Q & A: Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst

Below are questions answered by Bill Freese. Bill joined Center for Food Safety in 2006 as science policy analyst. For more about Bill, visit his biography page.

Question:

What are GE crops engineered for?

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Virtually 100% of GE crops in the world have one or two traits.  Insect-resistant corn and cotton produce insecticidal toxins in their tissues to kill certain insect pests.  Herbicide-resistant soybeans, corn, cotton and canola withstand dousing with chemical weed-killers.  Five of every six acres of GE crops (85%) are herbicide-resistant.  Nearly all herbicide-resistant crops are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties, resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

No commercial GE crop is higher-yielding or more nutritious.  GE crops do not use less water or fertilizer, or grow in salty soils or flooded conditions.  Hardly any are disease-resistant.  If you’ve heard about such crops, it’s because the biotechnology industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars hyping lab experiments for PR purposes, though in a quarter century they have not been successfully developed and marketed.

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Question:

Which crops have been genetically engineered?

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Just four GE crops – soybeans, corn, cotton and canola – comprise virtually 100% of world biotech crop acreage.  Soybeans and corn predominate, and are used primarily to feed livestock or fuel cars (biofuels) in rich nations, not feed hungry people.  India and China grow GE cotton, but little or no GE food crops.

Featured voice: Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst

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Question:

Where are genetically engineered crops grown?

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Photo Freese head shotGE crops are concentrated in a handful of countries with industrialized, export-oriented agricultural sectors.  Just eight nations in the Americas – primarily the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Argentina – accounted for 87% of GE crop acreage in 2011.  The main growers of GE crops in Brazil and Argentina are “soybean barons” who export to Europe and Japan.  Asian nations – chiefly India and China – are home to just 11% of GE crops, with the remaining 2% grown in Australia, Africa and Europe.

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Question:

What is genetic engineering? Some people say it’s a radical new technology that presents greater risks. Others say it’s no different than traditional breeding methods.

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Genetic engineering (also called genetic modification or biotechnology) involves direct manipulation of genes, the basic units of heredity, and represents a radical departure from traditional plant breeding in three ways.  It allows transfer of genes between species that could never breed in nature, such as bacteria and corn.  It requires expensive laboratories and many millions of dollars to implement, while traditional breeding is inexpensive and accessible to anyone willing to learn.  Genetic engineering is imprecise and disruptive.  It gives rise to many unpredictable effects, some potentially hazardous, such as new toxins, allergens or reduced nutrition, making stricter regulation essential. In contrast, traditional breeding is safe and predictable.

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