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Down on the Farm: GMOs

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There should be more than enough corn to go around this fall. According to USDA statistics, ninety-seven million acres of corn were planted this year, more than any season since 1936.

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The massive 1936 planting didn't produce so well. The year was the hottest on record, and crops just plain burned up.

The jury's still out on this year's corn crop.

I worry somebody is going to get hurt at one of the many country intersections where 10-foot walls of corn block the view in every direction.

Three years ago, I nearly took out our rural mail carrier at a corn-obstructed corner. She was more aware than I, having had several corn-related close calls already that summer.

It was an election year, so that would have been a real mess, political fliers everywhere, and two Norwegians wandering around in a daze.

But she slammed on her brakes, and I locked up mine. Gravel flew, wheels skidded, and before the dust had a chance to settle, we looked at each other with a neighborly "let's just forget this little event ever happened" smile and went about our business.

Last year, corn in this area produced a good, even above-average crop on a restricted water diet of only one good rain all summer.

If it had been 1936, there would have been no crop. Corn genetics have come so far that pretty soon you should be able to grow a decent crop on a parking lot.

There is a lot of controversy over modern GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as well there might be.

However, genetic manipulation has been a human habit for centuries. Low-tech breeding of plants and animals has been going on since the beginning of recorded history.

The results haven't always been good.

Do you think packs of poodles ever roamed the wild? Of course not. Poodles were bred into their present prissy form in France out of breeds used in Germany to find truffles, a rare mushroom, in the wild.

During the 1700s, the English shrunk breed into toy poodles, creating one of many dog breeds which simply cannot survive in the wild without being snatched up by raptors.

Think of pugs, cute little dogs bred for their wrinkly faces and stub nose. The poor things are subject to all kinds of facial disorders, and if you've ever shared a night in the same house with one, you know they snore like a chain saw as they try to breathe through those flaps of flesh.

In 1959 in Russia, a breeding farm started to select fox breeds for their friendliness with humans. The result is a domesticated silver fox available on the market for a very, very high price.

Oddly, as the breed developed, its ears got floppy. It seems that whatever genes make a fox friendly also make its ears flop. Figure that one out.

Although he hoped I would keep this dirty fact under my hat, my grandfather helped introduce the Siberian Elm to this area as a windbreak in the 1930s. He sold them by the million.

Well! Any farmer will tell you today that the fast-growing, hardy Siberian Elm is no longer a favorite. Its seeds fly everywhere and germinate everywhere, including in cracks in the sidewalk.

The pristine genetic climate of New Zealand was altered forever when humans arrived only 1,200 years ago. First, Maori immigrants killed all of the moa, a gigantic, gentle ostrich-like bird, each of which could feed a small army.

Then the British arrived in their rat-infested ships. Rats, at the time the only mammal in New Zealand larger than a bat, quickly multiplied and drove most of the territory's many flightless birds into extinction.

Then the humans brought deer. We all know what damage they do. And gorse, a thick shrub used for hedges. The plant thrived in New Zealand, became a weed, and today, despite millions spent to eradicate it, covers five percent of the nation's land surface.

Yes, the controversy over injecting rat DNA into our food is real. But genetic manipulation by man is not new, and the results have often been disastrous in the past.

The governing force: Money. If the rich demand poodles, they will get poodles. If the market demands corn that will grow on a parking lot, some scientist somewhere on a big salary with a big research budget will eventually create it.

Humans have been messing with plant and animal genes for centuries, sometimes with great benefits, but always with unintended and often unpleasant consequences.

One wonders when our scientific thinking will advance far enough so we know what we can create, but out of prudence choose not to.

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Eric Bergeson

Eric Bergeson is the third generation owner of Bergeson Nursery in Fertile, Minn., a business started by his grandfather in 1937. He also writes a weekly column for several newspapers in northwestern Minnesota. He has published four books, including most recently Pirates on the Prairie, which the Minneapolis Tribune called "a Minnesota cultural and historical treasure." You can read more from Eric at his website, The Country Scribe

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