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Dr. Robert T. Fraley Headshot

GMO Foods and the Tooth Fairy

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Food is so fundamental to human life that it stirs our passions like few other subjects. For the most part that's a good thing: Humanity needs all the passion we can muster if we're going to solve the problem of feeding 10 billion people just 35 years from now.

But solid information, science, and reason are essential to solving this challenge too, and I'm afraid that they sometimes take a back seat to emotion. So from time to time in these blog posts, I want to offer my perspective on the myths that sometimes circulate about our business and the science behind the facts. The truth is that many claims about what we do have less substance than the Tooth Fairy ... and bring even less value.

I sometimes read, for example, that genetically modified (GM or GMO) crops aren't needed to feed the world. Since my company, Monsanto, is a leader in the development of GMO seeds, we pay close attention to the facts about GMO crops.

The fundamental facts are these: By 2050, the world will need to produce somewhere between 70 percent to 100 percent more food to meet demand, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other authorities. Moreover, we will need to do this sustainably, so we can feed humanity again in 2051, and all the years thereafter. That means we have to figure out how to do it in ways that allow farmers to most efficiently use our planet's precious and finite resources.

And we must do all this at a time when the climate is changing. Just last week, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a sternly worded report that climate change is decreasing the yields of key food crops - making it even harder to grow food. Summarizing the report, The New York Times said "the world's food supply is at considerable risk."

One would think, given the enormity of that challenge, that proven, safe scientific innovation -- for example, GMO crops -- would be welcomed, not feared and scorned. Few subjects have been studied as much as GMO crops, and they have been proven to be as safe as their non-GMO counterparts (see here and here).

Moreover, GMO crops address some of the key concerns that climate change raises, such as coping with heat stress, drought, and threats from insects and disease.

So I feel very confident that GMO crops are not just important, but critical, to feeding the world.

Indeed, GMO crops are already allowing farmers to grow more. They're also dramatically improving the lives of small farmers around the world, which, as someone who grew up on a family farm, is personal to me. And they are reducing environmental impacts, which is key to the challenge of meeting the demands of our growing planet in an increasingly sustainable way.

A recent USDA report on GMOs found that seeds with more than one genetically modified trait have generally higher yields than non-GMO seeds. Regarding seeds engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (which sells under the brand name Roundup), the report said this:

"... because glyphosate is significantly less toxic and less persistent than traditional herbicides, the net impact of HT (herbicide-tolerant) crop adoption is an improvement in environmental quality and a reduction in the health risks associated with herbicide use."

Importantly, higher yields on farm also mean that GMO crops are helping to provide more affordable food to consumers around the world. In fact, it's estimated that world food prices would be 10 percent to 30 percent higher without GMO crops (see page 9 of the Executive Summary of this report by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission). That's an important benefit to all of us as consumers.

Now, I mentioned previously that I grew up on a farm. So did many of my coworkers. Today, it's estimated that only two out of every 100 Americans works on a farm, but I'd guess that the percentage of our employees who grew up on family farms is much higher than that. But that really shouldn't be surprising.

Farmers are our customers. And our success as a company relies on how they feel about us and our products. If farmers decided our products didn't help them, they wouldn't buy our products. Instead, farmers ask us to invest in new products to help them stay ahead of the challenges they face. The vast majority of farmers in the United States, I should add, are family farmers -- about 95 percent. And that percentage is even higher around the world.

A small number of critics complain about our recent efforts to engage in the food conversation. We have been listening and talking to thousands of people and groups to help them understand the problems the world faces and what we're doing to help find solutions. I have been personally involved in this dialogue. Critics can dismiss that as "PR," but I believe you solve problems by talking about them and working together. Nothing gets solved by calling each other names or believing that complex problems can be solved only one way.

Reasonable people can disagree about the best ways to feed our growing planet. Farmers and consumers should have a range of product choices in the marketplace. But if you're interested in feeding people or protecting the environment, I think it's important for you to hear both sides of the story. The stakes are just too high to demonize anyone who is working on solutions.

Of course some critics also disagree with the general scientific consensus that GMO foods are safe, just as there are those who say climate change isn't happening, or others that deny the safety of vaccines. But GMO crops are already helping to build a better world, and millions of family farmers and consumers in countries around the world are among the beneficiaries. In the decades ahead, as the population swells and climate change continues, GMO crops offer one important solution.

I, for one, am proud that our company is a part of that effort. I'm proud that we are taking action and partnering to make a difference for the family farm. And above all, I'm proud that we are helping to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population, sustainably.

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