Genetic Modification: Seed Companies Fight Back



Renee Lafitte walked recently through a field of sickly looking corn. “You can see how the leaves are starting to burn,” she said, pointing to a stalk where the long green leaves were tipped with brown. “One of the things we’re looking for and thinking about going forward is what we anticipate about climate change. We expect things to get worse.”

Lafitte is a research fellow with Pioneer Hybrid, the giant seed division owned by DuPont. In this plot of land in Woodland, Calif., she is testing 200 new experimental traits that could help corn survive drought. Genetic improvements are credited with saving the corn and soybean crops during last summer’s historic dry spell. Yields ended up being much better than expected.

So-called GMO seeds are used in the vast majority of corn and soybeans grown in this country—crops used to feed livestock which end up at the grocery store meat counter.

(Watch: The Debate over GMO Foods)

But the debate over the effects of tinkering with Mother Nature at a genetic level hasn’t gone away in the 17 years since the first seeds were approved for commercial use. While efforts to label foods containing GMO products failed in California last fall, other states have taken up the issue. Anti-GMO activists have organized marches against seed giant Monsanto, and after unapproved Monsanto GMO wheat showed up on a farm in Oregon years after trials had been discontinued, wheat exports were suspended and farmers started filing lawsuits. (How the wheat got there is still being investigated, but Monsanto calls the circumstances “suspicious.”)

“We have not done a very good job of talking about GMOs and how our food is grown,” said Cathleen Enright of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a group representing the major agricultural seed and chemical companies.


Scientists working on plant genetics are beginning to step away from their microscopes and speak out.

“It’s time for a new, fresh conversation around the balancing act between the demand for food and the tools and technologies we use to meet that demand,” said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto.

Seeds are a $10 billion business for Monsanto, and Fraley just won the World Food Prize for his pioneering work in creating the first soybean modified to withstand the pesticide RoundUp. RoundUp Ready soybeans dominate the market, and China just approved the use of Monsanto’s latest version.

“We still kind of talk about this like it’s brand new science,” Fraley said. “The reality of it is these products have been used in the marketplace for almost 20 years. They have a complete track record of safety that’s been affirmed by experience.”

More from
GMO Foods: A Nonprofit Fills Regulatory Void
Wet Weather Hits Guidance at DuPont
Court Rules In Monsanto’s Favor

Not all genetic altering is the same. Some involves using a plant’s own material, while some involves inserting DNA from a different plant, or even from an animal or microorganism. At a Syngenta lab in North Carolina, scientists are testing new modifications in corn, soybeans and sugar cane.

One new product that protects corn from root worm, the crop’s top pest, is finally coming to market after 14 years of testing and regulatory hurdles. Agrisure Duracade puts DNA from soil bacteria into the roots of corn stalks to kill root worm. At the same time, the company is also developing a drought-tolerant strain of corn akin to traditional hybrid breeding.

“It is not a GM crop so much,” said Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, Syngenta’s head of biotechnology. “We need to feed nine billion people on this world. We need to do this on less land.”

GMO seeds may be good for the environment—using less land, less water, fewer pesticides—but are they safe for people?

“There is still not a single documented case of harm to any human or animal consumption,” said Professor Alan McHughen, a plant geneticist at the University of California Riverside. He said a recent report indicating GMOs may lead to cancer in rats has been discredited by the scientific community.

“I encourage people to be skeptical, but these companies don’t have to assure consumers that these products are safe,” he said. “We have safety assessments coming from FDA, USDA, EPA, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and every other professional medical and scientific society worldwide that said categorically these products are as safe as products of conventional plant breeding.”

The biggest threat facing the industry is the possibility of food labeling, currently mandated in more than 60 countries.

California farmer Ken Oneta grows GMO corn next to his conventionally grown tomatoes. “We still have to spray,” he said, “but instead of using chemicals that were a little bit harsher on the environment, harsher on our people, we’re able to use softer materials and safer stuff.”

Oneta sells much of his corn to local dairy farmers, and if laws are passed forcing them to label their milk as including GMO products, they might stop buying his feed. “If this becomes unsellable, I’ll probably have to go back” to conventional corn, he said.

“I, as a consumer, am much more worried about excessive use of pesticides, about excessive use of fresh water,” said Pioneer’s Renee Lafitte. “Those, to me, are greater environmental concerns and even health concerns around agriculture than are GMOs.”

As weeds and pests evolve to become resistant to GMO seeds, Lafitte bemoans the lack of competition in the industry.

“When only very large companies can afford to go through the regulatory costs,” he said. “That limits the options they can put on the table. So where is the next technology coming from? We know insect evolution and weed resistances will continue to happen. It’s a part of biology.”

-Follow Jane Wells on Twitter @janewells

This entry was posted in US Economy. Bookmark the permalink.
  1. Mikael Larson says:

    I suggest Ms. Wells educate herself on the overwhelming hazards of GMOs and start
    by watching this mindboggling presentation by Dr. Don Huber, Professor Emeritus
    of Plant Pathology at the University of Purdue who spoke at the Seeds of Doubt
    Conference. The implications of GMOs is vastly too serious to simply present and package soundbites that clearly serve corporate interests.

  2. TheParadigm says:

    ‘Genetic Roulette’
    Must see documentary about GMO’s

    Research both sides of an argument before deciding whether you think GMO’s are safe.

  3. Ira J. says:

    My take is that this is all about money making for Monsanto and other big agriculture businesses. Mad Scientist in lab creating genetically modified seeds and species is a recipe for disaster and goes against the order of nature. Just take a look at the man made drugs such as crack cocaine, synthetic marijuana and other drugs, they are poisons. Have the mad scientists also noticed that during the past 20+years, we have seen an increase in obesity, diabetes, cancers and other chronic diseases? Does it take a medical doctor or scientist to make the connection?

  4. Judy Cross says:

    I’d love it if GMO pushers would stop trying to pretend they are” just trying to help”. “Climate Change” is a hoax based on word play, since the climate has always changed.. The fact that people are now scientifically illiterate, allowed it to be pushed by the controlled media.with very little opposition.allowed.

    Higher CO2 levels allow plants to grow faster and be more drought resistant. The present CO2 level at 398ppm is still less than 0.04% of the atmosphere. There is more Argon, an inert trace gas, at 1%, than there is CO2,… the BENEFICIAL trace gas.

    Man-made global warming aka Climate Change, is a criminal hoax and I hope some day the people who pushed it will see jail time along with those who utilized one hoax to push another, i.e., the need for genetic modification of food because of “Climate Change”.

    We don’t need their poisonous foods. We don’t want their attempts at genocide.

  5. Linda Ostrander says:

    I, too, am very concerned about pesticides. My husband suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, which I understand can be caused by such toxic substances. I found it strange that nothing was said about the comment on Round Up, a product which has terrible consequences. Can there be some follow up on your show on this problem?

    • KF says:

      Then you should support biotechnology. GMOs drastically reduce the amount of chemicals needed for pest and weed control. There have been no studies that show any health dangers in glyphosate. Not a one.

      • Joan Levin says:

        Reduction in pesticides? Not exactly. Bt toxin, relatively benign as a spray when applied externally and reasonably biodegradable, is much more concentrated and therefore more toxic when produced inside plant cells by means of transgenic manipulation. And in this case it cannot be washed off food prior to consumption. We have already found metabolites of Bt toxin in newborns of mothers who have consumed foods containing this toxin. Also, as we learn more about the human biome and about the beneficial bacteria that populate our gut, and more about the transfer of various traits between bacteria, we know that there is a very real possibility that, unlike Bt toxin simply consumed as a spray, genes for the trait of producing Bt toxin could actually be transferred to our gut bacteria rendering them capable of producing this toxin internally for indefinite periods of time. Why don’t we learn more about this in the laboratory before turning ourselves into a nation of guinea pigs! As for glyphosate, all I can say is please, read more, before you decide this is what you want to feed your family!

    • Ryan says:

      Rotenone is one of the most commonly used organic pesticides it is toxic and had been linked to causing Parkinson’s. Since organic pesticides aren’t regulated we don’t know who’s using what or how much but studies have been done that show it takes around 7 times the amount of Rotenone to provide the same level of protection as synthetic pesticides.

  6. LV says:

    “There is still not a single documented case of harm to any human or animal consumption,” said Professor Alan McHughen, a plant geneticist at the University of California Riverside. He said a recent report indicating GMOs may lead to cancer in rats has been discredited by the scientific community” – THAT IS B.S.!!

    It’s no surprise that Monsanto and other big corps use their power, money and influence to bully scientists and farmers. This crap is NOT good for you. Europe has woken up – when will the US and Canada?!

    Link below to one of many bullying tactics by Monsanto:

    • GMO Free Mom says:

      LV you are absolutely right. GMOs make me sick. I’ll spare you all the details but a strict elimination diet is the only way to find out. Monsanto will tell you that because I’m not dead, GMOs are safe. I beg to differ. Just label it. Then BAN IT.

    • KF says:

      LV, the rat study you are referring to is known as the Seralini study. And it most certainly has been debunked by scientists and researchers on both sides of the GMO debate. Embarrassingly so.

      • Joan Levin says:

        Seralini’s 2012 study “debunked?” Who is doing this “debunking!” These “debunkers” were implicitly debunking Monsanto’s own research methods. Seralini basically followed the procedures, methods and materials, used by Monsanto with one notable exception: he extended the experiment past the 90 day cutoff routinely used by industry. This allowed long term effects to be studied for the first time. These methods are adequate to show toxicity (although not adequate to show safety, which is how similar methods may be misused by industry). It is true that these methods were not adequate for a tumor study, but this was not a tumor study; it was a toxicity study. The tumors were unexpected. Should Seralini not have reported this? Should he have covered up these startling results? I believe he was totally justified in reporting these unexpected and serious findings. The proper response of industry would have been to do careful, long term replication studies to see if these results occurred again. Instead they took the low road, attacking the messenger.

        • Ryan says:

          Uh you haven’t actually read the study have you? The rats he used develop tumors naturally that’s why they were used. The tumors had nothing to do with gmo or round up. The whole thing was flawed and it was essentially a publicity stunt to get people to purchase the book he was about to release. Everyone discredits it including the hardcore anti gmos because it discredited them by association. The prop 37 guys even put some blame on it for losing the vote.

          • Joan Levin says:

            Exactly. Seralini used Sprague-Dawley rats These are routinely used for such experiments and are routinely used by industry. If it was wrong for Seralini to use them, then it was wrong for industry to use this strain as well. Seralini’s protocols for this toxicity study tracked those of industry. The main difference: he continued past the usual 90 day industry cutoff point to look at LONG TERM results. This was a toxicity study and he demonstrated toxicity. However, this was NOT intended to be a tumor study. The tumors were unexpected. Should he have kept this quiet? Instead of attacking him for his methods why won’t industry release seeds in the US that independent scientists can use in replication studies. What are they afraid of?

  7. Peanuts are GMO. Are there any peanuts grown that aren’t GMO? When I was a little girl 50 years ago you did not hear about people who would die if a tiny amount of peanut oil was in their food. In the past couple of decades so many people have this affliction that food manufacturers freely label food “made in a peanut free facility”. Now it is “gluten free” that you hear about. Gluten comes from wheat and a lot of wheat is GMO.

  8. William M. Bryan says:

    Dear Sirs,
    This article has all the common traits of well produced SPIN.
    The precautionary principle should be applied when tampering with the world’s food supply … not ‘risk management’.

    William M. Bryan

  9. Mark Lukens says:

    What an incredible load of BS!

  10. Matt Lipman says:

    “These products are safe” is a blanket statement that fails to consider long-term effects and human studies, both of which don’t exist in favor of GMO safety.

    “There is still not a single documented case of harm to any human or animal consumption,” and there is not a single Independent researcher that isn’t restricted by seed company licenses. No product should be immune to the scrutiny of science.

    Lastly this article fails to even consider contamination (which is ruining organic), biodiversity (which GMOs are destroying), and human rights (which 60+ other countries outside the US have the RIGHT TO KNOW).

  11. Joan Levin says:

    This article is so replete with misleading statements that it is hard to know where to begin. There is still no required long term safety testing for genetically engineered foods, and no systematic way of tracking adverse effects (and without labeling there never will be). The agencies listed do not do safety testing. Specious criticism of the tumor study continues, even though this study basically followed the very procedures used by corporations but simply extended the time frame to show long term effects. These foods are exposed to enormous amounts of toxic weed killers, and the toxic pesticides they are engineered to produce are now inside the cells where they cannot be washed away. We have more than enough food to feed the world but we must get it to those who need it instead of letting it rot in fields and granaries. This article does a good job of rehashing corporate talking points but not a good job of informing the public. If these products have advantages for consumers industry should be proud to have them independently tested and labeled.

  12. Patient Zero says:

    I can prove harm…. but I’m just a lowly human. This article is bullshit. 90 day studies are not enough and all the makers have ever provided. I studied what makes ME sick for over 5 years to narrow the cause down…. Of course…. it would have taken substantially LESS time to figure it out if there were valid studies on record.

    So if my personal study lasted 4 years and 44 weeks longer than the what the FDA took the makers word on before approving it……who’s do you think was more accurate???

    Go ahead and say it was theirs I DARE you.

  13. Scott H. says:

    Higher yields and less pesticides? Wrong. “University of Canterbury researchers have found that the biotechnologies used in north American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to western Europe. A conspicuous difference is the adoption of genetically modified/engineered (GM) seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe. The team, led by UC Professor Jack Heinemann, analysed data on agricultural productivity in north America and Western Europe over the last 50 years.”
    Read the study here:

    No evidence of harm? Wrong. “…pigs fed a diet of genetically engineered soy and corn showed a 267% increase in severe stomach inflammation compared to those fed non-GMO diets. In males, the difference was even more pronounced: a 400% increase. ”
    Read the study here:

  14. gospelchicka says:

    I have recently become aware of these issues because honestly, I never paid attention. However, from the limited information I have researched, I wonder about my lupus and my son’s autism, and my daughter’s ADHD, and my sister’s neurological issues. I also wonder if the creators of these demon seeds would be willing to become test subjects and eat the garbage they are putting out there in order to substantiate the claim they make about their safety. I don’t believe for a second they are buying their own bill of goods or eating them.

  15. Amy Flugga says:

    How Dare They! People Have The Right To Know What They Are Putting In Their Bodies. If gmo’s Are So Safe Then These Companies Shouldnt Mind Labeling. If That Effects Sales So Badly Then Take The hint, Your Not Wanted! People Only Refuse Full Disclosure When There Is Something To Hide. Money Is The Absolute And Only Concern Of These Companies.

Leave a Reply