GMOs Expose Dangerous “Science” Disconnect in Agriculture

This op-ed first appeared in Politico Pro.

A contentious issue in the upcoming Colorado and Oregon GMO labeling referendums is the perceived safety of consuming genetically modified foods.

Question a representative of the National Corn Growers Association or the American Farm Bureau Federation about the safety of eating GMOs and you’ll rightly be scolded about the scientific evidence that consuming those crops is as safe as any other.

These representatives of the American farm lobby wield enormous political clout with conservative and rural lawmakers. They also influence farmers’ decisions. But, ironically, they are AWOL when it comes to publicly communicating the consensus on the science behind the single greatest threat to agriculture, which is human-induced climate change.

What’s the result of this willful ignorance?

A U.S Department of Agriculture survey released this year revealed that a scant 7.8 percent of corn belt farmers believe that human activity causes climate change. Compare that to the fact that 93 percent of 2014’s planted corn was genetically modified.

A huge gulf exists in farmer attitudes toward science. Growers clearly accept the scientific evidence that modified food is safe while rejecting the scientific evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity. And this chasm is driven by simple economics. One finding makes farmers money, but the other doesn’t – yet.

Climate change is swiftly re-writing the rules for all of U.S agriculture. The havoc wrought by a warming atmosphere will have profound effects on our food and farm system. We need to enlist the entire U.S. agriculture sector if we hope to reduce emissions to tolerable levels and thrive in a changing climate.

That means the farm lobby and food activists need to both embrace science outside their ideological biases.

I’m no scientist, nor an active farmer. I am a prodigious consumer of both organic and genetically altered food and beverages, and I know it’s not the GMO corn used to distill my extra glass of bourbon that will determine my long-term health. I’ve been a staunch defender of much of the sustainable food movement’s central tenets, such as organics and local food. Our goal should be to use fewer chemicals and do as little harm to the environment as possible when growing what we eat.

I’m also lucky enough to own part of my family’s fourth-generation South Dakota farm. GMO corn and soybeans dominate this remote part of the state because they make money. There is no local market. The ultimate goal of most farms – including ours – is to pass a viable operation on to the next generation.

Despite their prevalence, there is ample reason to question the deployment of GMO technology. They play a major role in nurturing a biodiversity-crushing monoculture, and one farmer’s planting actions contaminating another’s should be an issue of paramount importance to agriculture.

Yet in order to survive abrupt changes to our climate, American agriculture must transform itself into a fine-tuned, diverse and resilient web of organic and conventional farms that produce at a rate that continues to astonish the world.

It can be done. Companies are looking at ways to give farmers financial incentives to use less climate-damaging synthetic fertilizer. Some farmers are enrolling in carbon markets. And the recent federal farm bill provides a roadmap on how to reform policy and subsidies so they benefit farmers who do the right thing by water, habitat, soil and climate.

What’s needed now, more than ever, is for good-food advocates and conventional agriculture to unify over the overarching issue of climate change. That won’t happen as long we keep having this silly food fight over GMO safety.

Images courtesy of USDA. 

Don Carr is a former Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and Senior Communications Manager for the Environmental Defense Fund. He writes about rural politics and agriculture at the ROA blog and is the author of the forthcoming novel about rural America’s angst in the age of Obama – The Republic of Awesome.

Don Carr