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Bill Gates: Can We Have an Honest Conversation about GMOs?

Some of the world's most powerful figures tout the benefits of GMOs, writes Stacy Malkan, but what's the real story? Facts on the ground expose the PR spin, half truths and outright propaganda that has come to dominate a public conversation that is not so much about engineering genes, but engineering truth for the benefit of multinational corporations.

The food industry's fight to stop Vermont from labeling genetically engineered foods is heading to the floor of the US Senate.

And the spotlight on labeling is underscoring the need for our country to have a more honest conversation about GMOs.

Two recent videos illuminate the deep divide between the stories we hear from opponents and proponents of the controversial food technology.

In the first video, the Wall Street Journal's Rebecca Blumenstein interviewed Bill Gates about his views on the topic. Gates explained:

"What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it's done in a way where there's a very thorough safety procedure, and it's pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification.

"And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change ... "

Blumenstein asked, "Do you think there's a certain naiveté that, without that, it could be done anyway? I mean you've seen the results on the ground of conventional (breeding)."

Gates responded: "Well, the Africans it's up in the air, and Kenya just approved a Bt (genetically engineered) maize. The Europeans have decided they don't want to use it, most of them, which is fine. They're not facing malnutrition and starvation. If they want to pay a premium for food of a (certain) kind, it's not a huge deal.

"The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that's really beneficial. It's kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat."

If Bill Gates is right, that's great news. That would mean the key to solving world hunger is to lower the barriers for biotechnology companies to get their climate-adaptable, enhanced-nutrient genetically engineered crops to market.

Another perspective

The second video, a short film by the Center for Food Safety, tells a very different story. It describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental GMO crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides, in large part because Hawaii is the top testing ground for new genetically engineered crops.

The video and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive the spraying of herbicides. Many of these crops are also routinely treated with fungicides and insecticides.

According to the video: "With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it's no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they're spraying."

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that's a big problem. But both these stories can't be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates' narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii - the leading testing grounds for biotechnology crops - to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops designed to withstand spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup.

Last year, the World Health Organization's cancer experts classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans". In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced 'Roundup Ready' GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now "the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world", reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow's Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune. The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval - a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

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