- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Prince Charles will be happy, Jeremy Rifkin ecstatic and the European Union can rest easy. No genetically modified, or GM, corn will be planted on my farm this year. Not because I have any doubt about the safety of what are now called "frankenfoods." No, I won't use these products because fear is triumphing over science and common sense, and I'm afraid it will be hard to find a market for what I produce.

I will plant a few acres of Round Up Ready soybeans, which are also genetically modified, but only because most of my soybeans are processed for domestic animal feed. The corn I produce, on the other hand, may enter the export market, and some is used directly for human consumption. I'm afraid that if I do grow GM corn, I may have to sell it at a discount, if I can sell it at all.

Genetically modified corn produces a natural insecticide, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is deadly to the European corn borer, a pest that causes $1 billion in damage to Midwestern corn fields each summer. The bacterium protecting the corn was introduced through the manipulation of the corn's genes.

Corn borers are familiar to anyone who has driven across my part of the world on a summer evening and found a blizzard of moths hitting the windshield. Those moths, at least the ones that don't end their days as a glutinous mess on your windshield, lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars. The caterpillars drill into corn stalks, weakening the stalks and providing a place for disease to enter. The weakened stalks drop their ears before the harvesters can gather the grain.

The billion dollars in damage doesn't put a value on the frustration farmers feel as they harvest corn infested with borers. The stalks fall over in the first fall breeze and don't feed into the combine. The harvest is slowed as I and thousands of farmers like me stop and clear the downed stalks tangled at the front of the harvester. Not to mention the skinned knuckles and bruised muscles and colorful language that accompany each trip to the front of the combine.

Not surprisingly, then, farmers rapidly adopted the new corn. We are excited about the prospect of increased yields, reduced costs, and more trouble-free harvests.

That rapid adoption of genetically modified crops hit a brick wall this past fall when Japan and the European Union balked at buying genetically modified grain. Then Gerber announced that it will no longer use genetically modified grain in its baby foods, and Frito-Lay stopped purchases of such grain. Gerber's reasoning is hard to take seriously, as Gerber's parent, Novartis, was, at the time of the announcement, one of the world's largest producers of genetically modified seed.

Modifying the genes of seeds is different from traditional methods of improving crops, but plant breeders have been selecting for desirable traits since the science of agriculture began. Genetic splicing allows scientists to choose a single gene with a single, desirable trait.

Farmers were shocked when genetic modification encountered protests on environmental grounds, because genetic modification allows us to cut our use of man-made chemicals. A six-state survey of farmers last fall found that 26 percent of farmers were reducing their use of insecticides because they used Bt corn; fully half of the farmers planting Bt corn were applying no insecticides at all.

In a final irony, if we were to spray the Bt bacterium on our cornfield with an airplane, it would be considered an organic method of pest control. The reason: Bt occurs naturally.

Swiss researchers have added genes to rice that increase the amount of beta-carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, in the rice. If the new technology is adopted in Asia, some of the quarter-million children who each year lose their sight will be spared the curse of blindness. People with diabetes, cancer and hepatitis patients are benefiting from bioengineering. However, that fact is rarely mentioned when people protest the use of this new technology.

Instead, we hear about the monarch butterfly. It should come as no surprise that Bt is harmful when force-fed to butterflies (as studies have shown). Indeed, it would be more surprising if it didn't affect them, since they are closely related to corn borers. But the chemical alternatives to Bt corn are tough on butterflies too, and monarchs eat only milkweeds, which don't appear very often in cornfields.

Genetic modification is making food more affordable, cutting down on the use of man-made plant protection products, and helping agriculture keep up with the worldwide growth in income and population. It would be a crime if those advantages were lost to a cynical campaign by those who use fear when science isn't on their side.

Blake Hurst, who raises corn and soybeans with his father and two brothers in northwestern Missouri, wrote this article for the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana.

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