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May 14, 2010

Ronald & McWilliams NYT Op-Ed - Genetically Engineered Distortions

On 14 May 2010, the New York Times printed an op-ed piece by Drs. Pamela Ronald and James McWilliams regarding some of the little noticed but significant findings discussed in the National Research Council's Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (April 2010).

Dr. Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis and co-author of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.  James E. McWilliams is a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos and author of Just Food.

In the authors' opinion, one of the more signficant findings in the NRC report is "an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes." This could led to major crops modifications throughout the world including areas where climate and poor soil conditions make agriculture difficult. 

Ronald and McWilliams note that opponents of GM crops need to stop "demonizing the technology."  They need to recognize the benefits that might result from decades of research on new crops that could improve the lives of millions of the poor.  These include "drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet."  Other examples cited:
  • GM sorghum that is resistant to both drought and the Striga weed. 
  • GM sorghum  that is nutritionally enhanced to increase levels of zinc
  • Golden Rice, which is nutritionally enhanced to increase levels of vitamin  
  • GM potatoes that contain greater amounts of protein.
  • GM virus-resistant papaya that will not succumb to the papaya ringspot virus
The authors note that in spite of all the opposition and concern about GM crops, the NRC research report concluded that they have not harmed human health or the environment.  As result of all the opposition, regulatory costs now threaten to keep smaller companies and non-profit foundations from developing a wider range of GM crops.  This trend keeps the technology in the hands of large multi-national corporations focused on deriving profits from their patents. 

The authors conclude, "[i]f we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable."

Photo credit: Pearl Grain Millet courtesy of the University of Georgia, College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.

For more see: Ronald, Pamela C. and James E. McWilliams, "Genetically Engineered Distortions," New York Times, Op-Ed, 14 May 2010.

Also see previous blog posts:

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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