Friday, November 21, 2014

The GM Reactionaries

PALO ALTO – People everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the use of what Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science” – the “science of things that aren’t so” – to justify government regulation or other policies. It is a specialty of self-styled public-interest groups, whose agenda is often not to protect public health or the environment, but rather to oppose the research, products, or technology that they happen to dislike.

For example, modern techniques of genetic engineering – also known as biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification (GM) – provide the tools to make old plants do spectacular new things. Yet these tools are relentlessly misrepresented to the public.

More than 17 million farmers in roughly three dozen countries worldwide are using GM crop varieties to produce higher yields with fewer inputs and lower environmental impact. Most of these new varieties are designed to resist crop-ravaging pests and diseases, so that farmers can adopt environmentally friendlier no-till practices and use more benign herbicides.

Critics of GM products insist that they are untested, unsafe, unregulated, unnecessary, and unwanted. But the facts show otherwise.

For starters, there is a broad and longstanding consensus among scientists that recombinant DNA techniques are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier methods for genetic modification, and that gene transfer using these precise, predictable molecular techniques does not present any risk per se.

After the cultivation of more than a billion hectares of GM crops worldwide – and the consumption in North America alone of more than two trillion servings of foods that contain GM ingredients – not a single case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem has been documented. Meanwhile, the benefits of GM-crop cultivation include higher yields, lower use of chemical pesticides, and biofuel production.

Far from being under-regulated, GM plants (and other organisms) have been subjected to expensive, discriminatory, and unscientific over-regulation that has limited the commercial success of maize, cotton, canola, soybeans, and papaya, among other crops.

In fact, opponents often assert that commercial cultivation of GM crops has been a disappointment, because it has offered little direct benefit to consumers. But many advantages have already been realized. And GM crops currently in development will deliver even more direct and easily identifiable consumer benefits.

Consider, for example, that, because GM crops require less chemical pesticide, fewer farmers and their families risk being poisoned by runoff into waterways and ground water. From 1996 to -2009, the amount of pesticide that was sprayed on crops worldwide fell by 393 million kilograms – 1.4 times the total amount of pesticide applied annually to crops in the European Union.

Furthermore, lower levels of mycotoxins in pest-resistant corn mean fewer birth defects, such as spina bifida, and less toxicity to livestock. Such staple food crops also can be modified to contain additional nutrients.

No-till farming techniques, in which the soil is not plowed, mean less soil erosion, less runoff of agricultural chemicals, and lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions by mechanized farm equipment. From 1996 to 2009, the shift to biotech crops reduced carbon emissions by 17.6 billion kilograms, the equivalent of removing 7.8 million cars from the road for a year.

GM crops also have significant economic benefits. Higher yields and lower production costs have reduced global commodity prices (corn, soybeans, and derivatives), resulting in higher farm income, enhanced supplies of food and feed products, and more readily available high-quality calories.

Indeed, farm income grew by nearly $65 million from 1996 to 2009, as biotech crops increased global corn and soybean production by 130 million and 83 million tons, respectively, owing to higher yields and, in Argentina, second cropping of soybeans. As a result, by 2007, global corn and soybean prices were nearly 6% and 10% lower, respectively, than they would have been had farmers not embraced these crops.

Given their benefits, GM crops’ “repeat index” – the proportion of farmers who, after trying a GM variety, choose to plant it again – is very high. The boost to farm incomes and farm security – which translates into higher household incomes and improved standards of living – is particularly important in developing countries, where income levels are lowest but per-hectare benefits from planting GM varieties have been greatest.

But GM crops do not benefit only those who grow and consume them. According to a 2010 study, fields of insect-resistant GM corn have an “area-wide suppression effect” on insects, benefiting neighboring fields containing conventional corn varieties.

The researchers calculated that, from 1996 to 2010, cultivating GM varieties increased farmers’ profits in three US states by roughly $3.2 billion – $2.4 billion of which accrued to farmers whose nearby fields had not been planted with GM varieties. The farmers planting the conventional varieties benefit disproportionately, because they do not have to buy the more expensive GM seeds.

Future generations of GM crops will bring even more benefits – but only if they are allowed to flourish. To that end, consumers must understand that GM crops hold great potential, while posing negligible risks, and governments must adopt regulatory policies that face facts and reject pathological science.

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    1. CommentedMK Anon

      they are talking of science.. what a joke. This article lacks of citation and also needs to disclose the ties of the authors with GM companies who have been known over and over again to support certain "scientist", while withdrawing grants and funding to labs finding unsatisfactory results. We can speak as much of science as Galileo did when he said earth was flat to avoid the fire.

      second: what is the final proof that something is safee? Not finding effects on very few indicators on rats fed with GM for 3 months. This is the "science" again. I would really trust this with a randomized control trial on human population, and with their effect studied over 3 generations. The GM lobby was clever enough to make that science even impossible to do: GM information is not disclosed, and they are spreading all over. even "organic" crops are contaminated. So there is no way to find a "control group".

      And finally, I want to stress, as someone did before, of the ethics of this: no matter whether science backs or not GM crops. If a large part of the population beleive they don't want to do with GM, it should be able to do so and it should be labeled whether GM is present or not (as was rejected in california after intense lobbying from GM companis). And it should be the resonsability of farmers to control their field to not contaminate the fields around it.

        CommentedGrzegorz Lindenberg

        This article lacks of citation is keeping with Project Syndicate way of writing articles - it is not an academic paper.
        As to what is the final proof that something is safe? There is no final proof for anything, as new evidence can always come up. But the authors give you semi-final evidence:"fter the cultivation of more than a billion hectares of GM crops worldwide – and the consumption in North America alone of more than two trillion servings of foods that contain GM ingredients – not a single case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem has been documented." Not convincing? Then what would convince you, apart from direct text message from God on your cellphone?

    2. CommentedTim Chambers

      Fine for agribusiness corporations. But, how many farmers in India have committed suicide the past twenty years because of GM seed? Many of these expensive seeds are also mules, and one crop loss can devastate a poor farmer who went into debt to purchase them. They go deeper into debt to repurchase after the crop fails, because they don't have a seed crop. Turning them into mules, to protect intellectual property rights, and seed company profits is all too often the whole point. It's the biggest wealth transfer from the third world to the first world ever.

    3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Well, I as a consumer do not accept gene-experimental food and as a christian do not accept these scientific assaults on sacred life.

    4. CommentedDennis Argall

      Henry Miller has previously advocated return to DDT as a solution to the problem of malaria, seemingly without mention of the broader health issues with DDT in the environment
      Graham Brook's profile mentions his consulting business but does not indicate level of dependence on GM marketing companies' business.

      These are two core problems with their arguments: blinkering out the broader and unattractive issues and closeness to commercial interests.

      Nowhere in their discussion do they show any sensitivity to the issue of capture by corporations of farmers needing seed.

      Nor is their any reflected awareness of the long term consequences for example, of adding Bt to the genes of maize plants: the genes of a bacterium that has been long used by organic farmers effectively against caterpillars — a continuing effectiveness because of sporadic use, certainly destined to failure now permanently in plants, leading to the rise of resistant targets

      We have heard this sort of simplistic scientific-economic fundamentalism in the past from the nuclear industry. I don't have a big problem with high tech engineering and great science, but I don't know of human organisations lasting the requisite time let alone requisite sustained quality of management and audit. Have no doubt that the actualities of GM seed use will not be at sustained highest/best and will shift liabilities to other generations. We heard, earlier in the history of 'hope for more food', the heroic achievements of the International Rice Research Institute in the 1960s: IRRI's miracle rice delivered high yields to farmers but delivered them also to greater indebtedness from high fertiliser costs and then, when the rains came, these short weak-stemmed big-headed rices were lost under flood as traditional crops had generally not been lost.

      Was it Confucius or Commonsensis who said "Beware weak-stemmed big-headed broad argument on thin base - especially if part of sales pitch."

    5. CommentedFrancisco Alves

      Yes, let´s see some facts:
      .. there are more if you care to look.

    6. CommentedFrancisco Alves

      How about also mentioning that most of these farmers have no option but to use GM seeds. Their contracts explicitly forbid them from using any other type of seeds except those supplied by the manufacturer.

    7. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      This is a debate worth having. GM technology is a powerful tool. The key questions are: Who uses it? To what purpose? What are the advantages and disadvantages? What uses are being ignored and why? What are the motivations of the parties? Who are the beneficiaries and who are not?

      The private and corporate possession of the technology has biased the debate. Much research is focused on narrow monetary profit such as limiting the reproductivity of a strain with terminator technology requiring repurchase of seeds every planting. Economically good for the company but less so for the farmers who cannot replant their own seeds. Engineering a strain to be resistant to a chemical herbicide in order to sell greater quantities of it is similarly profitable.

      There is a powerful case for State and international funding of GM research for the public good. A crop that was both pest and disease resistant while NOT being self terminating would benefit the economy while not benefiting a specific company. A crop that fixed its own Nitrogen would require much less fertilizer benefiting the economy while weakening demand for such products. A plant that grew sustainably in places currently not productive such as arid regions would have economic, environmental and social benefits as would a plant that cleaned pollutants or concentrated a particular substance whether pollutant or feedstock or other chemical.

      In summary; a powerful technology is being used inefficiently for narrow corporate profit. The potential to use the same technology to improve the lot of the entire World is being ignored or squandered. The analogy is with disease research where a cheap, one-use, effective cure for cancer, HIV or diabetes would be an economic disaster for pharmaceutical companies but of virtually infinite benefit to society, families and individuals.

      The debate is long overdue.