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Educate the Public on GMO Benefits

May 12, 2010
Lou Honary
Des Moines Register
January 25, 2000

While the battle over GM food may be temporarily lost in Europe, it's just beginning in the U.S.
Lou Honary

American agribusiness is confronted with a crisis over Europe’s rejection of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A diverse group of European environmentalists attempting to attack genetic engineering in humans somewhat accidentally ran into an easier target: GM foods. Others, such as those European farmers who grow organic food, threatened by GM crops, pitched in to encourage an all out ban of GM foods.

Before leaving for World Trade Organization’s November meeting, Senator Charles Grassley chastised European farmers of taking advantage of consumers to block imports of American crops in Europe. Using fear of the unknown, the environmentalists persuaded European consumers to say no to GM foods without regard for the need to improve production for a growing world population.

Now, some environmentalists like Washington activist Jeremy Rifkin, predict that the European strategy will work in the U.S. In fact, he claims it’s already a "done deal."

While the battle over GM food may be temporarily lost in Europe, it’s just beginning in the U.S. Agribusiness and awakened U.S. farmers have realized they must move quickly to counter the scare tactic used in Europe by investing in public education and by highlighting the benefits of biotech, the long-term success of GM foods and GMO-based pharmaceuticals.

Researchers at the University of Northern Iowa’s Ag-Based Industrial Lubricants (ABIL) Research Program have been testing GM vegetable oils as a petroleum substitute in industrial lubricants for nine years.

Unmentioned by many environmentalists, researchers have found diverse uses for GM seed oils in non-food areas. Thus negating the impact of human health scare tactics. If the impact on human health is not an issue, then other issues will be much less effective in building opposition to GM crops.

The market size for industrial and automotive lubricants is about 2.5 billion gallons per year, or about 60 million acres of soybeans. If 1-percent soydiesel were mixed with every gallon of the several billion gallons of diesel fuel sold each year that would utilize millions more acres of soybeans.

Millions of gallons of petroleum-based transformer cooling oil can easily be replaced with environmentally friendly GM crop oils. These products already exist on the market. Conclusion: we can grow as many GM crops as we need or want and have markets for them in the non-food arena.

UNI-ABIL research has shown that high-oleic varieties of GM soybeans are best for hydraulic and transformer cooling fluids, while high-palmetic varieties, for example, are great for lubricating greases. The genetically modified varieties actually reduce the need for chemical additives needed in many lubricants. They are renewable, biodegradable and less toxic. They actually help preserve the environment and are in line with the mission of many environmental groups.

During this decade, farmers will grow "identity preserved" GM crops geared to non-food markets. One farmer may grow GM soybeans for production of automotive bearing grease, while another will grow high-linolenic varieties for soy ink or soy adhesive. Farmers will grow GM crops for biodegradable plastics, biobased particleboard and or plant based paper. All of this is in support of environmentally sound progress.

What about the immediate future? That is a tough one. GM crops will probably take a beating this coming growing season. Farmers are confused and worried about the news of the GMO battle in Europe. What is grown will have to be earmarked for pre-determined non-food use and/or for markets that are open, such as U.S. and non-European countries.

With a concerted effort by growers and agribusiness to educate the public, diversification in new non-food uses, and a bit of time to recover Europe, GM crops can become a major source of food, fiber and pharmaceuticals for a world with growing needs. In time, the world will thank American farmers and agribusiness for improving production and speeding the natural modification of these crops.

Focusing on non-food will also flush out the radicals who insist on taking a closed-minded approach.

People around the world already are benefiting from GMOs used in biopharmaceuticals and biobased lubricants.

We can’t allow misguided scare tactics to delay or divert research and marketing of legitimate products that will boost the American farm economy and help meet the food, fiber and health needs of a growing world.

Lou Honary is a University of Northern Iowa associate professor and Ag-Based Industrial Lubricants (ABIL) Research Program director.