Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith, professor and weed scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, spoke to a group of supporters and (mostly) nay-sayers at the OSU Extension Auditorium in Central Point, March 26 on the subject. While OSU and Dr. Mallory-Smith have taken no position on the subject, there was plenty of opinion in the crowd of about 100 people.
While Dr. Mallory-Smith did lay out the ground rules for the evening, it didn’t stop attendees from asking questions outside the parameters of the topic in question. Many asked questions concerning the health effects of GMO foods, others asked about whether GMO foods were in conflict with God’s will concerning people. Numerous times questions came about the effects of plant residues being detected in newborn infants and what the long-term effects of those residues would be. Research is being done, and as in many other segments of the economy, the research is done by the companies producing the seed. One attendee asked if the testing was being done on their own kids.
What Mallory-Smith did say was that there is little track record because the genetically engineered products are relatively new compared to agriculture in general. She also pointed out that creating products that are resistant to disease or to herbicides is not new with GE seeds. Farmers have been crossing plants to get specific traits for as long as there has been agriculture. GE is just another method used to reach those desired results. Transgenic plants is another story, taking something from one plant and transferring it to another species entirely.
Several times during the evening, the episode of the Canadian farmer losing his entire crop because of cross pollination with a neighbor’s field was brought up. Mallory-Smith said that people should get the entire facts in the case before making a judgment of Monsanto or other seed companies that have rights to the seeds. She said farmers sign a contract that doesn’t allow them to save seed for the following year.
Numerous people cited instances where farmers have been taken to court because of cross pollinated seeds through no fault of their own. Mallory-Smith said she was not aware of any of those cases. She said that people should not get information from the internet, but from more reliable sources.
The subject of “killer genes” came up during the discussion and Mallory-Smith said she had heard of it, but was not aware of that actually being used. Killer genes render the seed infertile which prevents crops being grown from saved seed.
The idea is to find workable solutions to the problems of cross pollination and the key is through education about what GE is and is not. Willamette Valley farmers have some guidelines in place, though they are going back to revisit those from time to time. One problem exists with the beet family. Beets, sugar beets and Swiss Chard readily cross with one another, GE or not. Some members of the cabbage family do the same. Canola has some very severe growing restrictions and some seed can contaminate the soils when seeds are viable for a long period of time, making crossing much more likely.
Most assume that GE grains will cross with non-GMO and thereby contaminate a field, and this is true. Dr. Mallory-Smith says that the reverse is also true, non-GMO contaminate the GMO fields. The answer is to not grow the two in close proximity, a solution that is not going to make everyone happy.
Technology is ever advancing and the doctor said that it will continue and hopefully get better. As to living with GMO foods, she believes that it will eventually be accepted, even though there is a current uproar about the products. Unfortunately, they look the same and a large percentage of the leading consumer products (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) are already GE and the percentage will rise. Many products purchased off local grocery shelves contain GMO food.
Many European nations have banned the use of GMO products, and refused to allow them to cross borders in any fashion. There is a move to make Jackson County GMO free and eventually the entire state of Oregon.
It is doubtful that anyone changed his or her mind about GE foods following the discussion. As Dr. Mallory-Smith said, knowledge is the key, and an attitude of working together to find solutions will go farther than going to all-out war.
OSU has indicated that this is the first in a series of evenings to give Rogue Valley residents perspective on this most controversial subject. GMO is a huge subject, and encompasses many things that have been lumped together under a very broad heading. Careful study is needed to come up with the right answers and in some cases even the right questions.
By Ralph McKechnie
For the Independent