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Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station

Weaver is Strong Advocate of GMO Technology

D. Hunter Reardon

Genetically modified crops, such as Bt cotton, have the potential to change the world for the better, says David Weaver, longtime professor and researcher in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences.

David Weaver, one of the best known and longest tenured professors in Auburn’s College of Agriculture, is practically a walking encyclopedia of agronomy. This is obvious to the students and colleagues who have had the opportunity to ask him a complicated question and receive a crystal-clear answer without a split second of hesitation.

Similarly obvious to students and colleagues is Weaver’s firmly held belief in the power of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to change the world for the better. When called “pro-GMO,” Weaver quickly responds that he is “pro-science.”

This isn’t a position universal to the general populace, or even the College of Agriculture. “I do have a few admirers who slip me notes under my door,” he says. “Anonymously, of course.”

He produces one such note and reads the first line: “Research shows organic farming is healthier for you.” He shakes his head, half laughing, half in disbelief. “What does that even mean? I think they mean ‘organic food is healthier for you.’ And that’s still incorrect.”

It would be a controversial stance in the political world, but if anyone has the academic record and experience to back up such a claim, it is Weaver. Raised on a poultry farm in Braselton, Ga., to parents with a cotton farming background, he has been around agriculture his entire life.

An agronomy major at the University of Georgia, he later earned his master’s degree from the same school and his PhD from Purdue. He has been conducting research on cotton and soybean crop improvement for 35 years now and has been a professor at Auburn University for all 35 of them. Weaver plans to retire at the end of August.

Lamenting a misinformed public

One must be prepared for steely frustration to tint Weaver’s normally crisp and friendly Southern tone if the subject of restrictions on GMOs is brought up around him. What frustrates him the most aren’t the pseudoscience blogs run by laymen that call GMOs “Frankenfood” and cite no sources –– though these are certainly subject to his ire –– but instead the harm he says is done worldwide when the public is misinformed.

“People just go to Wal-Mart or Guthrie’s or McDonald’s for a $4 meal. They don’t understand that it takes research to keep the line moving,” he says. “When the public doesn’t understand, they don’t care, and it’s easy for the government to cut funding to research projects.”

This attitude, he says, has dangerous consequences. One example is the tragic case of “golden rice,” a genetically modified crop imbued with Vitamin A, an invention intended to solve Vitamin A deficiency in parts of the world where pills are highly distrusted.

Vitamin A deficiency results in the blindness of millions of people, and this could be solved if the new crop was widely cultivated and consumed. Instead, many governments in affected areas have banned the growth and even the study of the crop.

A basic failure to understand what exactly a GMO is lies at the root of the problem, according to Weaver. Again, he points to misinformation and lack of education as the real enemy, not some shadowy, evil force intent on starving millions, and he is always happy to explain the process to those unfortunate students who haven’t taken his classes.

Basically, the DNA for a specific protein that kills a specific pest or overproduces a specific enzyme is inserted into a safe-to-use bacterium that has had the DNA of the disease-causing aspect of the bacterium removed, he explains. The new DNA is inserted into the nucleus of the plant via the bacterium, and incorporated into the DNA of the plant itself. The bacterium shell is no more than a carrier.

One example of this is Bt cotton. Bt is a protein that is toxic only to larvae of certain pests. It is not a problem for other insects, such as bumblebees, and is not at all relevant to humans as far as consumption is concerned. When Bt DNA is inserted into the cotton DNA, the plant synthesizes the protein and kills the larvae of the targeted pests that try to feast on it.

Fields of Bt cotton do not require pesticides that would otherwise be necessary to kill bollworms. If pesticides are unavailable or ineffective in a certain region, substituting with a GMO crop can lead to enormous increases in crop yields. The same is true of plants that are modified to resist other types of insects, diseases, and even heat.

Weaver bristles at the idea that this is in any way unsafe. “Nothing has ever been shown to prove organic food is better for you. Nothing. People will tell you to your face that it is better for you, but there is no evidence. At all.” Contrarily, he cites 500 experiments done over the past 25 years, every one of which supported the hypothesis that GMOs are at least as safe as conventional food.

“GMOs are the most researched topic in agricultural history, and [they’ve found] nothing. They have not come up with anything. After 500 studies supporting the hypothesis, it starts to become accepted fact in the scientific community.” Instead, Weaver contends, it is organic food that is a potential risk. This is difficult to prove scientifically, but one can infer that some of the pesticides that are allowed in organic food production could present risks.

Tide beginning to turn

One positive prediction Weaver makes is that the tide is starting to turn a bit. When it does, he hopes that greater acceptance of technology will be able to put a dent in child malnourishment in places like Africa, where health statistics are generally disappointing and GMOs are largely banned entirely.

He likens that ban to a centuries-old folly: when Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church for claiming that the earth revolves around the sun.

“Whenever there’s new information out there, there’s backlash against it,” he says. A powerful political example is that of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who refused in 2004 to import transgenic seeds, despite the wealth of research being done in continental neighbors Argentina and Brazil. Weaver recounts the story with a mix of incredulous disappointment and laughter.

As quickly as it comes, the fire and frustration in Weaver’s voice fades back into a friendliness befitting a Southern gentleman. Just a few minutes after emphatically repeating “No. No. Never,” when asked if he had ever had doubts about GMO safety, he is back to shooting the breeze in his untarnished and articulate drawl.

An hour has passed, but he doesn’t lament it as lost time. There’s a reason, then, that a scientist intent on improving crops and raging against perceived heathenistic agriculture practices has ended up in an office at Auburn University, an advocate for his field in a place where his influence can be felt so immediately.

Published July 18, 2016 at http://aaes.auburn.edu/pru/news/weaver-is-strong-advocate-of-gmo-technology/

Richmond Magazine

Gathering Energy

D. Hunter Reardon, Jack Cooksey

At 122-plus years old, the hulking, redbrick Cary Street Gym on VCU’s Monroe Park campus might not seem to be a glaring example of the green economy.

With its skylight and imposing facade, the building opened in 1891 as a public marketplace; that failed 15 years later, and it then meandered through many purposes. It served as the City Auditorium (operatic tenor Enrico Caruso sang there) and then as a venue for boxing and wrestling. From the 1940s to the mid-’70s, it lived in limbo as a warehouse space. Finally, in 1979, Virginia Commonwealth University bought the building for $155,000 and turned it into a gym.

Today, despite the fact that it’s still one of the oldest brick behemoths in VCU’s real estate portfolio, it is actually among the region’s most environmentally focused buildings, according to the rating system known as LEED and run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Created by the USGBC in 1998, LEED — short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — rewards public and private construction projects for building with attention to human health and environmental factors. “LEED measures the total health of the building,” explains Jacob Kriss, a spokesman for the USGBC.

The program is points-based, and points are earned in categories including water efficiency, energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality. A building can earn, in ascending order, a LEED-certified, bronze, silver, gold or platinum rating.

Virginia is among the states leading the way on green building. The prevalence of LEED is often measured in square footage per capita, a figure released last month by the USGBC. The commonwealth ranked third in the nation, with 2.11 LEED-certified square feet per resident in 2013. Part of that success is due to the state’s federal-government footprint from nearby Washington, far and away the leader of the pack when included in the survey.

The Richmond region officially crossed over into this now-widespread movement 10 years ago, when the University of Richmond received the lowest-level LEED rating, the “certified” label, for its expansion of Weinstein Hall.

As of 2006, it was still the only local LEED-certified project, causing Sandra Leibowitz Early, a sustainable design consultant in Richmond, to note then: “If you were to do a green building tour of Richmond today, there wouldn’t be a whole lot on that tour yet.”

Within a year, used-car retailer CarMax garnered the USGBC’s silver rating — the first company in the state to do so — for its glistening new Goochland County headquarters, clad in glass and metal, and surrounded by trees.

The pace of green building has picked up since then, and now nearly 40 projects locally have met a USBGC standard; dozens more, whether completed or in the process, are aiming for LEED ratings. A recent green-building database for the Richmond region lists more than 100 projects that either have received a rating or plan to do so.

In 2009, the state government incorporated LEED into its energy-reduction goals, requiring that its renovation and construction projects of more than 5,000 square feet meet the program’s silver level. The impact of such a policy is most visible in VCU’s massive portfolio, where 20 percent of the university’s square footage bears a green-building rating. The university itself committed to a requirement of LEED silver projects in 2007, before the state mandate went into effect.

“We have equaled and exceeded the projected energy savings each year,” says Brian Ohlinger, VCU’s associate vice president of facilities and management. When VCU first took on green building, the construction cost of a LEED silver project was typically 3 to 5 percent more than that of a conventionally built structure — a price that has since fallen.

“We tend to own our buildings forever,” explains Jacek Ghosh, VCU’s director of sustainability. “If you care about the long-term cost of a building, then the investment makes sense.”

In the region’s private sector, other companies have followed CarMax’s lead by embracing green construction. Three of the city’s top employers — Wells Fargo, Verizon and Bank of America — operate in a LEED-certified office space. According to the USGBC, there are 17 Richmond-area buildings certified by LEED and owned by private companies.

Meanwhile, Richmond-based Moseley Architects has become an industry driver of LEED services in this region and beyond, completing about 100 LEED projects largely for public clients, according to Bryna Dunn, a vice president there.

And the Moseley firm lives where it works. Its Scott’s Addition office is one of only three platinum-rated LEED buildings in the region. Six Richmond-area projects have been certified at the gold level, the best known of these being the Cary Street Gym and Glen Allen High School.

The economic feasibility of the program, on the other hand, has generated controversy nationwide. In 2003, as LEED was still building steam, the New York Times printed an article headlined “Not Building Green Is Called a Matter of Economics,” a story that was less than kind to the burgeoning program. “It can be very costly, and at the end of the day, you get a plaque,” said one source.

More criticism came in 2011, when Henry Gifford, an expert in mechanical system design for a New York City architecture firm, filed a $100 million suit against the USGBC. Gifford claimed that LEED buildings didn’t save consumers any money, in effect accusing the USGBC of false advertising. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

LEED has answered critics by blossoming into a national phenomenon, with more than 45,000 certified projects to its name. More 30 states have adopted some form of green building legislation.

As awareness of green building was growing in Richmond eight years ago, Dunn noted in this magazine that contractors confronted LEED with a “fear factor.” Today, she says, more players in the market are seeing value and business sense in the trend, especially now that there is more widespread support and infrastructure to make it happen. “People are more aware,” she says. “After the first few get certified, a lot of others follow.”

Published March 31, 2014 at http://richmondmagazine.com/news/VCU-Leed-Environmental-Design/