Thursday, February 3, 2011

Haunted by genetic engineering

For me to begin any discussion of my views of the Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering crop development controversy, I have to go back to the 1980s. At that time, I was county extension agent in Mineral County, Montana.

It was probably in 1988 that I attended a conference of extension agents at Montana State University (a land-grant university), in Bozeman, where a major presentation was made by a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland. He wanted to introduce us to this amazing new process of genetically modifying crops to change their nature, their properties, and their reactions to the environment, all according to the will of the scientists. Specifically, they were working on modifying corn so that it would be resistant to pesticides.

I found it very interesting that this USDA representative also had an investment in the biotech firm, also located in Beltsville, which was actively working on this objective.

For the previous two decades, while living on small farms or homesteads in Virginia, Montana, and North Dakota with my young children, I had endeavored to garden and raise livestock for our own use, organically and naturally—free range chickens and grass fed beef, and contented dairy cows or goats and happy hogs, along with vegetables, herbs, and small fruits.

No chemicals, no pesticides, no antibiotic or hormone-laced feeds for the animals. I subscribed to Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News and Countryside, and bought books on organic gardening.

I was familiar with the history of USDA’s opposition to organic gardening, (it could mark the end of a USDA employee's career to even breathe the word “organic”), but now in the ‘80s it seemed the Agriculture Department was a little more encouraging of organic methods and alternative crops. We extension agents had been attending workshops on how to use organic methods in gardening, how to reduce use of pesticides, etc.

I was pleased that we seemed to be entering a new era.

Now it seemed that was about to change. This USDA person was explaining that corn could be modified, so that it would be resistant to pesticides such as Roundup, so that the farmer could use more Roundup without damaging the corn. What? More pesticide? I thought we were supposed to be trying to use less pesticide. Of course, Roundup was, and still is, promoted as being less dangerous than other pesticides because it is less persistent in the soil.

After this main session in the auditorium, we moved in small groups to small rooms for discussion with the extension staff. Again, we were told of the great value of this modification of corn, how it would increase production and reduce labor, etc. We were advised, moreover, that this could be a bonanza for our university.

Land grant universities were eligible to apply for grants and funds to research this process; that meant money, of course. We were also exhorted to go home to our counties and inform our farmers and ranchers of this wonderful process and encourage them to support the research and to look forward to planting this corn themselves...and other such products to follow.

It seemed to me that our discussion leader was trembling with fervor. I know I asked some questions, but I was careful not to state my skepticism. I do know that I felt a chill running down my spine.

It seemed to me this new science was not auspicious for our future. And although, to be fair to USDA and the extension service, I did go home to my county and discuss this with the local farmers and ranchers, I could not in all honesty endorse it.

I was never sure why my position was terminated after another year. I have seen nothing nor read anything in the years since then to make me change my mind about GM and GE crops, including the recent USDA approval of GE alfalfa.

I was devastated when President Obama appointed industry-oiled ormer Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as head of the USDA. So what about the organic garden on the White House Lawn? Was that just to be a distraction?

--Windy Cutler

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