Sound science

By ART CULLEN

The National Academy of Science study released this week that genetically engineered crops pose no special food or environmental risks should provide an avenue for a more rational discussion of agricultural and food production systems. Many people who worry about genetic modifications of crops do not appreciate the science or come to conclusions about relative dangers absent the facts.

The report, compiled by 20 leading scientists, studies all genetically modified crops, which includes conventional breeding techniques and biotechnology. In certain instances, gene engineering merely speeds up the hybrid process exponentially. There is no evidence to indicate that genetically engineered corn fed to hogs or cattle affects the livestock or the humans who consume it, according to the report.

The scientists are quick to explain that whenever you mess with a biological system there are consequences — intended and unintended. Henry Wallace learned this when he crossed corn and flower varieties near Van Meter a century ago. The scientists at Monsanto are trying to figure out how to extend Roundup herbicide’s product life as weeds become resistant, or what to do as insects adapt to Bt corn. We re-engineer what we have engineered, and engineer again for unintended consequences.

The commercial integrators will use the report to go full-steam ahead without regulation. Environmental activists will cite the need for a lot more regulation to vet new biotech techniques.

The scientists drop their report in the middle.

Food safety can be improved through genetic modification, both conventional and engineered. For example, important vitamins can be engineered into “golden rice” that helps prevent malnutrition and disease in India. Using certain engineered corn varieties can reduce chemical applications, fuel use or water intake — all environmental benefits. But those same improvements also can lead to depleted soil tilth, insect or weed resistance or increased erosion if we depend on these technologies too heavily.

Iowa State University is among the world leaders in crop, livestock and energy science that revolves around genetic research. That puts Iowa at the leading edge in commercial application of new ag technologies, and it puts us at the forefront of assuming risk associated with unintended consequences.

The report says that genetic manipulation needs to become more transparent using a streamlined regulatory approach. It says that researchers, government and industry must take care in how they use the products and anticipate their problems. They challenge us to think before we act and acknowledge shortcomings. And, they tell us that the sky is not falling.

That is what we call sound science — that genetic engineering has a lot of promise, with risks that we cannot fully understand, yet.

Not-so-sound science

USDA reported this week that bird flu may be contracted by mammals — namely, skunks and rabbits — and then passed onto birds such as ducks that somehow are supposed to infect laying houses layered with biosecurity. The research suggests how much we do not know about the deadly flu virus that hit Northwest Iowa last year and whose economic reverberations can be felt to this day.

The scientists do not suggest what role furry critters might play in spreading the flu. That they can spread the disease to ducks is interesting. Nothing yet tells us how the virus makes it into turkey barns and henhouses. The main hypothesis is that the flu somehow is brought in by workers on their boots or by trucks or by air. Then that does not explain how Rembrandt Foods got hit, with all the latest in biosecurity and air handling systems. You just don’t walk in with manure on your boots or in your ears.

The point is, we’re learning a little more, month by month. But we still don’t know how the flu spreads.

We do know this:

The USDA will not allow routine vaccination of turkeys and layers for bird flu. That’s because the meat industry fears export bans, even though the vaccinations are perfectly safe. We know that Rembrandt and Tyson would be shielded from the flu that hit last year. Guaranteed. Sound science suffers another defeat to politics.

And that impacts business here.

We know that, too.

Workers suffer short hours. Suppliers see smaller margins. Contractors aren’t needed as much. Fewer trucks are sold, fewer discretionary purchases made. We know that.

We also know that Rembrandt CEO Dave Rettig is greatly concerned about flu recurrence in a highly populated poultry area like ours. What should be building into a critical mass is limited by the threat of flu. Rembrandt recently announced it would expand into cage-free production in South Dakota.

Meanwhile, they are cutting conservation and ag research programs in the US House. Poultry research has been cut and capped at $52 million per year, when the bird flu epidemic cost BV County more than that. It will continue to cost us every time a hen lays an egg in South Dakota because the government cannot contain, much less thwart, disease in a concentrated production area over export sales concerns.

We should be taking it more seriously. But it is good to know that skunks spread disease. Let’s just not blame them for bird flu in henhouses where a clean human cannot enter without a shower and passcode.