GMOs: Feeding the World

Dr. David Mielke, Retired Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University

Dr. David MielkeLast year we experienced a drought that caused concerns about food prices and availability of key crops in the U.S.–especially corn, wheat, and soybeans.  The problem was acerbated by the amount of corn mandated to be used to produce ethanol.  A spokesperson for the UN pleaded with the U.S. government to have a waiver of the ethanol mandate to provide more corn at lower prices to help feed the hungry around the world.  This year we have the concern of a cold and very wet spring that has significantly delayed planting in key agricultural areas in the U.S.—again raising concerns about our nation’s agricultural production and prices.  However, there may be other ways to help feed the hungry around the world as well as keeping food prices at a reasonable level—Genetically Modified Foods or GMOs.  The Whole Foods grocery chain recently announced its intent by 2018 to require labels on all foods with genetically engineered ingredients.  This was called a game changer by those campaigning to make such labeling a federal requirement.  However, even without mandatory labeling, most genetically modified foods have been driven out of our supermarkets.  Is this the “Right Thing to do?”  Should we require GMO labeling?  Should we be promote growing GMOs?  Let’s look at some issues:

1. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long opposed mandatory labeling of GMO foods because it agrees with a scientific consensus that these foods so far bring no new risks to human health or the environment.  All of the leading national academies of science in Europe have reached this conclusion.

2. Campaigns by activist groups like Greenpeace have so scared consumers that most GMO food products have been kept out of the American marketplace.

3. A genetically modified wheat designed to reduce the cost of weed control was first field tested in 1994, but in 2004 Monsanto decided not to go ahead with sales of wheat seeds when it became clear that American and Canadian farmers feared consumer resistance and lost export sales in Europe and Asia.

4. GMO rice that can be grown with less pesticide spray has been field tested in the U.S. since 1990, but for similar reasons, never commercialized.

5. GMO potatoes that resist beetle damage were grown successfully in the US from 1999-2001, but their cultivation was voluntarily suspended when food service chains told farmers that they didn’t want to be accused by activists of selling GMO french fries.

6. Developing countries have significant unmet food needs and GMO food crops are positioned to help.  In Asia, poor consumers who currently do not get enough vitamin A from their rice-only diets could be better protected against blindness if their farmers had permission to plant so-called Golden Rice, which has been genetically engineered with high beta-carotene content.

7. Farmers and consumers in India currently exposed to toxic insecticides when they grow and eat eggplant could reduce their exposure if farmers had access to a GMO eggplant that needs fewer chemical sprays.

8. Farmers and consumers in East Africa currently vulnerable to hunger and destitution when drought hits their maize fields would be more secure if growers had permission to plant GMO drought resistant varieties of white maize.

9. Other GMO foods such as tomatoes and melons have experienced the same fate.

This list is impressive and a tribute to the advances of our agricultural industry and their advances in technology.  But if America, through a labeling system, joins Europe in embracing a new norm against the cultivation of GMO crops for human food, governments in developing countries, already skittish thanks to activist campaigns, will likely follow suit.  The result would be a needless setback for the world’s hungriest and poorest people.  Labeling and rejecting the advances of our agricultural industry to produce GMOs is not the “Right Thing to do.”  We should be promoting these advances to help feed the world.

Editor’s Note:  An interesting side note to this story – On Monday, May 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled for Monsanto in a patent infringement case for genetically modified soybeans.  Read more from USA Today, here.

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Author:David Mielke

Each Thursday Lucy Ann and Dr. Mielke discuss business ethos as it pertains to current events. Dr. Mielke says, “Making ethics the backbone of teaching makes sense not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because ethics is good for business.”

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