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Winning the debate and losing the audience

This week may be remembered as the Great GMO Debate at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. Three pioneers in genetic engineering of plants share the prize as the 2013 laureates -- Marc Van Montagu of Belgium, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Robert Fraley of the U.S. In 1983, all three gave results of their independent research when they spoke at the Miami Biochemistry Winter Symposium, "Advances in Gene Technology."

Jump forward 30 years, and their discovery that a bacterial disease could be used to transfer desirable traits into crops still bothers some consumers and food activists. Van Montagu went on to found his own biotechnology companies. Chilton now works for Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc. and Fraley is chief technology officer for Monsanto.

Round one of the debate took place Monday at a panel discussion sponsored by the Des Moines Register called "GMOs: Possibilities and Peril."

Here's the unofficial scorecard: 4-2. The panel included four speakers supportive of GMO technology, a farmer, and three Iowa State University (ISU) professors. Two others, an organic farmer and a public interest attorney, raised questions about the safety of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The overflow crowd of about 270 at the State Historical Museum auditorium seemed tilted the other way. About two-thirds loudly applauded the critics. A third sometimes clapped for the scientists.

"There never has been a scientific consensus that these foods are safe to eat," said Steven Druker, an attorney and executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity in Fairfield, Iowa. Druker's group sued the Food and Drug Administration challenging its approach to deciding whether genetically modified foods are safe. Monday, he said his lawsuit exposed FDA's "coverup and the fraud."

Another panelist, Ruth MacDonald, chairwoman of the department of food science and human nutrition at ISU, said the lawsuit "had nothing to do with the data that shows they (GMOs) are safe."

Later, MacDonald said that the American Medical Association "has clearly said there is no risk" to genetically modified foods, as has the American Society of Pediatrics.

Ron Rosmann, an organic farmer from Harlan, Iowa, was the other critic of GMOs, which he said have had many unintended consequences, from increasing resistance to weeds and pests in modified crops to contributing to the exodus of farmers from rural communities when GMO crops allow farmers to plant more acres.

"We are quickly becoming a feudal system of very large farms," Rosmann said.

Michael Owen, an ISU professor of agronomy and weed science, agreed that resistance is a problem, but it's a management issue, not the fault of genetic modification, he said.

Gary Munkvold, professor of seed science at ISU, said that because genetically modified corn has resistance to insect damage, the crop has lower levels of mycotoxins that are caused by infections carried by insects, something documented by USDA studies.

Bill Horan, a Rockwell City, Iowa, farmer who, like most, plants genetically modified crops, said that if there were health hazards from those crops, they would have been found by the activist groups looking for them.

"I don't think there's ever been a technology invented by now that has been vetted more than biotechnology," he said.

It turns out to be safe, something that isn't true of other technologies we take for granted, Horan said. "We kill over 50,000 people a year in automobiles," he said.

When an audience member asked the panel about reports of water buffalo in Bangladesh dying and farmers there committing suicide, Rosmann said that he sees less wildlife in his farm, something he said he thinks is due to wildlife eating genetically modified corn and soybeans nearby.

MacDonald was skeptical, pointing out that with all of the livestock that have been fed genetically modified crops, farmers and animal scientists would have reported a problem by now if there was one.

Horan predicted that in 10 to 15 years, most of the crops and livestock in the world will be genetically modified and that today's fears will seem quaint.

"There are a lot of groups and individuals that make their living scaring people about food," he said.

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