Panelists debate crop modification
By Claire Groden, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 1, 2011
Four expert panelists debated the benefits and drawbacks of using genetically modified foods to minimize wold hunger and increase the security of global food supplies at Dartmouth’s first Ad Fontes Forum, hosted by the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, in Moore Theater on Thursday.
The audience reacted passionately to the panelists’ opinions during the question and answer session by interrupting claims with accusations of falsehood and punctuating particularly well-received points with applause.
Former Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State Nina Fedoroff, one of the panelists at the event, emphasized that as the population growth rate continues to increase, there will be new strains on the global food supply.
“We’re living on borrowed time,” she said.
In addition to a discussion about growing population, the panel expressed concerns about the effects of a warmer world on global food security.
“Climate change is upon us,” Fedoroff said. “There will be increased pressure on the food supply.”
Fedoroff cited the especially hot summer of 2003 — in which crop yields dropped 25 to 35 percent — as an example of how climate change will increasingly affect food security.
While Fedoroff advocated genetically modified food as “one tool in a toolbox for farmers,” other panelists said biotechnology is not necessary to maintain food security.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that biotechnology has not contributed to significant increases in crop yields compared to more conventional techniques like breeding.
Despite other panelists’ assertions that older forms of agricultural technology have run their course, Gurian-Sherman said there is “tremendous untapped genetic diversity” that can allow for the continued beneficial use of conventional breeding techniques.
“Improved conventional breeding over the last 25 years, which has become very sophisticated, can get us a very large part of the way,” he said.
Gurian-Sherman disagreed with the effectiveness of genetically modified crops because the modifications are “piecemeal” and specific, while the environmental challenges crops face — such as pests, drought and floods — are varied.
Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy, also questioned the effectiveness of biotechnology, emphasizing the importance of crop resilience.
“A genetically engineered seed doesn’t do you any good if it washes down the hill,” he said.
Holt-Gimenez argued for the importance of sustainable agricultural practices, claiming that the conservation of soil and water massively increases productivity.
“I think it is much more complicated than simply producing more,” he said. “We already have the tools to produce more. Anytime anyone says they have a magic bullet to end hunger, I put up my hands and say, ‘Don’t shoot!’”
While Holt-Gimenez and Gurian-Sherman argued that biotechnology has not increased crop yield as much as other methods, Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of the food and agriculture section at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said biotechnology has not been able to reach its full potential.
“The cost of regulation is $7 to 15 million,” she said, adding that the over-regulation of genetically modified food has crippled its expansion in the United States.
Although 93 percent of soybeans and a majority of corn and cotton are genetically modified, “there are really very few [genetically modified] crops currently that are on the market,” Bomer Lauritsen said.
Panelists also discussed unintended consequences of new advances in biotechnology, a fear especially prominent in the European Union.
“The only unintended consequences have been positive,” Fedoroff said.
Gurian-Sherman said biotechnology had the potential for harmful repercussions, citing unintended effects within the genome when an organism is genetically modified. The gene for drought resistance controls the function of many other proteins, such as those that regulate disease resistance, he said.
Biology professor David Peart moderated the forum.