John Block: Gene Editing

By former USDA Secretary John R. Block

To kick this off with some serious facts, let me ask – did you know that 7% of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows?  One in five adults doesn’t know that hamburgers are made from beef.  Three in ten don’t know that cheese is made from milk.  That tells us how far our national population is removed from the farm.  The ag industry is not well understood.

Take genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  GE crops have been a remarkable, unbelievable success from a farmer’s point of view.  We don’t have to hoe fields by hand.  The weeds are gone.  We don’t need to use as many chemicals fighting not only weeds but pests like root worms and corn borers.  Our yields are up.

However, since Monsanto’s GM crops came on the market in 1992, consumers’ skepticism cannot be tamped down.  A Pew Research Center study reports that 40% of Americans believe that GMOs are bad for your health.  Why so many people refuse to listen to science that assures them GE foods are safe, healthy, and pose no risk is beyond me.

Scientists have developed GE crops by taking DNA from a different crop and inserting it into a plant.  We now have on the horizon a slightly different process to improve a plant or animal.  The new process, called gene editing, doesn’t take from another kind of plant.  Gene editing just alters or changes the genes in the plant or animal itself.

The process takes much less time and is more precise than GMO breeding.  Will gene editing be easily accepted by the public at large?  That is a good question.  DuPont Pioneer has developed a gene-edited, drought-resistant corn.  We have some farms right now that wish they had some drought-resistant corn.

My judgment is that, over time, new technologies will be accepted.  If for no other reason – we will need the food.  And, we can not produce enough without new technology.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.  If you would like to review his radio shows going back more than 20 years, visit

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