GMO 2.0 enters as GMO 1.0 stumbles

Posted December 23rd, 2011 at 8:24 pm (UTC+0)
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In certain circles, just saying the name “Monsanto” is enough to raise people’s blood pressure.

Now there’s a potential cure for that: the agribusiness giant got the OK for new heart-healthier genetically modified soybeans with lower levels of saturated fat.

Among opponents of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), Monsanto is the company most associated with the technology, which overwhelmingly dominates American corn, soybean and cotton production.

The new soybeans offer something that’s been lacking from the first generation of GMOs: clear benefits for the consumer.

They arrive as some of the benefits the first generation offered are faltering.

The first GMO crops mostly benefited farmers. They made insect and weed control easier.

But weed problems are resurfacing as these crops become a victim of their own success.

Crops engineered to tolerate a Monsanto weed killer have become so popular, and the weed killer is used so ubiquitously, that some “superweeds” have evolved that are shrugging off the herbicide, according to a report last year by the U.S. National Research Council.

That means some farmers have to go back to more toxic or more persistent herbicides or control weeds with old-fashioned tilling, which leads to more erosion and more nutrient pollution in waterways.

The other major class of GMOs produces a natural insecticide called Bt.  This summer, some Midwestern farmers had serious damage from rootworms, despite planting corn that was supposed to kill these insects.

But corn designed to kill another pest has helped reduce insecticide use. So farmers (and, indirectly, consumers) could miss out on the benefits if Bt-resistant rootworms get the upper hand.

The timing may be good for the new heart-healthier GMO soybeans. The industry could use some good news.

Another potential headline-changer: Monsanto also got a green light this month for new GMO lines of drought-tolerant corn. They would be the first GMOs to throw their hat in the ring in the fight against climate change.

That could be good news for farmers in drought-stricken countries.

But critics note that varieties bred without the controversy and expense of genetic engineering are already in the field.

And those critics also note that the processed foods typically prepared with soybean oil may not be the healthiest to begin with.

So, maybe modifying diets would be as healthy as modifying soybeans.

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About the author


Steve Baragona is a food and agriculture reporter at Voice of America.


In his spare time, he geeks out on science and reads up on bacteria.



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