Whole Earth Catalog founder extols genetically modified crops

2012-01-18T07:00:00Z 2012-01-18T11:55:04Z Whole Earth Catalog founder extols genetically modified cropsBy ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
January 18, 2012 7:00 am  • 

Ten years ago, Greenpeace activists unfurled a banner at the top of the Aurora Cooperative elevator that underscored the organization's opposition to genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops of similar origin.

"This Is Your Food On Drugs," the banner said. "Ban Genetically Engineered Drug Crops."

Stewart Brand, who gave a Heuerman Lecture on "Green Ag Biotech" at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Tuesday night, thinks consumer anxiety toward food with genetically engineered ingredients has been calmed considerably in the past decade.

"I think time goes on and people get used to things," he said in an interview. "That's typically how these things go. Americans have been eating GMO foods now for over a decade and with zero effects."

Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s, doesn't like to be portrayed as having reversed his position on technology that remains controversial in Europe and other overseas markets. But he does admit to some attitude adjustment.

"My enthusiasm about GMOs has had cause to grow over the years," he said.

One reason for his endorsement is rapidly increasing world population and his belief that food needs can't be met without embracing laboratory work that endows crops with such traits as insect resistance and drought tolerance.

Watch for China and Africa to assert themselves in that realm.

"It's mainly playing out in the developing world now, where the real needs for vastly improved crops are there."

Europe will pay the price for hanging back, he said.

"It just means that they're getting left behind in one agricultural revolution after another now for awhile."

Nebraska farmers have not been hanging back.

Virtually all soybeans now fit the genetically modified profile, as does more than 80 percent of the corn crop, said Tom Clemente, a plant science innovation specialist at UNL.

But wheat is an example of an important human food crop that has yet to break through the biotechnology barrier.

Brand cites its complex genetic makeup. Clemente points to the high cost of government review.

"The ability to get a biotechnology trait on the market is still enormously costly," Clemente said. "So there's still a tremendous amount of technology sitting on the shelf because of regulatory hurdles."

Brand also addressed climate change, the importance of which, he said, has been clouded by political debate between "the denialists and the calamitists."

His attention is on multi-year drought in Texas, Oklahoma and other states, he said.

"(Drought) is more significant to me than whether hurricanes are happening or not, because droughts are classic things that any kind of (global) warming causes."

The widespread absence of snow in Nebraska in mid-January is not necessarily a sign of global warming, Brand said.

"Anything less than 10 years is not climate yet," he said. "It's just weather."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace thinking on genetic engineering remains at odds with Brand, Clemente and others.

The Greenpeace website includes a picture of farmers in Spain marching behind a "GMO-free agriculture" banner.

"These genetically modified organisms can spread through nature," the organization warns, "and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby contaminating non 'GE' environments and future generations in an unforeseeable and uncontrollable way."

Greenpeace continues to campaign for labeling of products with GMO ingredients.

Although all seems quiet on the Nebraska GMO front, the Aurora episode was not the only sign of a more troubled scene in the years leading up to and away from the new millennium.

In 1999 and 2000, the StarLink seed corn controversy attracted nationwide news attention after a product licensed for the livestock feed sector, and not the food sector, turned up in food supply lines in Nebraska and other states.

Food allergies were another concern of that time.

Corn farmers launched a lawsuit and eventually shared in a $70 million settlement with StarLink creator Aventis SA and its marketing partners.

That gave rise to the term "Frankenfoods."

Brand described that choice of words on Tuesday as "crystallizing the irrationality of our fears."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Follow us

Latest deals & offers

Featured businesses