By STEPHEN MOOSE
Everyone can agree that having affordable, high-quality, nutritious food available for all is a good thing. Our current agricultural systems have succeeded in doing so for much of the world, but some regions still struggle, and global demand is rapidly growing. Technological innovations have been key to increased agricultural productivity.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the latest version of a technology people have been utilizing since the dawn of agriculture to improve crops and livestock, where new genetic variations that program desirable traits are selected for continued production. Now that science has learned enough about how nature provides these useful variations, we can design them to perform even better, and accelerate the time to discover and develop new improvements.
The movie "Food Evolution," directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by the popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, explores the history of GMOs. The story is told through the eyes of scientists who have developed these innovations, farmers who plant them and activists who question GMOs and their impact on agriculture and society. We learn that GMOs have been widely adopted in many crops because they provide easier and more effective strategies to battle diseases, weeds, insects and help manage weather extremes like drought.
In addition to improving farmer's yields and profitability, they also offer environmental benefits and more nutritious foods. These advances have been achieved without compromising food safety or causing environmental harm, in part because the U.S. and other countries have developed rigorous regulatory standards to reduce potential risk factors. A new GMO crop will typically undergo a decade of testing at costs of $10 to $100 million to establish that it is as safe to grow and consume as existing foods.
Although scientists and health organizations throughout the world agree on the many positives about GMOs, a vocal minority of activists have waged a media campaign aimed at confusing the public about what science says about GMOs. These activists rightfully question whether the motivation for profits by large agricultural companies is always best. However, we see that the same questions can be asked of the loudest voices against GMOs. As pointed out in the movie, the organic food chain Whole Foods now earns the same annual revenues as Monsanto.
People have a strong innate desire to know where their food comes from, to avoid eating something that makes us ill or worse. For nearly all of human civilization, most everyone had a direct connection with their food by either growing it or knowing the local farmers who did. The dramatic industrialization in agriculture during the past two centuries, as symbolized recently by GMOs, has helped meet global demand for food, as world population has rapidly grown.
However, this industrialization also has disconnected much of us from direct knowledge of or interaction with the food system and the farms where it all begins. It is in this void that the "food movement" has arisen, where alternatives emphasize reconnecting people directly with food through farmers markets, organic products and, most recently, the expansion of farm-to-table options at both restaurants and online delivery to your kitchen door.
The success of these enterprises shows that people will in fact pay for food with a "personal touch," which is often presented as being more nutritious and safe to eat. Although possible in affluent urban areas, these supply chains cannot be scaled to meet global food demands, and as shown by recent food poisonings at Chipotle and elsewhere, can sometimes fail in meeting food-safety standards. It is perhaps not surprising that some actors in the food movement counter these shortcomings by demonizing GMOs as "unnatural" and a product of "big ag."
Going forward, effective communication among scientists, agriculture and the food system and broader society will strengthen understanding of how science provides solutions to critical problems facing global food production. Through "Food Evolution," scientists and farmers are engaging the public in conversations about how GMOs offer exciting new opportunities for sustaining a planet Earth with food for all.
Stephen Moose is the Alexander Professor of Maize Breeding and Genetics in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. He conducts research on the genetic improvement of corn and other related crops.
If you go
What: Screening of 'Food Evolution.'
When: 1:30 p.m. April 8. Doors open at 1 p.m.
Where: Art Theater, 126 W. Church St., C.
Panel discussion: Afterward, with farmers, a dietitian and a scientist.
Register: Free event; visit Eventbrite at https://goo.gl/Xg5Sh5