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Digging Deep With A
GMO Food Expert

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Brian Nadon, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics.
Image supplied by Brian Nadon.
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So what are the potential threats from GM foods or current industrial agricultural practices that would impact either subsistence farmers or global farming communities that should be considered?
BN: I will admit that I’m not an expert on the economics of subsistence farming. I’m a student in plant breeding, genetics, and genomics. I don’t study the economics or agronomics of subsistence farming. I might not be the best person to ask about that. However, from the business side of things, these people are kind of disconnected from that system anyway. At the end of the day, unless the farmer is being forced in some way, and, you know, there are some methods of coercion that some less-than-savory people could use in many of these poorer countries to these vulnerable farmers. Perhaps, I could imagine, maybe, but I’m not aware of it happening. The example you might be thinking of is the Indian farmer suicides because people were saying they were forced to grow GM crops. This isn’t true.

MTM: Well, I wasn’t thinking of that example in particular, but would the argument maybe be that it was “market coercion” to grow?

BN: For some farmers, there is market coercion, just from GM crops simply outperforming other ones. They grow faster with less disease, provide a more stable harvest, last longer. They simply make the farmer more money. If we want that to not be the case, then we should find a way to make the farmer more money. These people are already living on low margins as it is. To come in and tell them to grow something that makes them less money might not get a very warm reaction.

MTM: And, what about this superbug argument? Might that necessitate adoption of GMO crops for farmers who otherwise might not have a need or use for them in order to ensure that their crops aren’t devastated by neighboring GMO farms?

BN: So you’re talking about a neighboring farm growing GM crops year to year, which make a field that is super-resistant to pests and now my farm has to deal with these bugs that are super-resistant to other pesticides, so they come over and eat my crops? This isn’t intrinsic to GM only. There’s this misconception that organic farming doesn’t use pesticides. They actually use more than GM or conventional practices because they can’t use the same defensive packages that GM and other conventional practices do. There is, however, for instance, a main insect-resistant GM trait we use called ‘BT’ (bacillus thuringiensis), it came from a little bacteria that kills insects. They can’t eat the plant if it has the gene from this bacteria. And, over time, insects can develop resistance to this. That’s just how evolution works. When we originally develop these GM crops, we put out warnings and made requirements and contracts that, if you grow these crops, you have to plant what’s called a refuge. This is where you plant at least some of your crop non-GM so that those bugs who would otherwise eat your crops or develop resistance instead go to these crops that are weaker and wimpier right next to them and eat those instead. So, the bugs never have the pressure to develop resistance. This is called refuging. We’ve done this since the introduction of insect-resistant GM traits. There’s really only one I can think of and it’s BT. When you buy the seed every year in a bag, it literally comes in bags, 15-20% of the bag will be this refuge crop which is not resistant to insects. The farmer doesn’t even have to think about it. They sell it like that and year-to-year it has the same resistance. And, there’s an economic incentive to do that. Like I said, GM traits are super expensive to develop and if you can keep one trait working for decades, you’re going to do everything you can to make sure the farmers follow that rule. When you buy the bag, you sign a contract. It’s called the “back of the bag contract” and one of the stipulations are that you will plant refuges.

MTM: For one reason or another, if global agricultural practices are being pushed in a direction of growing GM and certain farmers don’t want to for whatever reason, maybe they only grow organic or they’re subsistence farmers, does this type of thing present a potential problem to farmers who want to plant organic next to a GM farm?

BN: Maybe. A lot of the GM contracts that you sign prevent them from being grown next to organic farms. In the U.S., if I recall correctly, you can’t grow a certified organic farm within a certain distance of a farm that grows GM. In the way you worded it, I suppose it could be a threat, but there are already some protections in place. If anyone’s worried about that, they might just have to implement these similar protections that already exist in some places.

MTM: Can you not grow a GM farm next to an organic farm, or vice versa, or they just can’t be interacting?

BN: I don’t know the specifics of it, but I believe it’s on the organic side. In order to be certified organic, you can’t grow within a certain distance of this, this, and this.

MTM: Are the seeds more expensive? Would buying a pound of GM seeds be more expensive than buying any other seeds?

BN: Well it depends on how we’re defining it. If it contains the same number, let’s say a thousand seeds, then they’ll typically be more expensive. Because, again, these traits are typically more expensive to develop. The typically cited number, for reference, is, in order to clear regulation and testing, for GM foods to come to market in Canada and the United States is 7 years and about $138 million. So, they do cost a little more, but they’re developed so that they can deliver more value to the farmers. So the farmer will buy them if it gives them more value. And it does, so that’s why farmers continue to buy them. If it was more profitable for a farmer to buy, not an organic, but maybe corn that doesn’t have a GM trait in it, and they would still get a good crop and profit out of it, then they would do it. But that’s not the case because that’s not worth it for them. The GM foods are just that much better. That’s why we have so few GM traits, by the way, is because they’re so expensive, and the trait needs to be that much better than not having it to be worth 7 years and $138 million of lost profits that have to be made up.

MTM: Is there any tangible advantage to growing organic? What about for subsistence, or perhaps for what’s called “urban gardening” in food deserts?

BN: So, a lot of these GM crops are made to be planted in a specific system, a monoculture system with a certain tillage scheme, with certain herbicides and pesticides, at a certain place, in a certain season, with a certain maturity. You can think of these GM traits as something like a prized purebred dog. Like, a German shepherd is really good at sniffing out drugs, but might not make the best companion for an elderly person. So, there are situations like those you described in which organic might be a better choice. It might grow better in the climate you want to grow it in. Perhaps it has some interesting traits. Purple broccoli, for instance, is a trait in organic vegetables that can be more valuable for organic consumers, some unique traits. Organic breeders can kind of play around with different tastes, appearances, and nutritional content. There are some situations. A lot of these are on the niche/luxury side of things. Sometimes they have advantages such as niche traits or different ways you want to grow it. They do have an advantage in that regard that conventional crops can’t match. Though, that is why organic crops tend be more expensive or consumed by the upper- or upper-middle class is because they’re a niche product, they cost a lot to produce, and they’re more expensive as a result.

MTM: Are the crops reaching global communities in need of the crops? Many contend that food scarcity is a myth, that more than enough food is grown to reach the population, but, rather, market practices, logistics, and profit incentives are a roadblock to ensuring global food security.

BN: Anything I answer in this realm would be pure speculation. I’m not an economist. If I had to speculate, and this is something that I have no expertise in, I would assume that it’s simply because shipping those crops and getting the logistics out would be a nightmare. Norman Borlaug in the 1960s realized it was better to show the breeders and farmers in Mexico and South Asia to grow wheat that was more efficient for their growing system than to just have the United States export a bunch of wheat to them.

MTM: Do we have any evidence to show that GM foods are helping global communities any more or less so than Western communities?

BN: As far as I know, and again, I’m not an expert on this, but GM food has pretty low penetration across the globe. There’s not a lot of places where it’s being used. Unfortunately, a lot of this is from resistance, often foisted upon poorer peoples who it could really help, especially by Europe. You could view it in that way, but again, I’m not an economist and I don’t really know the reasons. My speculation is that these poorer countries just don’t have access to the growing schemes, knowledge, and licensing to get these things. You know, they’re also intellectual property, and there’s all sorts of treaties. It can be a real nightmare. You know, there’s so much opinion against it to begin with that it’s easier for these guys to say that it’s just not worth it.

MTM: What, in your opinion are some of the more pertinent reformations or regulations that need to be made in the industry in order to improve it or make it more ethical? Are there legitimate criticisms to be made by people on behalf of subsistence farmers, or those who don’t want to grow GM that may be feeling the negative effects of globalization or the global agriculture industry? What could enable these people to have the most food security for themselves or their communities?

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