How Do Genetically Engineered Crops Affect Us?

Burgundy Carrots?

I bought a bunch of stunning purple and orange tubers in the vegetable area of my local grocery store. They were two feet long, with beautiful carrot-like greens attached – so long that the tips were folded and tied together with elastic bands.

I imagined the “carrots” (“carreets?” perhaps?) cut on a skewer for my birds – and was about to imagine my bunnies enjoying those greens – when I remembered to check at the label. It perplexes me! These were neither a forgotten-variety carrot from Grandma’s garden or a newly discovered yet anciently consumed by the Incas. These were beet-carrot hybrids.

I could see sprout eyes, but there was a label warning me that propagating this rootcrop was forbidden. I was wondering whether, as in the film Blade Runner, you could look through a microscope and see a little patent number on the cells. I’ve eaten and appreciated brocco-flower, but any fruit that may have been genetically modified is frowned upon these days.

About thirty years ago, I asked one of those questions that young people ask to put new acquaintances to the test, to see how they think. “Would you rather eat a blue apple or an apple with a worm in it?” I said. I was surprised by how many people choose the blue apple. However, if you are actually hungry, any apple might appear appealing.

Feeding the World

I recently listened to an animated conversation on National Public Radio regarding the benefits and drawbacks of genetically engineered crops, particularly in India. Indian farmers are protesting being bound to a system based on trademarked grains, a system that prevents them from saving and replanting their seed. I can appreciate their perspective since I believe a sales tax on food is wrong.

Do most farmers purchase seed for their major crops on a yearly basis? Growing a food crop versus a seed crop would need different methods and lengths of cultivating time. But are global corporations imposing a way of life on third-world farmers that benefits only the companies? The problems are intricate. What works in the United States is unlikely to work in the rest of the globe. And what doesn’t work in India could work elsewhere.

Dr. Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in beginning the “Green Revolution” in Asia and for his lifelong efforts to feed the needy. Greg Easterbrook said in The Atlantic Monthly, “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity,” that Dr. Borlaug “saved more lives than any other individual who ever lived.” That’s very amazing.

Dr. Borlaug is now 84 years old and has spent the most of his life in developing nations assisting farmers in doing all they can to ensure the survival of their families, communities, and countries. The University of Minnesota gave him a PhD in plant pathology in 1942.

Dr. Borlaug worked as the Rockefeller Foundation’s wheat enhancement scientist under the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program. He managed the Wheat Program in Mexico with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center from 1994 until his formal retirement in 1979. (CIMMYT). Dr. Borlaug has been a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University since 1984. He is also the program director for the Sasakawa-Global 2000 agricultural program (SG 2000), a collaboration between the Sasakawa Africa Association and The Carter Center’s Global 2000 program.

Dr. Borlaug testified before the FDA in the early 1970s that DDT should never have been completely removed from the US market since it was so successful at sustaining human and animal health in the nations that needed it the most. Following our embargo, leaders in developing nations were pressured to quit utilizing it, leaving them without an alternate way. He is fearful that biotech will follow suit.

Biotech Crops

To appreciate the role that biotechnology may play in alleviating human hunger, we must consider the issues that farmers confront across the globe. We must educate ourselves for the benefit of our birds as well as our own as citizens of the United States and members of a larger society. We must differentiate between risky and polluting farming techniques and those that are healthy and appropriate. We need to understand why organic farming isn’t always the best option and distinguish between “organic” nitrogen fertilizers and insecticides.

Ronald Bailey, Reason Online’s Science Correspondent, did an interview with Dr. Borlaug in which he explains why we should not reject genetically altered crops.

I hope you will read the essays in both the Atlantic Monthly and Reason Online. In the United States, there have only been three Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The other two names, Elie Wiesel and Henry Kissinger, are much more well-known.

I’m also thinking of getting some of those beet carrots. If it’s not a copyright violation, I’ll snap a photo.

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