Director busts myths behind biotechnology
Gregory Jaffe, the director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, dispelled several myths about genetically engineered foods yesterday during a lecture at the Marine and Coastal Sciences Building on Cook campus.
Genetically engineered crops, or biotech crops, are not nutritionally better or worse than organic crops, Jaffe said.
“… The industry has been arguing for a decade now that they will have more nutritious crops coming out,” he said.
While Jaffe thinks biotech crops are here to stay, he said regulations and improvements are necessary for them to grow in the United States and abroad.
“I think the next generation has big potential to get us more nutritious crops,” Jaffe said.
Richard Fuller, a University alumnus who opposes genetically engineered foods, said he does not think biotechnology crops will benefit the public.
“I came here because I wanted to know whether [Jaffe] would give the public point of view or the corporate,” Fuller said. “Bottom line, I think, is that they should be renamed the ‘Center for Science in the Corporate Interest.’”
Fuller attacked the Monsanto Corporation, a multinational biotech corporation, for its alleged use of terminator seeds in India.
“These terminator genes were put into the products so at the end of the year, the seeds would be destroyed,” Fuller said. “So year after year, these farmers, who relied on storing seeds to save money, were forced to buy new seeds.”
He said Monsanto intentionally inserted the genes to increase their profits from the farmers.
“The number of suicides of these poor farmers has been increasing for the past three years, and I imagine it goes back further than that,” Fuller said.
But Jaffe said there has been a reduction in the amount of farmer poisoning from crops that are genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides.
Biotechnology crops are becoming a widespread product, with 16.7 million farmers growing them in more than 29 countries, Jaffe said. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not approve genetically engineered foods before people eat them, he said.
“Back in 1992, the FDA had a policy based on interpretations of the law and science, that genetically engineered crops would be generally recognized as safe,” he said.
Organic and biotech crops can coexist on the same farm, Jaffe said. Many farmers will have one area for biotech crops and another for organic.
The method of how organic crops are grown distinguishes them from other crops, including biotech crops, he said.
“Organic food production uses specific agricultural methods set up by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], and if you want to be organic, you have to follow those rules,” Jaffe said. “The organic rules specifically state that biotech inputs cannot be used.”
Jaffe said biotechnology alone is not the savior of all agricultural woes, but it is a useful way for farmers and consumers to get more out of their food.
“Biotech is not a silver bullet. It’s not a solution for every agricultural constraint for farmers,” he said. “It can provide benefits to farmers, the environment and in the future, some consumer benefits.”
While genetically engineered crops are environmentally sustainable, they also impact biological diversity by creating resistant insects, Jaffe said.
“If we abuse the development of insect-resistant crops, then we will begin developing breeds of insects that are resistant to that sort of thing,” he said.
Xenia Morin, associate dean and liaison for sponsored programs, said a big issue with implementing biotech products is because of a deep, regulatory framework.
“There are certainly many products on the shelf. Some estimates say it takes $15 million to get a product through U.S. regulatory approval,” she said. “Every country must get approval for the release of specific crops, which means fewer people can present products, and it limits the benefits of biotech.”
Morin said biotech benefits do not stop at crops but extend to animals as well.
Morin said potential future genetic enhancements could prove beneficial to the environment.