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March 13, 2017

Cornell Professor Advocates for Access to Choose Genetically Modified Crops

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On a list of the most controversial topics in science, genetically modified organisms would easily be close to the top. Concerns about their safety and effect on naturally bred species continue to dominate scientific and policy discussions. Prof. Sarah Davidson Evanega, plant breeding and genetics, however, is assured of their safety and maintains that they could play an important role in fighting global food insecurity.

Speaking at the Food Security and Global Growth: The Big Picture conference on March 4, Evanega detailed the manner in which climate change threatens global food security, emphasizing the ramifications for farmers.

“A Tanzanian farmer, Selma, that our team spoke to, spent $300 — half of her annual income — on preparing and planting her two acre maize field. For the second year in a row, she lost everything due to a drought, ” Evanega said.

“But science offers farmers like Selma some hope,” Evanega added, emphasizing that tools of plant breeding can help minimize agriculture’s contributions to climate change.

In September 2016, the first GMO field trial was attempted in a semi-arid desert in Tanzania. As part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, it aimed to test whether drought-tolerant GM maize could be grown effectively. According to Evanega, the security of GM crops like this has already been verified by research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. In 2015, the academy concluded that GM crops have no adverse effects on human health, though noting that any new foods, genetically modified or not, may have subtle health effects that develop over time or go undetected even with careful scrutiny. However, biotech maize has a long way to go before being served in households all over the world.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 37 percent of American adults considered GM foods to be unsafe while 88 percent of AAAS scientists had the opposite view. According to Evanega, effective marketing strategies could contribute to the misinformation on GMOs.

“Suppose you are at a grocery store. If you were afraid or uncertain about GMOs and you could afford it, you would probably spend that extra dollar on a non-GMO verified product. But many things labeled ‘non-GMO’ have no GMO counterparts. Marketers take advantage of busy customers like you and me,” Evanega said.

As a mother of three children, an environmentalist and a plant scientist, Evanega urges people to reexamine their views of GMOs.

“I cannot at the same time call myself an environmentalist and stand in the way of technology that reduces pesticide use such as Bt crops,” Evanega said. “You cannot at the same time uphold the scientific consensus around climate change and deny the scientific consensus around the safety of GM crops.”

Evanega encouraged people to evaluate each GMO on a case by case basis, assessing risks and benefits to consumers and the environment.

With her colleagues at Cornell Alliance for Science, Evanega is working to help people understand how agricultural biotechnology can help enhance food security while minimizing the negative impact of agriculture on the environment.

“We want to tell stories about the technology — about the low-methane rice that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, the insect-resistant crops that reduce insecticide use, the drought-tolerant maize that survives better in extreme environment and alleviates the burden on farmers already struggling in the face of climate change,” Evanega said.

Evanega believes that transparency is the key to earning public trust and suggests that corporations should include labels on all GM products.

“If consumers want to know, tell them on the label. The world around us is genetically engineered and it’s okay. It’s totally acceptable. I’m excited to see GM apples or GM snacks on Wegmans’ shelf someday,” Evanega said.