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NOFA-NJ hosts GMO debate at conference

By JANE PRIMERANO
AFP Correspondent

LINCROFT (Feb. 15, 2015) —The 25th anniversary NOFA-NJ Winter Conference presented its first debate on a controversial subject.
Camille Miller, executive director of Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey, said the board wanted to do something special for the anniversary conference and decided an Oxford-style debate was the way to go. They picked the topic “GMOs Have an Adverse Effect on Human Health and the Environment.”
After the debate, Miller admitted the topic was a little broad and said they will present more narrow topics in future debates.
In spite of the broadness of the topic and the time limitations of trying to debate it in one and one-half hours, the audience seemed pleased and a few people changed their opinion about GMOs.
For the premise were Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and adjunct at its medical school, and Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Consumer’s Union. Against the premise were Bradley Hillman, a professor at Rutgers and senior associate director at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, and Xenia Morin, associate dean and liaison for sponsored programs at NJAES.
Krimsky started the debate by noting that even those who believe there are no adverse effects of genetic modification of organisms admit there are no acceptable standard tests for these effects. He said that doesn’t mean GMOs are causing illness, it means nobody knows. Hillman argued the methods of adding genes are becoming more sophisticated.
“There is not one single technology. There are many different types of genetic modification, we can’t lump them together.  Proper study is essential. Each GM experiment must be studied on its own merits.”
Hansen pointed out the industry likes to say it’s done it for 100 years, but under the definitions published by the European Union in 2001, genetic modification means altering a gene in a way that doesn’t occur naturally. Globally, eight years were spent developing a safety assessment. In the United States, however, the policy is there is no difference between genetic modification and natural fusion of cells. The FDA has come out saying ultimately the food producer is responsible. Monsanto says assuring safety is up to the FDA.
“There could be unintended consequences. We need data,” Hansen said.
He said a bio-tech working group determined the main reason companies want to genetically engineer is to expand the market for pesticides.
Morin said the argument must be put in context. “We need to know how we’ve been feeding the world,” she said, adding, “what are we doing for food safety?”
She asked if GMOs could address food and water borne diseases.
“There are lots of GMOs, we need to open up the conversation, not all are alike.”
Hansen said he is not against technology, but each new technology requires testing.
Moderator Stephanie Harris asked about the corporatization of science.
“We need to disconnect from what industry is doing,” Morin said.
She asked, “what would be the benefit of putting out a product that makes people sick.”
Harris said she believes you can’t trust studies funded with public money.
Morin pointed out “as a country, we don’t invest in public research.”
Hillman agreed more research is needed and added it must “start without conclusions.”
“The entire genome has been sequenced. We now know where the gene goes.”
Krimsky countered “Monsanto doesn’t allow sequence analysis.”
Hansen said technology plays a small part in agriculture. “There are so many ways we could focus on feeding the world.”
He cited getting food to the right places and getting tools to the people.
Morin said there are multiple solutions to hunger and poverty, she questioned the wisdom of closing off a whole technology.
“We don’t have to lead separate lives,” she said.
Krimsky said when someone fiddles with the engineering of animals it can wake up something that is there already.
Hansen said he is not saying to reject the idea of GMO, just that they need more study and safely assessments are needed.
Hillman’s aid safety assessments are done and companies know they can’t release GMOs without them.
Krimsky had the last word, saying it can take up to 50 years to determine if a chemical is dangerous and we don’t want to be in the same place with GMOs.
Before and after the debate, Harris asked the audience if they supported or denied the premise that GMOs are dangerous or if they were undecided. Although the majority supported the premise both before and after the debate, the number of undecided increased after hearing both sides.