your field for weeds but not the corn or the beans — not the host plant,” Swenka said. “They help increase yield potential across the board, [and] they allow certain crops to thrive in areas they otherwise would not flourish.”

The harms to sustainability from GMOs have come from the increased use of chemicals for modified crops, said Sara Cooper, a member of the lecture committee of the Environmental Coalition. With a higher crop yield, the higher the chemical input, she said.

“[GMOs] were great when they came out — there was a huge food crisis in the world,” Cooper said. “However, the way they have come to dominate the agricultural system has started to hurt the environment and hurt the planet.”

One Iowa State University professor said the largest economic concern for the GMO industry comes from the market concentration among seed suppliers.

Neil Harl, the former director for the Center for International Agricultural Finance at ISU, said only about 30 years ago, there were more than 400 small seed suppliers. He said that now, only a handful of suppliers have control over the industry because of highly expensive patented life forms.

Harl has fought against the dominant-market corporations that can afford to pay for the expensive patents, but change has not occurred.

“I think it’s very unfortunate,” he said. “… Nothing much has happened. I’m terribly disappointed in that, but that's the way it’s gone.”

For Swenka, advancements in seed modifications, he said, have been a part of evolutionary farming techniques for hundreds of years and play an essential role in Iowa’s agricultural ability to feed the world.

“Third World countries are just happy to get the food in their hands,” Swenka said. “They can’t be concerned with the things some Americans are worried about. The overwhelming majority of people on this planet just need food, period.”

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