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Letter: A rebuttal to “‘Food Evolution’ masks important issues in agriculture”

As a University of Minnesota graduate student in the Applied Plant Sciences program with a bachelors, a masters, and a PhD defense in the next three months, I disagree highly with the letter published on Sept. 28: “‘Food Evolution’ masks important issues in agriculture.”

The letter claims that the film addresses GM technology in a biased way. Interestingly, at no point in the letter does my colleague actually address GM technology. Instead, they focused on 1) pesticides 2) monoculture 3) corporate responsibility and 4) the fact that some people may have said some things that they later regretted. This film only addresses the practice of genetic modification, and sets out to that purpose. In the interest of good faith, I will contextualize the rest of their claims that are not covered by the content of the film.

The letter claims that glyphosate is claimed by the WHO to be probably cancer causing. Glyphosate has been placed in the same category as other massive risks such as “dental implants, consuming red meat, being a barber, doing work that disrupts your biological clock and acrylamide (found in fried potatoes and other starches).” In this vein, I would like to state that grad school is causing me cancer and that vegans were right all along. I will die before I give up salt and vinegar potato chips though.

The letter also states that dicamba is responsible for 3.1 million lost acres in soybeans (3.5 percent of soybean acreage in the U.S.). This is incorrect. It’s 3.1 million acres of damaged soybean acres. Currently, the EPA and other state agencies are working to correct this problem, showing that the regulatory system is moving as it should.

Secondly, monoculture has nothing to do with GM technology, and in fact the promise of GM technology would do something to alleviate monoculture problems. By allowing insertion of high effect genes into novel backgrounds, it would be possible to bring diverse lines and crops into a cropping system without the decades of genetic breeding that domestication and specific environmental adaptation require.

Thirdly, the letter claims that the film does not address patents or corporate mergers. Plant patents are not new, having been established in the 1930’s. Nor are their cousins, Plant Variety Protections (PVP) new, having been established in 1970. Both of these predate the use of GM technology. In addition, a large reason for the corporate mergers is a combination of two factors: unstable crop prices and the high cost of regulating and developing GM technology. When farmers do well and can command high prices for their goods, they are better able to buy inputs, seed and technology from the agricultural companies. When prices are low, they opt for the cheapest options. When farmers do well, the companies also do well. In addition, with the high cost of the GM regulatory process (approaching $136 million and 13 years to release) smaller breeding companies are unable to compete. This trend has been seen in many industries with long and expensive development times.

Lastly, people say things they may regret. This is the nature of interviews. 

In short, there is nothing wrong with the film, other than the fact that it lasts only for 90 minutes and can only cover so much ground. It is an answer to many of the other fear-mongering, ill-informed movies like “Food Inc.”, “Seeds of Destruction”, “Genetic Roulette” and grounds itself in hard, verifiable, peer-reviewed fact.

Alexander Liebman does not “Speak on behalf of his colleagues”. He speaks on behalf of himself. 

This letter has been lightly edited for grammar and style.

Nick Ames is a University of Minnesota graduate student in the Applied Plant Sciences program.

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