Wilmington New Journal (Delaware)
By Stewart Ramsey
April 20, 2009
Research should be cited, not just hinted at
I recently read an article that you printed titled "Hidden Dangers of Genetically Modified Food" by Jean Handwerk and was left with serious concerns about the credibility of her writing. One overarching concern I have is the way Mrs. Handwerk refers to research and findings in very vague terms and not sighting the actual research. I would think that if she had knowledge of "irrefutable evidence that GM food is harmful" that she would share some of the specific articles and Web addresses where we can read more about these impacts.
Mrs. Handwerk makes the unsubstantiated claim that GM crops promise increased production but don’t deliver. If you visit the USDA’s Web site at http://www.nass.usda.gov, you can see that the yields for corn, soybeans and cotton have increased significantly at the same time that the use of GM seeds increased from near zero to near 90 percent. For example, corn yields for the 5-year period prior to GM crops (pre-1996) compared with the most recent 5 years (2004-08) increased from 118.6 bushels per acre to 152.4 on average, a compound annual growth rate of 1.95 percent. To be fair to other technologies, farmers have also adopted practices that decrease irrigation water use, reduce fuel consumption and reduce fertilizer use per unit of crop or food produced. Data for fertilizer consumption over the same period implies that farmers used 16.5 percent less nitrogen fertilizer per bushel of corn in 2008 than they did 10 years earlier.
Mrs. Handwerk notes that farmers are restricted from planting seeds saved from the prior season. Her statement is not accurate, as farmers are allowed to save many types of seeds for replanting, but not those under patent protection. All people are prohibited from using or copying patent-protected goods and technologies without authorization of the patent holder; that is the barrier to saving seeds. The reality is that there are varieties of soybeans, wheat, corn and cotton that are available where seeds may be legally saved, but most farmers choose not to save seeds for several reasons. Among these reasons are that purchased seed often has better yields, has better germination (because of seed handling), is free of weed seeds and foreign material and is sorted by size to work with modern planting equipment. Even home gardeners buy seed, generally for similar reasons.
As a farmer, I can attest to improved weed-control options made available by GM crops having allowed farmers to adopt alternative farming technologies, such as no-till. The use of no-till practices allows farmers around the world to conserve energy, soil and, in many cases, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Personally, no-till farming allows me more time to attend my son’s baseball games and participate in other family events. I know my activities are less dramatic than Mrs. Handwerk’s accusation that cotton farmers in India are committing suicide because of GM cotton.
Mrs. Handwerk makes reference to author Jeffery Smith to lend credibility to her accusations. I visited Mr. Smith’s Web site and read his bio, which includes that Mr. Smith lives in Iowa surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Given the very high penetration of GM seeds planted in Iowa soybean and cornfields, it goes without saying that Mr. Smith is surrounded by GM crops and their pollen. If these crops are truly as dangerous as Mrs. Handwerk claims, why hasn’t Mr. Smith moved?
In closing, I would hope that future articles such as Mrs. Handwerk’s would include more true evidence to support her claims or she needs to replace words like "irrefutable" with "in my opinion." I truly hope The News Journal sees fit to print my reaction to "Hidden dangers of genetically modified food" as I believe it is much more fact-based and bounded by the evidence rather than opinion.
Stewart Ramsey is a Delaware farmer.