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The debate on genetically modified crops is a hot one. And author Jeff Smith and professor Neal Stewart intend to add fuel to both sides during the eighth annual Stonecipher Symposium on Technology, Communication and Culture at Tennessee Tech University.

With the theme “Eat, Drink and Think Globally: Can the World Survive a Consumer Culture?”, the symposium will be held March 22 at Tennessee Technological University. The debate will begin at 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, March 22, in the Tech Pride Room of Tennessee Tech’s Roaden University Center.

Smith became involved in the controversy surrounding GM foods about ten years ago, when he attended a lecture and became shocked over the potential health and environmental dangers they create.

“I knew that very few Americans knew anything about these dangers,” Smith said. “I decided to learn more and increase public knowledge.”

Smith worked with a nonprofit group trying to get GM foods labeled, ran for U.S. Congress to increase public awareness, and worked as marketing vice president at a laboratory that detects GM organisms. He then spent a year investigating claims by scientists worldwide that genetically engineered foods are not safe, and that their approvals was based on industry manipulation and political collusion, not sound science. He documented incidences where scientists critical of the technology were threatened, fired, and gagged, and how research was rigged to avoid finding problems.

He compiled his findings in the book “Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating,” which is now the world’s best selling book on the topic, available soon in seven languages. Smith has traveled to more than 140 cities in 16 countries on 5 continents, briefing government officials, media and the public.

Among the findings he will discuss at the debate is that the only published human feeding study confirmed that herbicide-tolerant genes that are inserted into soy jump from GM soy and reside in human “gut” bacteria.

“While the biotech industry had formerly assured us that this was impossible, this recently published evidence has serious implications,” Smith says. “If the antibiotic resistant genes used in most GM foods were to jump to bacteria, they might create antibiotic resistant diseases.

“Likewise, if the gene that creates the Bt pesticide in corn were to jump to bacteria, it might transform our gut bacteria into living pesticide factories.”

Stewart’s research as a plant molecular geneticist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville challenges these claims. He says that, although there are real environmental risks associated with GM plants, many of the perceived risks are unnecessarily elevated. His research examines such questions as pest resistance to plant-produced pesticides, controllability of GM plant diffusion, increased weed tolerance to herbicides, and gene flows from crops to other plants.

“The perceived risks of GM plants are scientifically unlikely and outweighed by real environmental benefits,” Stewart says. He further argues that the public debates on GM foods “exclude or exaggerate the actual scientific research on the impacts of these plants” and debases public reasoning to the “this is your brain on genetically modified corn” mentality.

In his book “Genetically Modified Planet,” Stewart asserts that while there are real and potential risks of growing engineered crops, there are also real and overwhelmingly positive environmental benefits.

For more information about the debate or the symposium, please call 931/372-3507 or visit The Stonecipher Symposium is sponsored by Tennessee Tech and is partially funded by Harry Stonecipher, Tennessee Tech alumnus and president and CEO of the Boeing Company.