Science key to protecting, expanding food supply

August 23, 2011 

  • If you go

    Film: The World According to Monsanto

    When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23

    Where: Lexington Public Library, 140 East Main Street

    Discussion afterward

Sustainable Communities Network director Jim Embry's advocacy for sustainable agriculture is well-respected in the Lexington community. His April 20 commentary, "Good food revolution has to start at home," is a reasoned call to action that positively stimulates the discussion about personal responsibility with respect to food production.

However, we wish Embry's Aug. 18 column, "Monsanto's control of seeds could yield a Frankenfuture," would have been more sensitive to the critical food issues that affect us.

First, let us dispense with the exceptionally irresponsible claim that genetically modified organisms "cause cancer, birth defects and serious food allergies." Quite apart from the GMO issue, there are serious issues at present such as food safety, security and nutrition.

For example, with obesity now at nearly 40 percent of the population and still rising, the increased health care costs will soon be more than any nation can bear. Additionally, there are legitimate concerns about food-borne pathogens and diseases that we should all be cognizant of. We refer readers to the Centers for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov) for more information on these matters.

However, while there are many misinterpretations of published works, no studies have been validated by rigorous scientific peer review to support the contention that foods derived from GMOs are less safe to eat than conventional foods.

A second related issue is that we live in a time where agricultural and forestry production systems are being pushed beyond capacity in order to meet worldwide demands, such as increased daily caloric consumption in rich nations and meeting caloric demands of burgeoning populations in poor nations.

An unfortunate consequence of this fervent push for "more," which has virtually eliminated the seasonal variation in our food supply, is the rise of novel pathogens, such as fungi, viruses and invasive species of insects, that severely threaten food supply and security worldwide.

Our ability to protect crops and forests from these new pests will be increasingly dependent upon the integration of molecular (GMO) approaches into sustainable cropping systems, as conventional approaches cannot keep pace.

Colleges of agriculture around the world, including the University of Kentucky, are fully engaged in the development of safe, sustainable agricultural systems using all available technologies.

Finally, we wish to make clear that we are not writing in order to defend Monsanto or any other corporation. As public scientists, our desire and our obligation is to best serve the public interest. We would like to make the case that the importance of the film, The World According to Monsanto, is not really about GMOs, nor is it about corporate control of the food supply, per se.

No, the greater issue for discussion is what we, as recipients of the most abundant and inexpensive food supply in the world, are willing to learn about how food comes to our table. Inexpensive food, as a percentage of our income, has global consequences in terms of how it gets to each of us.

Do we really know the working conditions, or immigration status, of the people that bring our food to us? Food production is among the most complex activities on the planet today and there are no simple singular solutions to this complexity. Even if Monsanto were to suddenly disappear, there are many companies that would fill the void.

We hope readers will have the opportunity to attend the screening and participate in the discussion that will follow. More importantly, we hope that readers will take this opportunity to engage in balanced discussions about their personal health, our food supply and the global economy that we all are an essential part of.

Michael Goodin is a University of Kentucky associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology; John J. Obrycki is professor and chair of the Department of Entomology; Robert Houtz is professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture; and Paul Vincelli is extension professor and Provost's Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology.

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