Panelists take questions at the Talking GMOs event on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Credit: Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A panel of experts on genetically modified crops explained the effects of GMOs and contradicted common misconceptions about GMOs during a public conversation March 8.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, CU-CitizenAccess and the Knight Chair of Investigative Reporting, Journalism Department at the College of Media, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign co-hosted the event held at the Champaign Public Library.

Speakers from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the University of Illinois Extension Office, among others, discussed what GMOs do today, their impact on our environment and economy and their next stages.

The five-person panel, “Talking GMOs,” lasted about an hour and a half.

Among the speakers:

Leia Flure, a dietician with the University of Illinois extension, said she often hears concerns about GMOs from her customers, including that GMOs cause autism, cancer and allergies.

Leia Flure at the Talking GMOs event on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

But Flure said that there has been no credible evidence to back up these claims and stressed the role of the consumer in finding reliable information.

She said that many of these claims have to do with causation-correlation issues, such as that as GMO crops have increased, so has the ability to detect and diagnose autism and allergies.
Download her full presentation here and listen to her talk here

Leia Flure is a registered dietitian working in the field of nutrition education. She strongly believes that all foods can (and should!) be included in a healthy, balanced lifestyle and is passionate about helping consumers make informed food choices that work for them. Flure earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Master’s degree in Nutritional Sciences, both from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has previously worked as an Instructor Agricultural Communications and as a Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension.
Contact her at

Michael Gray, a professor emeritus of crop science at the University of Illinois, discussed the effect of Bt corn – one of the most common genetic modifications – on Western corn rootworm.

Dr. Michael Gray at the Talking GMOs event on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

Gray said that Bt corn is so effective that its use has become widespread, which leads to other issues.

Gray said that the insect has started to develop resistance to Bt corn and stressed the need for integrated pest management, or a combination of different methods to handle pest control.

Gray said that it may be beneficial for farmers to decrease use of Bt crops because the number of insects its killing are below significant risk levels.

Download his full presentation here or listen to his talk here

Dr. Michael E. Gray served as a professor of Agricultural Entomology and as an Extension Entomologist with the Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois. He also provided leadership for the Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension Program as an Assistant Dean, College of ACES. He was president of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) in 2008 and is a fellow and honorary member of that professional society. His research focused on the management of the western corn rootworm, a significant insect pest of corn throughout the Midwest.
Contact him at

Jack Murray, a fifth-generation farmer and seed corn salesman, said that during his decades as a farmer, he’s seen the benefit of GMOs on farmers, specifically by increasing yield and decreasing pesticide use.

Jack Murray at the Talking GMOs event on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

“In the past, we were over spraying,” Murray said. “Today we’re doing it in the seed. We’re not polluting the water by spraying on acres that are non-targeted (for pests).”

Murray said farming of the future will depend on technology.

“We’ve got to increase our production 40 percent by 2050,” he said. “We’re not gonna do it by farming the way we did 40 years ago.”

Download his full presentation here or listen to his talk here 

Jack Murray is a fifth-generation farmer of Champaign County and president of Murray Farms Inc. that farms 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in agronomy from the College of Agriculture and received his CCA in 1987. He has sold Pioneer Hi-Bred seed for 32 years. He is also president of Premier Co-Op, the largest co-op in Illinois; secretary of One Earth Energy , a 135-million gallon ethanol plant located in Gibson City; and was named Farm Leader of the Year by The News-gazette in 2012.  He is married to his wife Patti of 38 years and has three children very active in promoting agriculture in Illinois, as well as eight grandchildren that will carry on the tradition of feeding the world for another generation as efficiently as possible.
Contact him at

Tamara Nelsen, senior director of commodities of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said that humans have been modifying genes for thousands of years, but they have been more effective in doing so as technology has improved.

Tamara Nelsen at the Talking GMOs event on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

Nelsen gave the example of the arctic apple, a type of apple that will take much longer to brown than regular apples because it removes the browning gene. She said changes like that and adding Vitamin A to Golden Rice make food healthier and last longer.

Download her full presentation here or listen to her talk here

Tamara Nelsen is Senior Director of Commodities and Affiliate Management for the Illinois Farm Bureau. She manages all Commodities Department activities and programs, service agreements and staff for five associations, and serves as the major resource on commodity issues including biotechnology and international trade. Prior to joining IFB in 1998, Tamara worked as a senior consultant in agri-food marketing, strategy, and trade. She earned her BA from Stanford University and her MBA from Virginia Tech.
Contact her at

Paul South, a researcher for the USDA and the University of Illinois, said his work focuses on increasing the yield of crops by making the photosynthesis process more efficient.

South said that in order to feed larger populations in the future, yields will need to increase and that effects everyone.

“Yields translate when you go to the grocery store,” South said. “I’m also a family man. I want a safe and secure food supply. I also want a cheap food supply. Food prices will go down because there are more food products on the market.”

Download his presentation here or listen to his full talk here

Paul F. South is a Research Molecular Biologist, at the USDA/ARS Carl R Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Purdue University while working on gene regulation in cholesterol biosynthesis in 2012. Currently, he works on improving photosynthetic efficiency with the goal of making plants produce more on less land. He has lived in Champaign for four years and is married with three children. Contact him at 

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