Modified foods: UD extension agents grapple with biotech farming issues

November 16, 1999

Risk is nothing new to the American farmer, who deals with slim profit margins and weather-related setbacks all the time, but current issues surrounding genetically modified foods pose a new kind of risk to farmers who, amid conflicting information and changing public perception, must decide now what to plant for next year's harvest.

Cooperative Extension specialists from the University of Delaware and Delaware State University met last week to discuss the scope of issues surrounding genetically modified foods. In particular, they addressed the concern that originated in the European Common Market over the resistance to foods that are genetically modified. The group debated exactly what they should tell farmers about planting genetically modified crops for the upcoming growing season.

Initiated by John Nye, dean of the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the discussion topics included science, ethics, production, marketing, public perception, politics and international trade.

David S. Weir, director of the newly formed Delaware Biotechnology Institute - a government, industry and academic partnership involving UD - says he applauds efforts to address questions about genetically modified foods. "Through open discussions of substantive issues encompassing both the benefits and the risks, we can begin to fully understand the potential of biotechnology and the options it provides society to improve both the output and the nutritional and health qualities of the world's food supply," Weir says.

Defining genetically modified organisms

Greatly complicating the discussion of issues surrounding genetically modified plants and animals is that the term has really never been defined, UD sources say. Genes are moved from one species of corn to another species of corn in ordinary cross pollination events, for example.

"Nature has been doing this for thousands of years," says Nye. "Much of the advance in agriculture and the great increase in productivity has been accomplished as a result of genetic selection.

"In the past, cross-pollination occurred very randomly, so it might take 14 or 15 years to develop a particular plant. Biotechnology now allows us to understand what is happening and gives us the tools to bring precision to what is essentially a natural pro cess."

Nye's comments prompted a discussion on providing a clear definition for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Mark VanGessel, UD extension specialist and associate professor for weed and crop management, raised the question of whether moving genes across the same species produces a GMO at all.

"It's biotechnology that allows us to do this," says VanGessel, "but would we say that everything that uses biotechnology is a GMO? I don't think of moving genes between two varieties of corn as creating a GMO because this is something that could occur in nature were we to give it enough time.

"Some of our major crops today, however, are Bt-corn and herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans," VanGessel continues. "With these, we are inserting a gene from a bacterium into corn. This process would not occur in nature."

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring bacterium in the soil, is non-toxic to all pests except for caterpillars. It has been used as a pesticide by organic gardeners for decades.

VanGessel says he is comfortable with the effectiveness of these products and believes they are safe, but adds there is no way to know what the grain elevators will buy.

"It's beyond our control," he says. "We need to let the farming community know that and encourage them to call the grain buyers about what will be marketable next year."

Bad science and media coverage

Particularly alarming, says Nye, is some of the misinformation about biotechnology that makes people fearful of anything having to do with altering genes in plants and animals. Nye addressed "the great misunderstanding and some science fiction" about genetically modified organisms in general.

"For instance, a headline in the news frequently since May reports that Bt-corn is going to kill all the Monarch butterflies," he says.

"Well, that's just not true."

Nye says this is "a bad interpretation of the science" behind this study, but most people don't have an opportunity to read the scientific reports, so they do not know that the findings were based on a laboratory study - not a field study - in which three-day-old Monarch caterpillars were placed on milkweed leaves that had been dusted with pollen from Bt-corn.

"And yes, Bt-corn and herbicide-resistant crops may lead to some resistance, but the pesticides and herbicides we had been using lead to resistance as well," he added.

"We need to begin a discussion within the community to communicate these things, and to interpret what is really going on, because headlines don't always do that," says Nye, noting that the communication on the food implications for GMOs is especially important.

According to Nye, GMOs allow far greater productively on the ever-shrinking farmland around the world. As the population increases and people grow hungrier, genetically modified foods could make all the difference.

Of immediate concern, the group decided, is how to advise farmers today.

"The farmers I talk to recognize the scientific advantages that come with GMOs," says Ed Kee, UD extension specialist for vegetable crops.

"They recognize, too, that the best advantage for GMOs may not be the production advantages, but the nutritional or health advantages that come from these foods," Kee says. "At the same time, major multi-national food corporations and seed companies that handle vegetable crops are making business decisions to pull away from GMOs and farmers cannot take chances on growing an unmarketable product."

"People need information now," says Gordon Johnson, UD extension agriculture agent for Kent County. "We need to lay out all the issues from the current and future concerns of genetically modified foods, to what is happening in Europe, and what is happening in the United States. We need to have a full discussion of all these evolving issues, including all the misconceptions, and all the things that are being reported that aren't true.

"There are many questions," Johnson continues. "How do you deal with this shift in public opinion? And how are you going to decide what to do about GMOs? What about availability of non-GMO seed if that is what you decide you are going to plant? How will this decision affect your production costs? And what do you need to remember if you return to conventional seeds?"

VanGessel suggested the day's discussion be targeted toward producers, whose most immediate concern is purchasing seed for next year, which most will do in December or January.

Planting conventional vs. GMO seeds

"If you are trying to decide whether you need to buy genetically modified or conventional seeds for next year, there really are no answers at this time," says VanGessel.

"If you as an individual producer decide to grow conventional varieties next year, you cannot guarantee that, should your grain be tested, it would be found GMO-free," cautions Richard Taylor, UD Extension specialist for agronomy.

"Even a self-pollinated crop such as soybeans has some cross pollination. Pollen can be moved over a distance by wind or bees. This foreign pollen can introduce GMO proteins into your non-GMO crop. Also consider that cross pollination occurs naturally in corn, which means pollen from a GMO corn could pollinate normal corn.

"Another problem is the availability of conventional seed," adds Taylor. "If you really want to plant conventional seed, you had better go out and buy it now."

Derby Walker, UD extension agriculture agent in Sussex County, points to the sweeping changes in agricultural practices since GMOs were introduced a few years ago.

"If GMO crops have had a positive influence on your farm, what should you ask yourself about changing back because of rumored market issues?" he asks. Walker urges farmers to review the full scope of production considerations before returning to conventional plants.

"On one hand, we have no way to know if buyers will buy GMO products next year," says VanGessel. "On the other hand, if you act on what appears to be the trend this month, and not plant GMO seeds, by the harvest of 2000, everything may have changed again," he says, summing up this dilemma.

Producers may find certain Internet sites useful in trying to make their decisions. One site they may wish to visit is that of Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The URL address is


Johnson suggests that extension agents remind producers that opportunities can come out of this controversy.

"Look at the market for organic foods," he says. "It's growing in double digits! So, by all means, grow things to feed into public perception. I don't think we need to promote that genetically modified foods are the right thing or the wrong thing. From a producer's point of view, however, we need to keep people in business."

Other than suggesting that producers get contracts for next year's harvest, extension experts agree that they can lay out only what information they have available for growers to consider. Ultimately, growers must make their own decisions about what works best for them.

Outreach efforts

The UD meeting concluded with a discussion of ways extension agents can communicate with the agricultural community to help keep it informed on these issues, which are changing by the day. A number of options are being explored, including a web page to discuss these evolving issues, a possible seminar with the agricultural community in the winter and regular news releases from the UD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, Taylor has sent a letter to the First Secretary of the European Union (EU), asking such questions as how they define GMOs; what products are they accepting; will they change their minds about what they will accept in the future. The response will be shared when received.

While Taylor has not yet received a reply from the EU, Salisbury, Md.'s public radio station - WSCL - announced on Market Place Nov. 10 that the EU had passed a preliminary resolution to ban or restrict GMOs. WSCL also advised that ADM had committed to labeling its products, and that the president of the National Corn Growers Association had advised members to plant non-GMO varieties this coming year.

Farming Fact Sheet

When evaluating conventional crops versus GMO crops, UD extension agents suggest reviewing this checklist
Contacts: Pat McAdams, 302-831-1356,; or

Ginger Pinholster, 302-831-6408,

University of Delaware

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