Genetic change has always played a critical role in agriculture


Guest commentary by Nevil C. Speer

College campuses never lack for opinion. Regardless of the subject, if you search hard enough, you’re certain to find a slant.

That’s by design; academic environments are established to foster free thought. Sometimes, though, such opinion goes out of bounds and you stumble across entrenched perspectives from the least likely sources — individuals weigh in on subjects with no real knowledge and/or expertise. (That’s especially ironic given that academicians are highly guarded about expertise and specialization when it comes to curriculum.)

That reality struck home several months ago as I casually thumbed through a local community periodical. I ran across an article outlining the attributes of eating soy (or not) — only it was written by a colleague who works in a separate college and possesses no formal training in agriculture or food production.

To the point above, why should I be surprised? My curiosity was captured.


But the more I read, the more troubling the article became. Most striking were the following observations: “One of the most disconcerting issues in the current battle over the benefits of soy is genetic modification (usually referred to as GMOs or genetically modified foods and organisms).

“The 90-minute documentary released in November 2009, Food, Inc., brought soybeans into the limelight as it explored the use of Roundup Ready soy beans … among some of the shocking revelations recorded in this documentary is the exploration of genetically engineered soybeans and the role Monsanto plays in seed creation.

“While GMOs and the advance of Roundup-resistant seeds superficially seem to be a logical avenue for mass-producing food, questions have arisen about the safety of the harvested products for human consumption.

“Since about 93 percent of soybean seeds planted last year contained Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetic trait, there is reason to be alarmed.”

Clearly, my colleague is a newcomer to this discussion if she believes that Food, Inc. is responsible for bringing GMOs “into the limelight”; this is not a new topic.

But then again, citing Food, Inc doesn’t set the bar very high in terms of source integrity — the documentary is certainly not an objective source of information about food and food production.

The commentary, though, reflects lingering perspectives of privileged ideologues that mandates some objective perspective. Most notably, utilization of science in food production is not a new phenomenon.


That was most appropriately outlined by Nina Fedoroff, former science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, at the 2010 USDA Outlook Forum: “It was George Harrison Shull who actually was asked to demonstrate the newly rediscovered Mendelian principles who inbred some strains of corn that he got from various places, and then he crossed them. And much to his surprise he suddenly got much bigger, sturdier plants with larger ears.

“He published a little paper that said, hmm, this might have some bearing, some implications for agriculture. Of course it took many more decades before hybrid corn was adopted, and indeed many of the things that people say about genetically modified crops today were said about hybrid corn then … Of course we’ve done this with wheat. We’ve done it with rice. And we’ve done it with a huge variety of plants, principally increasing the sizes of fruits, making them less toxic, removing the seeds from them, making them healthier….”


Try to imagine your world if science had never gotten traction within agriculture. Our options would be greatly limited compared to the current lifestyle we enjoy today.

Similarly, Norman Borlaug was asked about genetic advancement in modern agriculture. Specifically, the question surrounded the appropriateness of crossing genetic barriers between species and whether he agreed that such action was inappropriate (Reason, April, 2000): “No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera — that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.

“Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period.

“Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire … So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.”

So while some individuals tout potential dangers of scientific progress, genetic change has always played a critical role in agriculture.


Science provides us with great abundance and security. But we can’t stop here. There’s further challenges ahead — feeding the world — a matter of nine-billion people by 2050 (a far cry from “thousands”). That reality means we can never let up in terms of advancing agricultural productivity; agriculture has a great responsibility and taking our foot off the gas will only serve to penalize the less fortunate (ironic given that my university colleague oversees a social justice program).

So while the anti-GMO crowd might be “alarmed” about science, such ideology is neither realistic nor helpful. After all, the more pressing issue is hungry people, lots of them and more every day — they need food to eat.

(Nevil C. Speer is director of MA Leadership Dynamics, Center for Leadership Excellence, at Western Kentucky University and professor of animal science.)


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  1. Clearly the author does not understand the real difference in selecting seed for positive traits and injecting pesticide into the DNA of a plant to kill the animals that would eat it. There is a big difference between the two.

    This diatribe seems to echo the false claims by several irresponsible biotech companies that claim these methods increase yields and reduce chemical use of farms. One would think that a person who claims to be a professor of animal science would know that ingesting pesticides is harmful to animals.

    As the case in so many articles that make the same claims, the author probably has received economic consideration from the very companies that produce these mutant crops.

    A note to farmers considering planting these genetically engineered crops: GE canola brings less than non GE canola and the trend is moving lower. The facts I present here can easily be verified by a quick search on the web. While you are at read about Dr. Don M. Huber, Professor Emertus at Purdue University.

  2. The amount of disinfirmation in this article is staggering. No way is Ge canola giving of more than non Ge canola. Organic farming is by far more rewarding. 1.8 million farmers around the World has now gone organic. Must be a reason why that number is constantly rising.

  3. Um… where to begin. Your argument is seriously flawed. If you think science has expanded our “limitations” then please get back to me with the number of varieties of apple that were available in the 1900’s compared to now.

    Also please do yourself a favor and taste test an heirloom tomato grown on an organic farm (if you are lucky enough to find one) next to the best possible specimen you can find at any regular grocery store.

    There is so much else I could say, but for those thinking clearly, messing around with genetics that we don’t fully understand in a non-natural way (ie, gene splicing) is a terrible, terrible, regrettable idea for blatantly obvious reasons.


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