Scientist Cites Ethical Imperative for Modified Cropsby Steve Charles • March 16, 2007
"The public will always believe a simple lie rather than a complex truth."
Dr. Gary Bannon ’76 says that paraphrase of French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s aphorism sums up public fears concerning Monsanto Corporation’s genetically modified (GM) crops.
"Of course, I’m from Monsanto." The company’s lead researcher in global regulatory science smiled as he welcomed the audience on hand to hear him deliver this year’s Haines Biochemistry Lecture. "But my aim here is to offer you a scientific view."
That science-based approach is often lost in the debate over GM crops.
"The scientific argument has mutated into a political argument," Bannon said, citing the battle in the European Union over the use of GM crops.
Bannon insists that fears regarding the company’s GM crops—plants altered at the genome level to resist disease, pests, weeds or to improve nutrition or quality of the food—are unfounded.
"We’ve not had a clinically documented negative affect [caused by GM crops] in the 10 years since we started doing this," explained Bannon, who researched food allergies and taught for 17 years at the University of Arkansas Medical School before joining Monsanto in 2001. "The safety checks we use keep them safe. I don’t believe every GM crop is necessarily safe, but those that go through the process we put them through are safe."
Bannon offered numerous explanations for the disconnect between scientific fact and public perception.
Quoting cosmologist Carl Sagan, Bannon said that "we’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
"We’re not equipping society to use this technology," Bannon said. "People are unable to critically evaluate innovation based on the available information.
"And sometimes there is too much information."
Bannon pointed to Internet sites attacking the safety of GM crops.
"Anyone can put anything up on a web site," he said, adding that he’d received numerous email message earlier that morning concerning accusations made by such a site. "It’s the same old argument repackaged by a different group, and it’s not peer-reviewed or credible science."
Bannon admitted that Monsanto was partly to blame for not educating the public when GM crops were introduced in the early 1990s.
"We were naive, even arrogant at first. We assumed that science would tell the story," Bannon said. But with groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumer Union, and Greenpeace questioning the safety of the crops on either health or environmental grounds, Monsanto has pumped up it’s counterattack.
Bannon cited studies by the World Health Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, and the International Life Sciences Institute supporting the use of GM crops.
"We publish our research in peer-review journals, and we work within academe," Bannon said, noting the contrast to many GM crop detractors.
And Bannon’s job includes rebutting arguments by these groups, point by point, with peer-reviewed science.
Monsanto is also expanding its focus from farmers to consumers.
"Our first generation of crops focused on being farmer friendly—how these crops could benefit farmers," he said, referring particularly to the insect-resistant and herbicide resistant soybeans and corn that allowed growers to use broad-spectrum herbicides, reduce costs, and increase yields.
But the second generation of GM crops, Bannon said, includes clear benefits for consumers: corn with higher concentrations of the essential amino acid lysine; and soybeans carrying fewer trans-fats and more Omega-3 fatty acids.
Considering their benefits and safety in a world increasing in population, Bannon claimed "an ethical imperative" to expand the use of GM crops. But when Wabash senior Ben Tritle asked if a world food shortage or similar crisis might lead to acceptance by countries currently opposed to them, Bannon was doubtful.
"I’d like to think that crisis might change people's minds, but about two years ago, the U.S. shipped food from GM crops to an African country in the midst of a famine, and that donation was rejected," Bannon said. "They rejected it because it was genetically modified, and people died."
"The tide is turning, but it’s going to be a long battle."
Photo above: Gary Bannon talks with Wabash chemistry professor Ann Taylor.