The two opposing voices Thursday in the debate before the Boise City Club were not what you would call zealots.
Trent Clark, public affairs director at Monsanto in Soda Springs, the large agribusiness corporation that is one of the nation’s leading advocates of genetically modified crops, studied the issue for two years before he said he was ready to defend his employer on the issue.
Jenny Easley, of Middleton, co-founder and president of the non-profit GMO Free Idaho, said she isn’t against all genetic modification technology.
But Clark believes the technology is safe and will help meet the world’s growing demand for food. It’s important for him in part because it modifies farmers’ crops so Roundup, the weed killer made from the phosphorus mined in eastern Idaho where he works, won’t kill the crops to control weeds.
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And Easley is fighting efforts by the agricultural community to prevent labeling of foods that contain crops that were grown from seeds that had been genetically modified.
All food comes from seeds or animals that have been either genetically modified or what Clark called “genetically shuffled.” Through the simple process of cross hybridization that has been used for all plants and animals since agriculture began, we have the foods we love today.
“For thousands of years we've been genetically shuffling our food to get the traits we want,” he said.
Scientists have just developed techniques to do most of the same things at the DNA molecular level, he said.
“We're not violated any law of nature we're working with nature,” he said.
Organizations ranging from the Food and Drug Administration to the American Medical Association to the World Heath Organization and even the European Union’s executive body have said the technology is no more risky than traditional breeding technologies.
That hasn’t stopped 61 nations from passing GMO labeling laws, Easley said. And it has not convinced her that the technology is safe. It’s only been around since 1996 and today 80 percent of the food in American grocery stories comes from genetically modified crops.
Since so many counties demand transparency on the use of GMOs, the threat of pollen drifting to neighboring fields and contaminating crops without notice threatens farmers who are growing GMO free crops, Easley said.
In November, Monsanto settled for $2.1 million with a group of Oregon wheat farmers who discovered patches of GMO wheat in their fields, which caused suspensions of wheat exports to Japan and South Korea.But Clark said there was no evidence that the two crops cross pollinated since it’s very difficult to do.
The issue has divided farmers but the Idaho Farm Bureau has opposed GMO labeling legislation like an initiative that narrowly lose in Oregon.
J.R. Simplot Co. recently developed a genetically modified potato that bruises less and has fewer sugars than conventional potatoes and less asparagine, which has the potential to become a carcinogen - acrylamide - when fried. But those traits didn’t convince Simplot’s biggest customer, McDonalds to buy the new potatoes because they don’t buy GMOs.
Clark said 2014 was the last year the world had the capacity to feed itself with using genetically modified crops. With 900 million people world- wide falling short of adequate nutrition, the need will only grow.
Easley countered that 35 percent of the food grown in the United States is wasted and that poverty and the lack of democracy is the reason for hunger.