October 4, 2000

Genetically Modified Foods Discussed at City Hall Meeting

Print More

The New York State Committee on Agriculture held a public meeting in City Hall yesterday to discuss different perspectives on the biotechnology industry and the regulation of genetically engineered crops and food products, such as Bt corn or Flavorsavor tomatoes.

Beth Strenkoski, vice president of the Northeast Organic Farming Associating, planted the seed of the debate, proposing a five year moratorium on all biotechnology, providing time for additional scientific research on the effect genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on other crops and humans.

“It is just a short matter of time before the Bt corn and soybean crops will contaminate all of the crops belonging to American farmers,” Strenkoski said. “The government has failed to protect farmers whose crops are cross-fertilized by genetically modified plants.”

Bt corn has been genetically engineered to produce an insecticide which targets damaging pests and was planted on 8 million hectares last year.

Proponents of biotechnology, including six representatives from Cornell and two from the New York Corn Growers Association, defended GMOs by citing the cost effectiveness of reducing the amount of toxic chemicals applied to crops. The potential of producing safer car-fuel sources such as ethanol is another reason for using Bt corn.

“ReadyRoundUp reduces the amount of residual pesticides in the soil and helps the conservation of nutrients,” Prof. Russel Hahn, crop and soil sciences.

The benefits of using insecticides produced by GMOs instead of pesticides to kill weeds is one of the most attractive appeals to consumers, according to a study by the International Food Informational Council, which found that 69 percent of surveyed shoppers would buy GMOs as an alternative to plants sprayed with chemicals.

However, Lou Johns, farmer and owner of Blue Heron organic farm, said that GMOs would still contaminate the soil once they decay. He called for the biotechnology industry to recognize the organic alternatives to genetically engineered toxins.

Farmers are also concerned about the threat of GMOs cross-pollinating with other crops which have not been genetically engineered.

“The type of farming that benefits the local community without using toxins or recombinant DNA gets very little recognition,” said Johns. “Our approach is to do the least harm. Hard cold steel and our fingers are our herbicides.”

The drift of pollen from GMOs to other flowering plants is almost impossible to regulate, according to Hahn.

“Contamination of organic strains of corn by Bt strains can only be prevented by communication between neighboring farmers,” said Ron Robbins, president of the New York Corn Growers Association.

Contamination of organic crops by GMOs curtails organic farmers’ efforts to yield crops that are as natural as possible

Recently Kraft Food’s recall of Taco Bell shells containing Bt corn products not approved for human consumption prompted the Biotechnology industry and the state legislature to reconsider how to monitor the flow of GMOs into grocery stores.

“Food labeling would provide New York consumers with the option of not participating in the global experiment on genetically modified crops currently going on,” said Joe Rowland from the Empire State Honey Producers Association.

Prof. Milton Zaitlin, plant pathology, and director of the Biotechnology Program voiced his concern that GMO labeling would cause consumers to view it in a negative light “if it appeared as a warning as seen on cigarette boxes.”

“GMOs are the result of an intense human effort,” said Prof. Susan McCouch, plant breeding. “It is an ethical decision to employ science to improve the human condition. When society chooses to use scientific knowledge to improve the quantity and quality of its food products, the government must respond by protecting the general welfare. This includes the public’s rights, both the consumer’s right to choice and the scientists right to conduct research.”

The public forum held in City Hall is the first conversation in a continuing dialogue between farmers, the public and the state legislators.

Archived article by Dan Webb