Smurfs, Biotech Food & Schizoid Reactions

Doc Callahan—retired professor, part-time farmer, and full-time pontificator—reads countless letters of inquiry and in his own front-porch way, he tries to make sense of the modern barnyard banter. In this edition, he puts on his white lab coat and digs into the topic of biotech crops.
Not That There’s Anything Wrong with Smurfs…
Dear Doc,
     My brain hurts. I’ve soaked in material from the Internet and listened to interviews on radio, but I still get conflicting information about genetically modified

crops. Some claim they will cause allergies and possibly long-term damage. The most extreme blogs make me think my baby will grow up looking like a smurf if I use GMO products. But most of the experts say they are not only harmless, they are needed to feed the growing population. Have you seen anything conclusive?  Baffled in Buffalo

Dear Baffled,
     I know how you feel, but don’t get your double helix in a knot over this. If you live in America, you have probably been ingesting biotech food. 88% of corn and 94% of soybeans are GMO, and the FDA has approved them, plus the use of other biotech crops (see links below).

     You’re right that some believe biotech food has potential hazards. They say more study and more time are needed; a few point to the case of cigarettes—a toxin that stayed under the radar for decades.
     But others say GMO foods are completely different. Hundreds of studies have occurred, and as far as I know, no specific results show negative health effects of biotech food. However, it’s a good idea to keep up the research.
     By the way, my great uncle had smurf-like qualities, and he died way before GMO food was on the market. Maybe different biotech procedures influenced him—like the dandelion wine he distilled every spring.  Doc
Wrestling with 3-foot-tall Bull Thistles…

Dear Doc,
     I’m a small grain farmer, and two things worry me about biotech crops: the high cost and the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds. A few of my neighbors are convinced it’s better to use non-GMO seeds, but the recent droughts we’ve had seemed to hit them worse. Can you suggest which type I should plant if I want to stay down on the farm? Penny-pinching in Pennsylvania

Dear Penny-pincher,

     Last spring I helped my brother plant his GMO corn, and when I poured seed into the hopper, he firmly explained that if I spilled any, I’d be on all fours picking up each kernel with a pair of tweezers. He and others agree with you that the costs are high, but I’m not sure how it compares to the inflation that has occurred with land prices and machinery bills.

     Apparently a majority of farmers have chosen biotech seeds. Many say the yields are higher, drought-resistance is better, and chemical use is down. They cite the need for less tilling as one of several reasons why biotech crops are more sustainable and eco-friendly. Others disagree. They say choice is limited because of markets, pollen drift, and the “get big or get out” mentality of modern farming. Some think biotech farming means less crop rotation, more water pollution due to overproduction, and an eventual increase in chemical use because of resistant weeds.
     Some of these issues have been occurring for ages. When I was young, we planted hybrid crops, and we wrestled with weeds that looked like genetically modified zombie plants. It turns out they were bull thistles, pigweed, and giant cockleburrs, but they were resistant to us kids when we tried to pull them. Doc
Twenty-first Century Schizoid Ag Man… 

Dear Doc,
     Like many others, I believe in a safe, secure food system for all. I am concerned about our environment, and I support diversified farming and multiple practices, but I know many go to bed hungry each night. Science seems to be an obvious solution to this problem, but the other half of my brain sometimes jumps in to tell me that we need to slow down and work things out with other methods. Any thoughts?  Schizoid in Saginaw

Dear Schizoid,
     I’ve been a big fan of science ever since I got a chemistry set for my tenth birthday. Because of broken test tubes, stains on the kitchen floor, and a ruined saucepan, Mom wasn’t quite as enthused about experimentation, but we all know innovation has been crucial for agricultural advancement.

     As my neighbor says—and he’s even older than I am—“We might pine for the good old days, but we can’t go back. Anyway, how far back do you want to go? Riding tractors with no cabs in freezing rain? Milking hundreds of restless cows by hand? Plowing fields with horses?”
     But your dual-brained debate has some merit. What is the best way to use science and innovation so they benefit all—especially in the realm of food security? You asked for thoughts, so put these in your e-pipe and e-smoke them:
** Many are suffering because they don’t have enough food or enough nutritious food. Science–and biotech crops–can be an important part of solving this. But so can non-GMO practices. Choice and diversity are important.
** We need to eliminate waste, improve distribution, and develop better storage. I’m not sure what statistics to believe, but some say a third of our food is wasted.
** Food producers, scientists, and farmers need to communicate, be transparent, and understand that some consumers have sincere concerns that need to be addressed. This seems to be improving.
** We all need to realize that you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. I learned that when my Nigerian bank account fizzled, and again when my “distant cousin” who was stranded in London never thanked me for wiring him three thousand dollars. The Net is fertile ground for jargon, hyperbole, shaky science, and scare tactics.
** Independent, science-based research is more important than ever. Companies and organizations play a role, but most agree that publicly funded research is crucial if we want to inform and reassure consumers and policymakers.


(by dan gogerty; double helix pic from and thistle pic from

LINKS:  1. FDA frequently asked questions about GMOs  2. An article with statistics about the percentage of biotech crops and more  3. One of the many sites supporting biotech crops and foods 4. One of the many sites complaining about biotech crops and foods 5. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology website, a place to access peer-reviewed, science-based research

Help Support CAST

Your donation to CAST helps support the CAST mission of communicating science to meet the challenge of producing enough food, fiber and fuel for a growing population. Every gift, no matter the size, is appreciated.