The GMO Debate

Insights from DU CEO Dale Hall

Advertisements from segments of the food industry have been successful in having the public believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are harmful to humans. The objective appears to be to convince the consumer that purchasing more expensive "non-GMOs" is the responsible thing to do to protect one's family from harmful foods. This effort has, unfortunately, caused much harm to the agricultural industry and to our partners in both the private and public sector. 

In 1866, a Central European monk by the name of Gregor Mendel studied the process of heredity and documented that certain traits could be mapped and predicted in the offspring of peas. This new field of genetics went relatively unnoticed until the turn of the 20th century when the invention of the microscope allowed a much closer analysis of cell structure. Mendel's work focused on the ability to remove perceived negative traits in peas in favor of desired ones, thus increasing yield or other favorable outcomes. Since then, every known food crop has undergone genetic modifications through selective planting, hybridization, grafting, and numerous other techniques to create desired outcomes for human food production. While Mendel's work began with peas, the process of gene manipulation quickly moved into animal husbandry and, with the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, the pattern of genetic manipulation in plants and livestock skyrocketed. Today, there is literally no seed planted to grow food for human consumption that has NOT been genetically modified.

The drivers of this thriving industry are economics and an ever-growing population. With 7.6 billion people in the world today and a predicted 9.2 billion by 2040, it is essential that as much food per acre be produced as possible if we are to have wetlands and grasslands for ecological purposes. In addition, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature have ALL stated that GMO crops are equally safe for human consumption as "non-GMO" crops. At DU, we focus on working with our public and private partners to conserve wetlands and wildlife habitat. But actions based on misinformation emerged on our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) refuges that significantly reduced the food available to migratory birds.

The director of the USFWS under President Obama issued an order regarding GMOs that halted one of the most beneficial programs available to a refuge manager to provide food for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The cooperative farming program is a partnership between the refuge and a local farmer to grow high-value food crops for migratory birds on the refuge and, in return for the use of the land, the farmer leaves up to one-third of the crop standing for wildlife food. The rhetoric surrounding GMOs was used as the reason to effectively cancel this program. While there is no evidence that the crops are dangerous to human health, the question of chemical use in farming operations is legitimate. However, to safeguard against the use of any chemicals dangerous to wildlife, the refuge is required by policy to submit a Pesticide Use Proposal for approval by pesticide specialists in the USFWS. Through this process, all potential threats to either people or wildlife are fully addressed. However, that safeguard was ignored.

Thankfully, Acting USFWS Director Greg Sheehan reversed this order in August and refuge managers now have a very important management tool at their disposal. This reversal took both courage and a commitment to science in the management of our natural resources. THANK YOU, GREG SHEEHAN, for your strong leadership!