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Biotech debate rages at grain convention


Scientists, activists debate role of genetically modified crops in farming

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- A panel that included researchers and an environmentalist say they disagree over whether genetically modified organisms in agriculture represent a threat to consumers.

They discussed the topic Nov. 14 during a panel discussion at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention.

The panel consisted of Environmental Working Group CEO Ken Cook, Purdue University professor emeritus Don Huber, Biofortified.org executive editor Anastasia Bodnar and Washington State University molecular plant science professor Michael Neff.

Biology Fortified, Inc. is an independent educational non-profit organization whose mission is to strengthen the public discussion of issues in biology, with particular emphasis on genetics and genetic engineering in agriculture, according to its website.

Huber generated controversy for a January 2011 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack claiming a microscopic organism linked to Roundup Ready technology is found in soybeans and corn and linked to livestock experiencing spontaneous abortions and infertility.

"What we are experiencing in our soils, crops, barns and homes is not normal, healthy or sustainable," Huber said, adding there has been an escalation of more than 40 diseases on crops, such as scab and wheat blast. Those diseases can be associated with the change in technology, he said.

Bodnar said the genetically modified technology is not any riskier than any other breeding technologies. She recommended approaching each trait individually and putting any risks of the technology in context.

"Is using glyphosate replacing more harmful pesticides?" she said. "Genetic engineering is just one method among all the other farming methods -- it's a tool in the toolbox."

The majority of the panel expressed favorable opinions for government testing and labeling of genetically modified food items, with Cook and Bodnar speaking in favor of more transparency for consumers.

"We'd like to see health and safety testing (of a) much more rigorous regime," Cook said. "We'd like to see more freedom and independent studies. In the absence of those things, we would very much like to see labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients."

But Neff challenged the need for mandatory labeling.

"That implies there is something inherently dangerous about the fact it is just GMO," Neff said. "There is no credible, reproducible, peer-reviewed research that has demonstrated eating GM plants because they're GM gives you cancer or any other disease."



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