By DAVID A. WILSON
Conventional versus organic production of agricultural products was discussed by a panel of experts Thursday, Sept. 19, during "Food Dialogues: Columbia," hosted by Missouri Farmers Care and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). The event was held at University of Missouri-Columbia.
The panelists took up the question of how conventional and organic agriculture can find common ground in a discussion titled "Biotechnology, High-tech or Low-tech: Can't We All Just Get Along?"
Blake Hurst, farmer and President of Missouri Farm Bureau, may have expressed the common ground during the discussion. "Farming is altering nature," he said. "That's what we do each year. We alter nature."
Moderator Tom Bradley, Columbia radio personality, began the discussion with a question about misunderstood terms, asking, "GMO? What the heck is that?"
In the U.S., GMO or Genetically Modified Organism refers to all cultivated species, according to Dr. Kevin Wells, Assistant Professor of Genetics, University of Missouri.
"Since all domesticated plant species have been selectively developed over thousands of years, they are genetically modified," he said. "Grains were likely the first domesticated species. Corn, for example, won't spread its own seed."
Outside the U.S., and often among the general public, GMO is used interchangeably with GE or Genetic Engineered, which is moving genes from one type of plant to another.
According to Fanson Kidwaro, Ph.D., University of Central Missouri, Warrenburg, Department Chair of Agriculture, some genetic engineering is being done because American natural resources and technology have taken the output of many plants as far as they can go. "No more ears on corn, no more pods on soybeans, so now we have to fight pests," Kidwaro said.
As a result, some plants have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides or to be pesticide-resistant.
According to Dan Shaul, State Director of Missouri Grocer's Association, it is the product buyers who determine how important genetic improvements are, rather than the producers. "What the consumer wants is the best product at the lowest cost," Shaul said.
Jim Thomas, vegetable farmer and chairman and past president of Missouri Organic Association, said his present concern is the engineering of some plants to produce their own pesticides. He said organic farmers are concerned with GMO and GE, recognizing the terms are often used interchangeably. Thomas is concerned with the increasing production of genetic engineered plants. "The long-term effects of such changes is unknown," Thomas said.
"We've been breeding and modifying plants for about 10,000 years," said Hurst. "To argue that 'we don't know the long term results, so we shouldn't use it' is against all advances. Learn as much as you can, then move forward."
Thomas also asked just how stable the genes added to or modified in genetically engineered plants are.
"Sometimes the genes added are not stable," said geneticist Wells. "Guess what? None of the genes are stable."
Jennifer Polniak, Clinical Dietitian and Diabetes Educator at Boone Hospital Center, said that as far as nutrition is concerned for her patients, there is not a lot of difference between the organic and conventional food products.
"There are a select few that this is important for," she said. "It does come up. A lot of terms are floating around and people don't understand what they really mean."
Moderator Bradley, speaking of different packaged food labels, asked, "Is there emotion involved in packaging?"
"There is emotion in purchasing," said grocer Shaul. "One package of ground beef is labeled 85 percent fat free. What does that say about the others?"
On the matter of pesticide use, Thomas said he had questioned the increased use of pesticides since the 1970s. Wells, on the other hand, said he would prefer to eat an apple with a fungicide than an apple with a fungus.
"Organic does not mean it hasn't been treated with a pesticide," Hurst said. "It just means it was an approved pesticide."
Moderator Bradley said, "Tomatoes don't taste as good as they did 30 years ago."
There was a suggestion Bradley's sense of taste isn't as good now, but Polniak suggested a lot of the taste of fruit and vegetables is due to ripeness. The riper it is when picked the more glucose it is likely to have. Hurst agreed that the produce shipped in doesn't taste as good.
"The consumers want pretty food," Wells said. "They want their tomatoes to be a good shape, color, size and firmness. Americans have been trained to get something which will keep, tomatoes bred for shelf life. Then they are disappointed with the taste."
"The consumer wants a tomato on New Year's Day," Shaul said. "I'll get you the best product I can. It's not out of the garden. It must come from across the world."
Is the public better off with out of season fruit and vegetables or not?
"That's an interesting question," said Polniak. "I don't know of a nutritional benefit with one or the other. But it's more fun to shop having all of the pretty colors. We consider ourselves better off."
She said freezing may be better. "For one thing, there is less sodium added and, for another, heating destroys some of the nutrients."
Returning to Hurst's statement about farming being the altering of nature, he spoke of the Vitamin A deficiency suffered by 150-250 million people. A Genetically Engineered rice adds that Vitamin A. "It's reduced infant mortality by a third in 14 years," Hurst said.
An online viewer asked, "Do I trust the process of what is being put in to make it a GE seed? How can I trust that the claim on the package is good or not?"
It's a matter of the point of view of the individual.
To some, it's coexistance. To some, its contamination.