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Ag can’t afford to ignore science (Editorial)

by | Oct 12, 2018

Few are the days, if they exist at all, when news of issues in fighting crop pests, diseases, weeds or other foe don’t cross our desk.
Many attribute the problems — at least in part — to the changing climate that allows more pests and pathogens to travel father and live longer. These pests’ resistance to crop protection products is a continual fight for growers along with contending with invasive species that migrate one way or another from different areas of the world.
Contributing to the science-focused digital magazine, Undark, author Anne N. Connor proposes two paths out of the perils threatening modern food production.
One is to take a drastic step toward mixed planting, growing multiple species in the same field at once. The other is to fully embrace the expansion of genetically modified crops.
“Although GMOs have been greeted skeptically by health-conscious consumers, many of those consumers fail to realize that not all GMOs are created equal,” Connor writes.
Early GMOs, created through transgenic means, introduced genes from one plant species to another. Concern over that process developed into the “Frankenfood” mentality held by detractors that view the resulting crops as bad.
Now advances in gene editing technology, adding or subtracting genes within a single species, has shown to exponentially speed up the selective breeding process with more accuracy to attack specific problems in growing crops.
Many of these mutagenic crops are well into the development pipeline already, aided by what’s called CRISPR technology.
Now concern is that mutagenic crops will be lumped in with their GMO forebearers and their associated stigmas across the globe.
“The distinction between transgenic and mutagenic GMOs has largely been lost on the public,” Connor says in her essay titled, “We Need to Change the Way We Talk About GMOs” online at undark.org. “Hardly any mention of their differences has come up in the battle over GMO labeling of foods.
The lack of nuance was underscored in July when the European Union ruled that mutagenic crops would be subject to the same regulations as transgenic crops under the GMO directive. Sarah Gurr, a food security specialist at the University of Exeter in England, calls the decision a ‘huge pity.’”
Connor adds better education on GMOs, including proper food labeling, is crucial. Losing out on the huge benefits of these technological advancements from a lack of understanding of how they work would be devastating.
“Given the growing global threats to food security, we cannot afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Connor writes. “There is an arms race escalating between our crops and the things that destroy them. We need the best possible weapons at our disposal.”
While it may be nice to ruminate about a return to agriculture of 50 years ago when more farmers had smaller farms with a wider crop and livestock diversity, the reality is any major change will be accomplished with technological advances that allow today’s growers to a better crop with less resources, including labor, and the policies in place to allow food to get to those who need it and want it.
In what other industry, what other facet of life do we turn away from technology and what should make agriculture any different?

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