Pa. considers labeling law for genetics that help achieve record yields of corn, soybeans

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

With Pennsylvania farmers producing record corn and soybean crops this year, the debate over identifying for consumers what is genetically modified is heating up.

Pennsylvania farmers are projected to harvest 1.1 million acres of corn this year — 100,000 more than in 2012 and the most since 1986, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. Soybean acreage is 550,000 acres, up 30,000 acres from last year, which would be the most in history.

Experts say the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to alter plants so that they carry specific traits or properties has helped bolster this year's harvest.

“I feel confident in saying that GMOs have played a significant role in achieving these record yields,” said Greg Roth, a professor of agronomy at Penn State University. “How much is difficult to say since the base genetics of the hybrids have improved as well.”

Scientists say plants can be engineered with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals and even humans. Genetically modified soy, corn, canola, cotton and sugar beets can contain genes from bacteria that allow the plants to survive an otherwise deadly dose of weed killer. A gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, can be inserted into a plant's DNA so that it secretes an insect-killing toxin.

Maine and Connecticut this summer passed laws to require labeling of foods grown from genetically engineered seed. Pennsylvania and New York are considering such measures, and Congress is considering a federal labeling law.

More than 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soy beans and 95 percent of sugar beets in the United States are genetically modified, according to the USDA. Up to 70 percent of processed foods found in grocery stores have been genetically modified, food safety groups said.

The extent of genetically modified products caught consumers like Lisa Brooks unaware. In addition to corn and soybeans, Pennsylvania farmers grow genetically modified sweet corn, zucchini, crooked neck yellow squash and canola.

“It's surprising, definitely,” said Brooks, 42, of Verona, who would prefer such foods be labeled. “You just don't know.”

Three federal agencies — the Food and Drug Administration, USDA and Environmental Protection Agency — regulate genetically engineered crops. The FDA says they are safe, but supports voluntary labeling.

“A gene is a gene. … We've learned that all organisms are related,” said Penn State University molecular biologist Nina Fedoroff.

Plant breeders have used radiation and chemicals to speed up genetic changes. That “genetic shotgun approach,” she said, produced lots of bad changes and occasionally, a good one.

For Pennsylvania farmers, this year's crop of corn is unlike any other.

“This is almost the year of a lifetime,” said Richard Burd, who started growing genetically modified crops on his Fayette County farm about 15 years ago. “It's a corn grower's dream — no weeds and monstrous (ears).”

Burd maintains the corn and soybeans he grows on his 1,400-acre farm near Uniontown are “healthier, store better and help make the food chain safer.”

“People don't understand genetic modification,” said Burd, 64. “Mother Nature does it every day.”

But tinkering with the DNA of plants and, in some cases animals, doesn't sit well with Sara Heald, 28, of the South Side, who founded a Pittsburgh chapter of GMOFreePA in March.

“We haven't had any human long-term studies,” she said. “It's kind of unpredictable.”

Recent polls by the New York Times, Washington Post and other news organizations found that more than 90 percent of Americans believe genetically engineered food should be labeled.

The Council for Responsible Genetics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit that fosters public debate about the implications of genetic technologies, supports labeling.

“We know that if you eat a GMO food, you aren't going to drop dead in a month, but we just don't know long term,” said the council's president, Jeremy Gruber.

Farmers began to plant genetically modified crops in the 1990s, saving them money and allowing them to become more efficient, proponents say. Burd's herbicide costs have dropped from $50 an acre to about $15, he said.

“People hear genetic modification, and it puts some sort of fear in them,” Burd said. “Do you really think I want to work with dangerous stuff? I have to work with this every day.”

Some farmers, though, are concerned with the long-term impact of genetic modification.

“Organisms evolve together. When you take an organism outside of evolution ... go completely around evolution, it's scary,” said Don Kretschman, who grows organic crops on his 80-acre farm in Rochester, Beaver County.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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