MU, Biotech University host GMO debate

Saturday, October 1, 2011 | 4:22 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Biotech University, a seminar and reporting contest that aims to introduce journalism students to the emerging science of biotechnology, invited two professionals to discuss views both for and against genetically engineered crops Friday at MU.

"Every single thing we eat today is genetically modified in one way or the other. We don't see large scale problems," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, the director of the International Biotech Program at the University of California, Davis.

"Nobody is really looking," said her opponent, scientist Michael Hansen.

Biotech University is funded by the United Soybean Board and co-sponsored by the MU School of Journalism and the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology.

This year, the organization invited Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union in New York, and Newell-McGloughlin to participate in the dialogue session.

Newell-McGloughlin, an internationally renowned biotechnologist with vast research experience in the field of disease resistance in plants, started her presentation with a brief history on agriculture and biotechnology.

"There is nothing natural about agriculture," she said. "We treat our crop like pampered princesses — if we were to leave them back in the wild they would never make it."

She explained the opportunities and challenges for biotech crops and enforced the idea that biotechnology reduces environmental impact, promotes food safety and provides cost benefits.

She emphasized a 'first do no harm' principle that keeps food safe.

"One genetically engineered soybean is subjected to 1,800 separate analyses," she said.

Hansen focused on food safety issues also. He often speaks about genetically modified organisms and pest management at meetings and conferences throughout the world.

He spoke of what he called the false promises of genetic engineering and challenged the idea that genetically engineered crops yield more. He used Roundup Ready soybeans as an example.

"According to a study conducted at University of Nebraska, Roundup Ready beans yield 10 percent less than conventional beans," Hansen said. "They also lead to increase in the use of pesticide as they are resistant to them."

He said that during the past 13 years, there has been an increase of 327 million pounds in herbicide use because of herbicide tolerant crops.

"My main concern is FDA does not require pre-market safety assessment. Globally, almost all other countries require GMOs to be extensively tested before they are deemed fit to be available to consumers. The U.S. does not require that kind of safety assessment," he said.

Newell-McGloughlin also wants people to make safe food choices.

"Personally my main concern is people are making wrong food choices. Biotech is not a panacea but go with the tools that give you the best possible outcome," she said.

Because the Food and Drug Administration does not require safety assessments, Hansen is concerned that in the future countries might ban U.S. food or produce.

He compared the issue to when biotechnologists once thought DDT was safe and were proved wrong.

"People have the right to know what they are eating," Hansen said. "GMOs do not have labels."

But conducting independent research is expensive, and the two speakers discussed the necessity of such assessments.

"Every decision should be made based on cost-benefit," Newell-McGloughlin said.

Hansen disagreed.

"Let us have a knowledge-intensive approach not a capital-intensive one," Hansen said. "Like an international panel on climate change, there should be an international panel on GMOs."

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