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Common sense about GM crops

I find myself continually bewildered by the argument against genetically modified food. However, we have no choice, we need to constantly improve the stocks.

We have a great deal to gain from growing GM crops. They offer humanity a way to improve food productivity without having to make further inroads into our planet’s wild places to create more fields for farmers. The position was summed up by Sir Mark Wolpert, the government chief scientist last week, when debating the CST’s report. "The challenge is to get more from existing land in a sustainable way or face the alternative, which is that people will go unfed, or we’ll have to bring more wilderness land into cultivation." From that perspective, the case for GM crops is unanswerable.

Not everyone will agree, of course. Green opponents to GM crops claim they pose a risk to health, though no research has ever produced any credible evidence to back this point. Thirty years ago, it could be argued that we should proceed cautiously because of potential health dangers. That argument is no longer acceptable.

I have a lot of sympathy for the green argument, except that it ignores the real problem to focus on a minor issue. The real problem isn’t that some of our crops carry modified genes, especially since they all do — every single one of our major food plants are the product of intense artificial selection for traits that benefit agriculture. No, the real problem is how much of our country is overwhelmed with monocultured species — most of the botanical diversity of the United States is gone under a layer of wheat and corn and soybeans and pretty much nothing else. Minnesota is 54% farmland, and we aren’t even the most intensely plowed over state in the country.

It seems to me that the green approach would be to encourage more GMOs to increase the efficiency of farmland use; and to struggle to get less land committed to agriculture by ending the corn ethanol boondoggle and by encouraging more vegetarian diets, so less livestock. Worrying about an artificially introduced gene in a crop seems silly when the real problem is that versions of that crop are taking over everything, replacing wetlands and prairie with endless fields of corn, GMO or not.

Comments

  1. says

    I don’t have any argument against GM crops per se: foods like golden rice and higher protein wheat have done a huge amount of good. My argument is with GM crops designed to withstand high levels of pesticides and herbicides, and worse, the crops designed to produce their own pesticides. Plants DO absorb ambient chemicals, and what very little independent research has been done does not make these “Roundup Ready” crops look very good. (For some odd reason, Monsanto refuses to let their crops be studied under “suggested use” conditions and insists that people trust their own research. For some odder reason, the US government has acquiesced.) And there remains no real studies on the long-term health effects of corn and soy designed to produce their own pesticides.

    Yes, there is a lot of overwrought hand-wringing about GM crops. But there are still a lot of legitimate questions that the corporate engineers of such crops have refused to let be investigated.

  2. ekwhite says

    One of the problems with GMO’s is that they encourage the monoculture you are talking about. Also, as Gregory in Seattle states in #1, they encourage environmentally destrcuctive farming practices. One other problem the pro-GMO folks never mention is genetic transfer of herbicide resistance to weed species.

    If we are talking about golden rice, or drought resistant agricultural crops, I’m all for them. But what farmers are using now, no.

  3. jacksprocket says

    Genes from within the species have (usually) been tested in many combinations. While genes borrowed from other species may well have been tested for interactions within a limited number of varieties, the possible interactions when introduced genes are passed on to untested varieties must remain a concern. It is well established that GM plants frequently cross with other varieties, sometimes to the detriment of neighbouring farmers whose business depends on avoiding transgenic strains.

    Of course, this can also happen with “natural” breeding, as the Africanised bee shows.

    There is also the question of transparency in trials. The problem is well known in the pharmaceutical industry. Trials which show benefits are publicised, those with undesirable results are suppressed. Are GM companies obliged to make full disclosure? And are the public entitled to know if any given product has uses transgenic material, and decide for themselves whether to use it?

    Which is related to the other main objection- that in using GM organisms, we are becoming dependent on commercial monopoly supply sources.

  4. says

    Yes. The problem is not GMO foods (although that is the angle all the anti-GMO propaganda takes), but exploitive and monopolistic practices by agribusiness. You won’t find me disagreeing there!

  5. Dunc says

    It really makes very little sense to talk about “GM crops” as if they’re all the same thing. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the application. The analogy I like to use is that my position on fire depends on whether it’s cooking my food or burning my house down. Saying you’re “pro-fire” or “anti-fire” simply marks you as a shallow thinker.

    As far as I am aware, there is very little evidence so far that the use of GM technology has significantly improved yields. (Indeed, in some cases, GM crops have a lower intrinsic yield than their non-GM equivalents, because those additional traits have a metabolic cost.) It’s the promise that is always held out, but so far, it does not seem to have been delivered.

    I’m not especially concerned about health risks (at least to consumers), but I do have concerns about how some of these novel crops alter agricultural systems in ways which have wider ecological effects. For example, there is quite a bit of evidence that herbicide resistance tends to increase applications of herbicides, with the inevitable effects of increased run-off, increased overspray, increased worker exposures, and reduced biodiversity in the surrounding area. On the other hand, there is good evidence that Bt toxin production significantly reduces pesticide applications, resulting in reduced exposure for workers and higher biodiversity in the surrounding area.

  6. kurczaki3 says

    Out of all the respect to the scientists that are hard working to create crops that are modified to benefit all the people. The “feeding of the growing population” argument is not working. Weren’t we told this in the 90’s ? did we decrease the hunger in the world? Actually we increased obesity and diabetes but are we better in eradicating world’s hunger? Most of the world population has no resources to access the GMO seeds for personal consumption because of patent laws and other restrictions. There is more into GMO then the crop itself like: crop monopoly (related to business,) regulation of chemicals used, resistance, mono-culture, finical costs, patents.

  7. The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical says

    Good points made by Gregory in Seattle @ 1 and ekwhite @ 3. Overuse of pesticides/herbicides and the monocultures encouraged by the iron grip and lobbying power of those who sell GM seed do need to be considered when discussing issues surrounding GM crops. Instead, the woo reigns supreme.

    In places like the US we already have massive amounts of food–far more than we need–but it isn’t being distributed well. More vegetarians/vegans in industrialized nations, more diverse diets of vegetables that won’t make monocultures of grains and soybeans such profitable ventures, and some real, hard effort at better food distribution across the planet would go a long way to getting enough food for everyone. GM crops for better yield are good, too, but more food in agricultural powerhouse countries won’t feed everyone when people are going hungry for reasons that have nothing to do with how much food is available globally.

    So long as food distribution is based on profit instead of need, people will starve.

  8. says

    I would say that genetic modification done by universities and science groups with the intent of improving the quality of our agristock(*) and the common good is generally a Good Thing. Genetic modification done by private, for profit corporations with the intent of making it easier to sell fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides should be viewed with deep skepticism.

    * There is probably a proper word to mean the whole collection of farm crops. I have no clue as to what it might be, thus the coinage.

  9. borax says

    This is probably the first time I’ve read comments about GMOs without any fear mongering or hyperbole about “Frankenfoods”. I know so many people who hate GMOs just on some misguided ideas that GMOs are inherently wrong and unnatural.

  10. gussnarp says

    I agree that the real problem is monoculture, but the problem with GMO is that it is largely designed to encourage and increase monoculture.

    The other problem is that both sides are being dishonest about the whole thing. The anti-GM crowd has the benefit of being more scared and ignorant than willfully dishonest. The pro-GM crowd is just lying when they say its about feeding people. Maybe they are busily producing some crops to help end hunger in developing countries and places with marginal soils and resources, but in the U.S. we were throwing away food before they came along. What they do is simply make it easier to mass produce animal feed.

    Meanwhile, they enable massive spraying with herbicides, wiping out the wildflowers that bees and butterflies rely on. I do wish the green crowd would stop talking about GM being bad to eat and focus solely on the real ecological damage GM crops are having right now.

    I also wish the pro-GM crowd would stop the false equivalence. GM is different from selective breeding. If you don’t see a difference between inserting a novel gene in a lab and overnight creating a new variety that will effectively wipe out all ecological competition and selective breeding that requires generations of plants that have to survive and compete in the environment season after season, then you’re not being honest. The claim that they’re “the same” rings as utterly hollow as the claim that your health is endangered by eating corn with an herbicide resistance gene.

  11. Hank Fox says

    Several things continue to disturb me about the subject.

    One, the anti-labelers: Their main argument always sounds to me like “We can’t tell you what it’s in. You’d make the wrong choice!”

    Second, EVERY online discussion of GMOs where you express any doubt at all, you get accused of hating and fearing SCIENCE-SCIENCE-SCIENCE. “You have to be an insane tinfoil-hat-wearing madman luddite to oppose GMOs!”

    In reply to that: A knife in my hands is a safe knife. The next guy with that same knife, maybe not so much. Likewise, there’s the science behind genetic modification, done by scientists, and there are the corporations directing the actual USE of the technology. I trust those corporations every bit as much as I trust tobacco, petroleum and automotive companies. Which is, not much. Since we’re tinkering with life itself here, I would prefer vicious, draconian oversight, and total transparency.

    Third, you can pretty much never get anyone to talk about the real problem behind all this, human population. The discussion starts with “Why do you want to kill babies?” and goes on to “Well, what’s YOUR solution, smart guy? Huh? What is it? Tell us!”

  12. says

    No, the real problem is how much of our country is overwhelmed with monocultured species — most of the botanical diversity of the United States is gone under a layer of wheat and corn and soybeans and pretty much nothing else. Minnesota is 54% farmland, and we aren’t even the most intensely plowed over state in the country.

    No offence, P.Z, but what the fuck makes you thing GM crops are going to change that? Seriously, I really want to know. Indeed, the great majority of those soybeans (and a large amount of the corn too) that you see in those big fucking monocrop fields is already some flavor of GMO (mostly Roundup Ready, the problems of which have already been mentioned). We need a complete overhaul of how we practice agriculture, definitely, but genetic modification of crops is an infinitesimally small and not terribly necessary element of that.

  13. jamessweet says

    I have some sympathy for the tactical use of anti-GMO as a proxy for anti-Monsanto. It’s a lot easier to get people to go along with “zomg Frankenfood!” than it is to explain why Monsanto’s business practices are predatory and destructive.

    I’m not saying that’s a good strategy… better to take the harder path and explain the ACTUAL problem. But it does make me a little bit less annoyed by anti-GMO activists than I otherwise would be. They are usually aiming their cannons in the right direction, just for the wrong (purported) reasons. (Of course, then you have the vandalism of the golden rice crops, blah… which just proves the value of getting it right, rather than just close-to-right)

  14. says

    @Dalillama #14 – I think you misunderstand PZ’s point: genetic modification has vastly encouraged monoculture, and monoculture is a huge problem even in states where agriculture is not the principle industry. That is the same point that many others have made in this post.

  15. carlie says

    My only beef with GMOs (heh) is that people who argue the most against it (and some of the ones who argue for it) make it an all or nothing they are GOOD entirely or they are BAD entirely. There are a lot of variations there – engineering to resist drought? Yay! Engineering to resist an herbicide in a crop that is known to often hybridize with the main weed the herbicide is supposed to control? Yeahnotsomuch. It’s just a technique, and the technique itself isn’t good or bad – it’s what you do with it.

  16. says

    Yes, yes, we’ll have the seed companies increase diversity by letting them sell GM crops indiscriminately!

    Then we’ll have the Republican party end racism by repealing the Civil Rights Act! Same logic, nothing can go wrong!

  17. says

    Gregory in Seattle#16
    If that’s what he meant, then why did he go on to say:

    It seems to me that the green approach would be to encourage more GMOs to increase the efficiency of farmland use;

  18. lumen says

    The trouble I have with the Anti-GM movement is that it’s one big disorganized ball of shifting sand. And I say this as someone who 5 years ago would have been 100% against GMOs.

    If you try to discuss the health/nonhealth claims you get inundated with poorly fact checked complaints about Monsanto. If you point out that Monsanto is only one organization developing GMOs then the goalpost moves to discussions of monoculture and the environment. When you show that monoculture is a problem even without GMOs everyone piles onto the labeling initiatives and “right to know”. When you ask why we would label GMOs as if they are all the same and point out (correctly) that government mandated labeling by it’s very nature should provide important evidence based information … well then prepare yourself to be called a “shill” and a “fascist”. When ever someone starts going on about the “Right to Know”, I find myself asking “Right to know WHAT?”. I have yet to see an answer that was based on anything even remotely rational. The labeling argument is like talking to someone who feels like they have a “right to know” if witches are living next door. They don’t CARE about facts. They are scared and they want a place to focus that fear.

    And that’s the problem. There are certainly real issues that can be discussed regarding agriculture. And specific GMOs are not helping with those problems. But none of the arguments are about specifics. The anti-GM movement is heavily invested in painting the entire technology as evil when the truth is it’s a tool that will do what we tell it to do, and more importantly it’s a tool during a point on this planet when we have precious few effective tools to work with. Throwing the tool away because so far it’s been used for objectives you do not approve of is ludicrous.

    So enough. I have no patience left for people who cannot admit that their previously dearly held beliefs were incorrect. Having been against GM in the past does not require that you cling to it NOW when the vast amounts of evidence show that the tech itself is Not the Problem. The anti-GM movement as a whole is a profoundly unscientific mass of confused politics, held together by fear. As a lifelong environmentalist I want nothing to do with it.

  19. Jennifer Sanders says

    The trouble with GMOs, as has already been pointed out, is less the GMOs themselves, but who is using them, how and why. The monoculture and pesticide issues have already been pointed out.

    Did you know that almost all hybrid brassicas, endives, carrots and onions (and other vegetables, but these are the ones that I know of off the top of my head) are now GMO? Specifically, they have had cytoplasmic male sterility introduced into them so that it is impossible to save seed, because they won’t produce any unless fertilized by another variety, and then you have the problem that the sterility is inherited. This can be done with conventional breeding, but naturally occurring male sterility is pretty rare, and it’s a lot faster and cheaper to induce it using GMO techniques.

    The whole point is to concentrate ownership of the means of production of food into a few – a very few – hands. By the way, buying organic won’t help you. According to this guy, most of the organic broccoli sold in the U.S. is GMO for sterility.

    http://seedambassadors.org/2013/06/24/why-cell-fusion-cms-cybrid-seed-is-creepy/

  20. garnetstar says

    The mono-genetic culture problem can get pretty bad. I read about chile peppers awhile back, where it’s reached near-crisis proportions with Tabasco peppers. They’re now so inbred that the plants go belly-up when the slightest virus hits them, and they can hardly be grown at all. Other peppers are approaching that state.

    There are botanists searching the wilds of Bolivia for any trace of an ancestral pepper, hoping to find wild genes to introduce into the crops to confer some better immunity. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to genetically modify the existing peppers? If you like Tabasco sauce, you’d better hope that happens.

    And I suppose nothing will prevent that happening to other food crops, which are all bred for optimized eating, not for hardiness. We’ll soon need genetic modification just to feed the population at the level we do now.

  21. says

    I 2 issues with GM, neither are a problem with GM foods, but with how we use them. 1st, as mentioned, is the issue with monoculture. Second, is the issues with IP on seeds. Monsanto and all that.

    I live in an area that is generally progressive, but GM is one of those issues where some really intelligent people can become really irrational.

  22. says

    Actually, on that note, I keep a bookmark to PZ’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad GMO” from some time back, as it is a good place to point the irrational.

  23. says

    Likewise, there’s the science behind genetic modification, done by scientists, and there are the corporations directing the actual USE of the technology. I trust those corporations every bit as much as I trust tobacco, petroleum and automotive companies.

    Oh, don’t be silly.

  24. memsomerville says

    A major problem with this discussion–even among people who don’t oppose GMOs philosophically–is that they conflate a bunch of things with GMOs as well, almost as badly as the anti-GMO team. None of which are unique to GMOs.

    1. Patents. Plenty of plants are patented, and GMOness is not required for patenting. You know who has more patents on genes than Monsanto? A lot of folks–including the US government and the UC system. http://www.biofortified.org/community/forum/genetic-engineering-group3/politics-forum1/patents-thread396.1

    2. Herbicides. You do not need GMOness for herbicides. This is one of the worst zombies even among GMO supporters. There has not been gene flow to create the Roundup “superweeds” you hear about. Please get this right. Also–there are plenty of non-GMO herbicide tolerant plants in use. If you stopped using GMOs today you’d do absolutely nothing to stop the use of herbicides. http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2013/05/superweed/

    3. Monocultures. Monocultures existed before GMOs, and would exist without them. It’s fine to hate monocultures–but again, if you banned GMOs today this would not solve the problem. As PZ notes, putting less land under cultivation would be better.

  25. says

    [too many links, I guess]

    Likewise, there’s the science behind genetic modification, done by scientists, and there are the corporations directing the actual USE of the technology. I trust those corporations every bit as much as I trust tobacco, petroleum and automotive companies.

    Oh, don’t be

  26. methuseus says

    I actually like GMOs in theory. It’s the practice I don’t like. Just like Socialism and even Communism sound good, in theory.
    My issues are:
    1. Monoculture. As everyone else has said, this isn’t a problem unique to GMOs, but may be exacerbated by them.
    2. Labelling. If we are going to sell these things, we should be honest about what’s in them. Not just that it’s GMO, but that it was given herbicide resistance, disease resistance, or added vitamins. Include more info on the product’s web site. Yes, this does add a bit of expense, but only a negligible amount more than adding the product to the web site in the first place.
    3. Overuse of herbicide. Contrary to what the creators (Monsanto, Bayer, etc.) tell us, herbicide use goes up when you know it won’t kill your money plants.Pesticide use may go down with Bt producing plants, but we don’t know the long term effects of that on humans or feed animals, let alone the number of Bt resistant pests rising up.
    4. Patents. Again, this is not just an issue of GMOs. It doesn’t make sense that farmers can’t sustain their own fields by saving seed. It puts them at the mercy of corporations that may decide not to sell to them, and have decided not to.
    5. Transparency. As others have said.
    6. Lack of yield improvements. There is no consensus on whether traditional, GMO, or organic farming gives you bigger yields on the same amount of land. Different studies, even with the same plants, can come to different conclusions.

    Again these are mainly social issues that just happen to crop up with GMOs. The process itself isn’t flawed, the way it’s been used has.
    Unfortunately, PZ, from reading your blog over the years, it’s hard to see that you are against many of the same things I am. We need to change our society in general in order to survive. We create plenty of food today. We could likely feed everyone with what we have, if we could ge tit to the right place at the right time for the right price. Yet we still have those starving people in this country.

  27. says

    garnetstar 22:

    I suppose nothing will prevent that happening to other food crops, which are all bred for optimized eating profit, not for hardiness full stop.

    FIFY.

    As others have pointed out, GMOs are not a problem per se, at least not in theory. In practice, however, they’re being used to generate short-term profits for powerful corporations, and are devastating to small farmers and the larger environment. The “feed the world” propaganda is as convincing as “spreading democracy” is with respect to US foreign policy, eagerly believed by well-meaning people, but demonstrably false (and for exactly the same reason: profit above all else).

  28. methuseus says

    @irisvanderpluym 28

    You said the same thing as I did much more succinctly than I ever could. I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t assume we mean identical things, but the gist is the same. I love your comparison to US foreign policy, and I’m going to steal probably your whole comment.

  29. Ewan R says

    Disclaimer up front. I work for Monsanto. The views expressed herein are entirely my own and not necessarily those of my betentacled paymasters (I’d rather hope there was a certain degree of overlap, but who knows what goes on in the eldritch non-euclidean spheres of thought that pervade that particular group) – I worked in biotech for 5 years for Monsanto on Corn and Soy, and currently reside in front of a computer juggling data and shouting at people in Corn breeding.

    #1 Gregory

    I don’t have any argument against GM crops per se: foods like golden rice and higher protein wheat have done a huge amount of good.

    Except that golden rice *still* hasn’t been able to do any good entirely due to anti-GMO backlash (and the regulatory burden this has created) and there is no GM high protein wheat (unless you do what PZ does above and call all changes to genetics GM, which may be true in a very pedantic manner, but we all know isn’t what people refer to as GM.

    What is true is that current GMOs have done a huge amount of good within the systems they are utilized (one may argue that killing the system and starting from scratch would be better, and this may well be true given an ideal solution…) – RR crops have massively reduced the environmental impact per acre of the crops which have the trait, Bt crops likewise – with the added bonus that they’ve increased incomes drastically for very resource poor farmers in areas like Burkina Faso, India and Pakistan.

    what very little independent research has been done does not make these “Roundup Ready” crops look very good.

    Except that it does.

    Monsanto refuses to let their crops be studied under “suggested use” conditions and insists that people trust their own research.

    Except that they don’t – all land grant universities in the US are free to study Monsanto transgenics under essentially whatever conditions they wish – there was a bit of a hoo-ha a few years back where the terms of the seed sale were misinterpreted (due to the extreme legalese in which they are written) to take it as such – but even scientists who made the original complaint later admitted that they could have been doing research all alone – had the language of the contract not been so utterly impenetrable (Monsanto has since clarified and has made it more obvious that the seeds and traits can be researched pretty much freely (else how does one explain the work of Prof Serelini et al? (It’s dogshit, but I don’t doubt that the research was done, and with traited seed))

    #3 ekwhite

    One other problem the pro-GMO folks never mention is genetic transfer of herbicide resistance to weed species.

    As far as I am aware this has never been demonstrated. Weed species have evolved (in some geographies) resistance to glyphosate (an inevitability, although one which *was* apparently hopelessly downplayed) but not through gene transfer, simply evolution in action.

    If we are talking about golden rice, or drought resistant agricultural crops, I’m all for them. But what farmers are using now, no.

    Farmers are actually using drought resistant corn right now, golden rice… hopefully soon, although I seem to recall having similar arguments 2 years ago and saying very much the same about the latter and that the former would be along soon.
    #7 Dunc

    As far as I am aware, there is very little evidence so far that the use of GM technology has significantly improved yields.

    Unless one looks at the literature, for sure. Intrinsic yields have not been altered (other than a little yield drag with, I believe, the first generation of RR soybean) for sure, but then that was never the aim. Yields however, yields are a different question – there is abundant literature detailing increased yields globally – in the US these are relatively marginal (most gains are financial in terms of lower cost of pest/weed control – although if memory serves insect protection has proven to be a yield increaser – one which actually provides benefits beyond the field in which the trait exists (bt use is so extensive that it practically acts like vaccination – providing herd immunity and reducing insect predation to non-Bt fields) but in say, Indian cotton – the yield and profit increases for farmers are clear, to claim they do not exist is an exercise in ignoring reality.

    Gregory again at #10

    Genetic modification done by private, for profit corporations with the intent of making it easier to sell fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides should be viewed with deep skepticism.

    Certainly should be viewed with skepticism (as should everything, had one the time) but um, the intent to sell fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides? Are you still living in the 90’s? One can argue that initially Monsanto went with RR seeds as a method to sell more herbicide (internal lore has it that Rob Fraley seriously risked his career in pushing for RR soy in the first place as it was seen as a silly approach that’d never work) but currently that argument hardly holds water. Monsanto no longer holds a monopoly on glyphosate sales, farmers don’t have to use Roundup on RR crops (Monsanto certainly would like them to, in order to get more money per acre out of them…), Bt categorically doesn’t fall into this bucket (it removes the need for chemical control of certain species) and Monsanto isn’t in the fertilizer business, so that’s just a silly argument from the start. It is true, infact, that Monsanto derives probably 5 times the profit from traits as it does from herbicides (and another 5 times that from seed sales in general – they do an awful good job at plant breeding also)

    #12 gussnarp

    but the problem with GMO is that it is largely designed to encourage and increase monoculture.

    USDA ERS data doesn’t really support that it increases monoculture (planted acres of corn has gone from 100 million in 1926 to around 96 million acres 2013/14 – changes are largely down to pricing – I’d expect a drop this year as $7 bushel corn drops to $4, Soybean acreage has stayed largely static during the GM era also (between 70 and 80 million acres and according to the ERS this increase is largely driven by increased yields (ie breeding) driving down per acre production costs) – As I see it GM crops were designed to make money by selling seed and chemicals – encouraging or increasing monoculture has nothing to do with it, although clearly could be a byproduct if circumstances were correct (it just doesn’t seem to have increased adoption of an already ubiquitous system in either case)

    Meanwhile, they enable massive spraying with herbicides,

    Not really moreso than was previously done- herbicides have been used on a massive scale since before GM crops were used, roundup is (by virtue of sheer happenstance in my opinion) less environmentally impactful than the systems it replaced (which is the real shame, in my opinion, of the evolution of RR weeds) and is not used, on a per acre basis, in that massive a quantity at all (the environmental impact of RR crops is less than that of others).

    inserting a novel gene in a lab and overnight creating a new variety that will effectively wipe out all ecological competition and selective breeding that requires generations of plants that have to survive and compete in the environment season after season, then you’re not being honest.

    While I agree that the conflation of breeding and GM isn’t particularly useful in the debate (it is in risk analysis I think, but saying both are the same not so much (despite searches probably showing I’ve made that exact claim before, I lay no claim to perfection and am perfectly capable of shifting views over time (even over lunch time)) you do show a little lack of knowledge around both how GM gets done, and how breeding gets done, allow me to waffle on about that for a bit.

    For a GM trait it isn’t as simple as just inserting a gene overnight and creating a variety that will “effectively wipe out all ecological competition” (whatever the merry hell that means) – one inserts a gene, generally into one of whatever few varieties you have available for transformation (different varieties require slightly different procedures, and some varieties are particularly obstinate (Corn for instance, is a total bugger to transform efficiently, outside of a few well characterized and optimized lines) and then… one tests the bejesus out of it. For an agronomic trait (insect resistance, herbicide resistance etc) it must show efficacy year on year and it must also show equivalence vs its isogenic partner year on year in terms of yield, grain moisture, maturity and a whole slew of other phenotypes (Yield, Moisture, Maturity are pretty much a holy trinity though) – once it does this it must show that it retains same after introgression into multiple other lines (ie you move, through breeding, your insert (and only your insert – thanks molecular breeding!) into different varieties and run the same tests over and over, probably for 4+ years – by the end of about a decade you’ll know, with relative certainty, that your insert works in most (preferably all) genetic backgrounds and can be released as a product. There is no wiping out of competition – a gene which doesn’t work across germplasm categorically isn’t a product – there appears to be great confusion in the world regarding GMOs and varieties – the whole endeavor would have failed utterly were it reliant on widescale adoption of a single variety. Breeding, likewise, works at a rate far faster than that you appear to be asserting – the time it takes to get a transgene tested and out there is about a decade, the time it takes to develop new lines and screen them thoroughly – for corn at least, somewhere closer to 5 or 6 years (which may well include moving about huge chunks of genetic material from varieties suited to other environments to test in another (ie taking US and Mexican corn and crossing them into populations from India in order to create elite lines there (or something similar))

    Jennifer #21

    Did you know that almost all hybrid brassicas, endives, carrots and onions (and other vegetables, but these are the ones that I know of off the top of my head) are now GMO?

    Not GMO by the “gene inserted in a lab” method though, this is purely a breeding thing.

  30. twas brillig (stevem) says

    TL;DR [thread, not OP]:

    I hate the term GMO, being a nerd, I rail at the term. EVERY plant we grow, is Genetically Modified; through breeding and other “natural” methods. GMO is just their boogey word for “artificial”. And what is so “artificial” about it? Like fearing ascorbic acid as Artificial, and preferring Vitamin C as Natural.

    GMO’s were first started as a benefit for the “common farmer”. That he would not loose so much of his crops to weeds and such and could use herbicides to protect his crops from those weeds. Nothing about “feeding more people”, etc. But that turned out to be a lie when the inventor of the first GMO [Monsanto] viciously defended their “patent” and charges extravagantly for the use of their GMO seeds. And sues farmers who accidentally got GMO seeds scattered on their property and harvested the results. Be Anti-Monsanto, not Anti-GMO. period.

    Re “labelling GMO foods”:
    Why? Good, in theory, doomed to fail in practice. Too many will see it as a label of, “Poison!! Don’t eat me!!”
    And neither is it a label of “Best Food Available!”, that others will read it as.
    And which foods get such a label? Bananas deserve such a label, they are a single genetic variation of Plantains, and so are Corn, and Wheat, and blah blah blah. EVERY vegetable in every market in America is Genetically Modified from it’s “original” form. The only warning label should be FDA saying the food is safe to eat. period. No need to mention it’s genes, etc.

    The “pro-s” for GMO’s is a very long list, the “con-s” is only “Mon$anto”.

  31. Dunc says

    Ewan R @30:

    #7 Dunc

    As far as I am aware, there is very little evidence so far that the use of GM technology has significantly improved yields.

    Unless one looks at the literature, for sure. Intrinsic yields have not been altered (other than a little yield drag with, I believe, the first generation of RR soybean) for sure, but then that was never the aim. Yields however, yields are a different question – there is abundant literature detailing increased yields globally – in the US these are relatively marginal […] but in say, Indian cotton – the yield and profit increases for farmers are clear, to claim they do not exist is an exercise in ignoring reality.

    Well, you know, I have a day job, which has nothing to do with either agriculture or genetics, so I don’t get as much chance to keep on top of the literature as I’d like, which is why I said “as far as I am aware”. If you could perhaps do us all the favour of pointing us in the direction of some of the relevant literature, that would perhaps be more helpful than accusing me of “ignoring reality” when I’ve already indicated that I know I’m not fully up-to-date on the current research in this area. Ta.

    I’d be particularly interested in research showing that “RR crops have massively reduced the environmental impact per acre”, since the last time I looked, that was not the impression I received, and I’ve already acknowledged the benefits of Bt toxin production.

  32. Ewan R says

    irisvanderplum #28

    In practice, however, they’re being used to generate short-term profits for powerful corporations, and are devastating to small farmers and the larger environment.

    Devastating how exactly? Your claim is exactly the opposite of what one gets from looking at the literature on this topic – farmer incomes are increased from the use of GMOs pretty much across the board (indeed, why would a farmer continue to use a product that did them no good – claims that they cannot give ‘em up are equally silly as in the self same literature one can see examples where there are farmers who adopt and subsequently give up the technology (particularly Bt cotton in the early years in India) as well as those who adopt, reject and later re-adopt.

    The environmental impact, as I cover in my diatribe above… shows that for both Bt and RR crops the environmental impact of the weed/insect control methods used is an improvement over the norm for that crop amongst non-adopters.

  33. memsomerville says

    This is a non-paywalled story from 2009 on increases in sustainability:

    The analysis, led by agronomist Stewart Ramsey of the consulting firm Global Insight, also finds that the amount of energy spent on farming has fallen by 40% to 60%, probably because farmers who plant genetically modified crops are driving tractors less frequently to spray pesticides and herbicides. Irrigated water use dropped by 20% to 50%, the report found, and carbon emissions fell by about 30%. Wheat was the only crop of the four surveyed that did not post big gains in efficiency. More water is being used, and an increase in application of nitrogen fertilizers has meant an increase in energy use and climate impacts per bushel.

    Guess which crop isn’t GMO? Wheat.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/2009/01/farming-strides-toward-sustainability

  34. gussnarp says

    @memsomerville, @ Ewan R –

    Re: Monoculture.

    We have to consider how we define this term. It doesn’t mean “Corn is the only plant grown”, though by strict etymology, one could certainly arrive at that. It does mean that very few crops are grown. It also usually means fewer different varieties of the same crop, which is really important. If GM corn makes it cheaper and easier to mass produce corn that can go to feed markets, ethanol markets, and grain markets for processed foods, then a lot of farmers are going to grow it. How much genetic variation is there among the corn grown today? Among GM corn in general? Compared to previous seed banks?

    Another important distinction, at least as I’m using it, is that it means there are fewer random wildflowers and weeds in among the crops as well. So this gets back to the increased use of herbicide. Ewan R, you tell me we’re not using more herbicide in total, maybe that’s the case. But as I understand it, the entire point of engineering roundup ready crops is to enable roundup to be sprayed on the growing crops. My point with regard to herbicides is not about toxic herbicides in the environment, it’s that even with judicial use of herbicides in the past, once the crop is in and growing you can’t really spray it. Certainly not with roundup as it would kill the crop as well as any weeds. Which means that prior to roundup ready corn there were inevitably some number of weeds. Probably not enough to seriously impact production, but maybe there were. Those weeds are often the plants that bees and butterflies rely on for nectar or the plants that butterflies lay their eggs on (many species will only lay on a specific plant).

    I have heard entomologists implicate the elimination of so many weeds in issues with bee populations as well as with monarch butterflies. I don’t know how strong the evidence is for that, but until you can show me strong evidence that the application of roundup to crop fields thanks to roundup ready crops is not harmful to pollinator populations, then I come down against it.

  35. Dylan Moses says

    Can we please not do ‘$’ with Monsanto. Also no farmer has been sued because of a small amount of gmo seeds have fallen in their fields. You aren’t going to get 90% RR seeds by accident.

  36. Ewan R says

    Dunc – http://pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/2013globalimpactstudyfinalreport.pdf

    summarizes to date, lengthy read.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ps.967/full

    Gives an overview for Canola – here the EIQ of the HR system is lower due to reduced quantity of herbicides sprayed, those used tend to have higher EI/kg than in non-GM system (this generally isn’t the case as the first paper shows, kinda interesting to me that it is.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ps.1024/full

    Has a section detailing Environmental impacts of GM crops in general, covers different crops.

  37. gussnarp says

    @Ewan R. :

    Not really moreso than was previously done- herbicides have been used on a massive scale since before GM crops were used, roundup is (by virtue of sheer happenstance in my opinion) less environmentally impactful than the systems it replaced (which is the real shame, in my opinion, of the evolution of RR weeds) and is not used, on a per acre basis, in that massive a quantity at all (the environmental impact of RR crops is less than that of others).</blockquote

    How do you define "environmental impact"? That's kind of always the question. If it's having an impact by reducing forage availability for bees and butteflies, whose analysis of environmental impact is that considered in?

    And re. "ecological competition", not an apt phrase on my part. Competition in general might have been better. Certainly when applied with roundup, roundup ready crops ought to wipe out the competition in terms of weeds, and in economic competition, wipe out other varieties of a given crop.

  38. Ewan R says

    @Gussnarp

    Re: Monoculture.

    We have to consider how we define this term.

    I heartily agree.

    It doesn’t mean “Corn is the only plant grown”, though by strict etymology, one could certainly arrive at that. It does mean that very few crops are grown. It also usually means fewer different varieties of the same crop, which is really important.

    I again concur that the fewer varieties issue is what is the problem (this was, unless I am mistaken, and I frequently am, the issue with say the irish pototo blight – single viariety with susceptibility to blight, and it is certainly the fear that is raised by monocropping a single variety – if said variety is hit, then you’re buggered six ways to Thursday) – this is generally what I would see as an issue, and from my view it absolutely is not an issue which is exacerbated by GM crops as they are currently used (it could be, had Monsanto really decided to be monopolistic about it, because 95% of soybeans, if that many were RR, would now be Monsanto genetics only, rather than the 30/30/20/20 sort of mix we have now (approximately… Monsanto/Pioneer/Syngenta/everyone else) in row crops in general)

    How much genetic variation is there among the corn grown today?

    While I don’t have an exact number it is quite clearly far from a monoculture by the nr of varieties definition

    https://www.pioneer.com/home/site/us/products/corn/

    http://www.aganytime.com/dekalb/featured/Pages/Top-Products.aspx

    Take you to two different companies (so utterly different genetics) catalogs for corn seed. (Irritatingly the Pioneer one makes my point better than DeKalb) showing many varieties with variable traits/features which to me indicates a non-monoculture situation (DeKalb and Pioneer represent probably the two biggest sources of corn seed out there)

    once the crop is in and growing you can’t really spray it

    Well, in a corn field – nothing much grows after canopy closure anyway but

    http://www.spectrumseed.com/herbicides

    provides post-emergence herbicides for corn

    http://www.btny.purdue.edu/weedscience/2009/nonGMO09.pdf

    for soy.

    Farmers, it may not surprise you to know, don’t particularly want weeds in their fields – while in-field plants are certainly a bonus to various insects and such it has been a practice in farming, since farming was a thing, to kill the crap out of weeds as much as one can – blaming this on GMOs and glyphosate use in general seems rather odd to me. Effective weed control, I would assume, will always have a local effect on pollinator species, there is no getting around this at all (thus if you stand by disliking any system that does so then there is no shifting you although perhaps

    http://www.bioone.org/doi/pdf/10.1603/0046-225X-32.2.407

    is rather suggestive that arthropod populations in transgenic vs non transgenic fields aren’t overly different (because, I would assume, weed control in a non-transgenic field is still pretty bloody good, just not as easy))

  39. Steve LaBonne says

    Idiotic twaddle about “frankenfoods” really pisses me off too, but the fact that GMOs massively enable monoculture and Monsanto (I’m not impressed by the attempts to argue the contrary) strike me as quite sufficient reason to be suspicious of them. For that reason I prefer to avoid them, so I certainly want to see labeling laws that would enable me to do so.

  40. gingerbaker says

    What is the best argument that Gm can be potentially dangerous to animals?

    I recall reading somewhere that typically, or at least often, what is being added to a genome is not a simple genetic insertion, but might also include other active factors, modifiers which might have downstream effects?

    I don’t remember any specifics, but I do remember being surprised that there is a lot more going on than a simple or small change to the DNA – control genes, etc were also involved?

  41. brett says

    It’s a pity GMO crops are predominantly used to keep monoculture farming going longer, because it would be fascinating to try them out in a multi-crop setting. We know that some plants grow well together, and I think it would be a good idea to see if you could make two or more crops where the “complementary” aspect is enhanced, so they build off of each other while also having the diversity that will make them more resistant to pests and blights.

    The only downside for multi-crop farming is that it tends to be much more labor-intensive, which makes it more expensive in this country unless you bring in a lot of migrant workers willing to work low wages (which they’ve already done, but you’d need a lot more), or you get cracking on the Farm Robots.

  42. gussnarp says

    @Ewan R. –
    I don’t want to sit here and play the anti-GM voice, because that’s not who I am or what I believe. But I keep seeming to articulate things in a way that’s letting you make new arguments against mine without, in my opinion, getting really at the substance of it. That’s obviously partly because you’re far more of an expert here than I, but I think it’s also a lack of clarity on my part, and I do want to be clear, so I’m going to go ahead and give this one more shot:

    Obviously farmers want to kill weeds. Obviously I don’t oppose any and all killing of weeds. But it seems there has always been some number of weeds that survived all attempts to kill them. But there can only be two reasons to plant roundup ready crops. One is that roundup application on those crops is cheaper than any equally effective approach. The other is that roundup is more effective than any other application. If it’s the latter, then it could be a problem and it’s reasonable to ask if that improvement is worth the possible cost, something we just haven’t had cause to ask in the past because it hasn’t been as effective. Or possibly, it could well be any herbicide and the problem has more to do with total land committed to crops and effectively treated, in which case you’d be right and any attribution to GM crops and roundup use would be off base.

    I’m not sure I accept a study of a few insects in a few fields as demonstrating the total ecological (and this time I think I’m using the right term) effect of broad use of particular herbicides. I would be curious, since I can only read the abstract, what the 15 species were, but still, that study’s just a start. A promising one, but a larger body of evidence is needed.

    You might also reconsider using the “after canopy closure” argument. I’ll accept that there are herbicides that can be applied to growing corn and other crops, but I didn’t say anything about canopy closure and that takes a long time, during which roundup would kill the corn plant along with the weeds if it’s not roundup ready. So it reads to me as a deflection from the point.

    I’ll let the monoculture stuff stand. At least we’re largely talking about the same thing now, though I’m not sure about the methods of analysis that would ultimately be appropriate to quantifying this in the right way.

  43. methuseus says

    Another reason that things like wildflowers and milkweeds aren’t as available is that there are so many huge factory farms that encompass even hundreds of what were family farms 50 or so years ago. You’d have plenty of milkweed and wildflowers in the spaces between the different family farms. Now there are so many fewer delineations that there’s none of the fallow in-between spaces any more. These spaces also helped hold soil around as well.

  44. unclefrogy says

    I have to go and try to make money so I wanted to say something now before I read the whole thread.
    One of the main driving forces behind the growth in GMO crops is the patented ability. The farmer is not allowed to retain seeds from year to year he is forced to buy seed every year from the producer and holder of the patent
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/14/business/monsanto-victorious-in-genetic-seed-case.html?_r=0
    The push GMO crops by agribusiness has little to do with feeding the hungry as practiced and everything to do with monopoly control of markets by agribusiness interests
    everyone involved directly knows this, it is the public at large that is not aware of the real purpose and practice. Mono crops and crop supports and patents where dose the money go?

    uncle frogy

  45. kalirren says

    One of the benefits known to be associated with GMO adoption that hasn’t been mentioned in this thread yet is that herbicide use can enable successful no-till and low-till farming practices. GMO adoption facilitates herbicide use, and thus has an important erosion control cobenefit.
    In the United States, 12% of corn and 32% of soybeans are under no-till management, while only 3% of wheat is.
    In Argentina also, the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans has synergized well with adoption of no-till farming practices.

  46. Jennifer Sanders says

    Ewan;

    Did you read my link? Yes, it IS done in the lab. It didn’t start that way, to be sure. But it is now, because the old way of fucking over humanity is a little too slow, apparently. You don’t cross sunflowers and endive in a field.

    Moreover, as people have been saying over and over in this thread, the real problem with GMOs is the social context of their use; that is controlled by excessively powerful companies – both in terms of legal/government support and economic power (hard to separate!) – .who are patently (ha!) using them to control access to agriculture and food.

    There are real issues to be dealt with about the intersection of economic and ecological efficiencies, but Monsanto, it’s subsidiaries and competitors are making it very, very clear they are not interested in dealing with them or letting anyone else deal with them.

    Basically, what Irisvanderpluym said.

  47. Ewan R says

    Gussnarp#49

    . But it seems there has always been some number of weeds that survived all attempts to kill them.

    I’m not convinced this is the case – it’d need a serious look, given that RR doesn’t have a significant yield advantage in the US (from recollection) one can only assume that weed control is approximately the same in traited vs non-traited fields (other herbicides are incredibly effective aswell, it’s not like roundup is particularly magic on a plant to plant basis, it is however incredibly broad spectrum and thus useful against pretty much everything) – where weed control is optimum you’re going to probably impact pollinators quite a bit, but *any* farming method (particularly of corn which doesn’t flower in a manner amenable to insects) is going to have some impact, and I’m not convinced there is a good argument that RR is worse or better than other herbicides with particular respect to pollinators. In this case I’d have to ask that you provide evidence that it does (as all I managed in my cursory search was evidence on non-impact on arthropods)

    ne is that roundup application on those crops is cheaper than any equally effective approach. The other is that roundup is more effective than any other application.

    I’m pretty sure it’s the former – one has to spray fewer times and spend less time scouting weeds – it buys the farmer time (adopters of GM crops are more likely, for instance, to have off the farm jobs, it is assumed because the method reduces the need to do much)

    but I didn’t say anything about canopy closure and that takes a long time, during which roundup would kill the corn plant along with the weeds if it’s not roundup ready. So it reads to me as a deflection from the point.

    I’d assume that pre-emergence herbicides probably control weed growth pre canopy closure. These are widely used in GM and non-GM situations. I was merely making a bit of a point about corn and weeds (they are, categorically, more of an issue in soy/cotton anyway because of competition for light)

    Unclefrogy#51

    One of the main driving forces behind the growth in GMO crops is the patented ability.
    That is probably the main reason any company invests research dollars in them, for sure, but the driving force behind the growth is bugger all to do with patentability and everything to do with utility for the end user. If they weren’t patentable nobody would go to the enormous expense of getting them deregulated, but assuming somehow the trait still made it to market – there is no reason to think it’d be any less ubiquitous, one might argue it’d be more so given that it’d no longer be tied to a given company.

    Mono crops and crop supports and patents where dose the money go?

    To the inventors of the traits, the breeders of the crops and the farmers who plant the seeds. If the farmers did not profit from the use of the traits… they wouldn’t use them.

  48. memsomerville says

    Actually, on St. Patrick’s Day, let’s see what the Irish say about potato varieties before the blight, in the “Historical varieties” PDF:

    The potato began to diversify into varieties as its cultivation spread. In 1785, Marshall complained of the indiscriminate raising of seedlings and described the varieties extant as ‘endless’….Of the many pre-famine varieties which undoubtedly existed, few have survived to the present day. Some of the varieties most cultivated in Ireland during this period included: Blacks; Yellows; Cluster; Irish Apple; Red Nose Kidney (syn. Wicklow Banger); Cork Red; Lumper and Cups….

    http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/farmingsectors/crops/seedcertification/topspotatocentre/ They have 400 varieties. They are also working on a blight-resistant potato, which, if successful, could help save all of the ones that aren’t resistant if they can transfer the genes. It would be a major conservation win, in fact. You could grow the currently susceptible ones, while also reducing the dozen sprays of fungicide each season that farmers currently rely on for the commercial potatoes. Diversity improves all around.

    According to Charles Mann in the book 1493, what likely brought the blight was the organic fertilizer shipments from South America. Used to be a huge trade in guano. Nobody blames organic fertilizer though.

    I’m told there’s actually less genetic diversity in tomato (which are not GMO) than in the corn we use. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/case-against-heirloom-tomatoes/

    Here’s a related funny herbicide story: Chipotle is dumping soybean oil because it’s GMO, right? What are they using–herbicide-tolerant sunflowers. How’s that non-GMO and labeling working out? Yeah. You get more ALS herbicide use, which has a worse weed problem. Good choice, Chipotle. http://storify.com/mem_somerville/gmos-herbicides-and-chipotle

  49. unclefrogy says

    the reasons for using any particular plant over any other are many for each farmer . It may not be just simply yield alone but will include yield against the total cost of production. While the net profit may be positive short term the risks may not be beneficial long term. The short term transition costs to a more sustainable system may be too high versus such fixed costs as debt service.
    I have heard good things from those who have made the transition afterward but the transition can be difficult. The decisions made by large corporate farms may not be as influenced by long term sustainability as much as quarterly and yearly profit.
    When in my opinion the focus should be on the health of the land to include the total environment and not on short term yearly profit alone. You can’t eat money.
    there are risks in mono crops even in severely reduced genetic variation may increase the exposure to those risks.
    when you reduce the reasons to do things to profit above all else you find yourself box in

    uncle frogy

  50. Ewan R says

    SC #58

    because it’s as clear an indication as any of the chemical-biotech corporations’ interest in science-based solutions to hunger, malnutrition, and sustainability.

    One might be inclined to point out that chemical-biotech corporations give away their patented technology to endeavors such as golden rice as a counter to this. (as for a clear indication, and this in no way negates the actual content of the piece… ouch my poor eyes)

    (Do not worry, I take the fuck off as a given, so we can, of course, skip the formalities (hopefully we can avoid rehashing old ground though, I shall make every effort to stay off your lawn))

  51. says

    Ewan R

    One might be inclined to point out that chemical-biotech corporations give away their patented technology to endeavors such as golden rice as a counter to this.)

    Fuck you. No apologies, fuck you and the horse you rode in on. The vaunted fucking ‘charity’ to which your precious corporations devote some minuscule fraction of a percent of the loot from their profiteering doesn’t compensate for one ten millionth of the devastation, poverty and death they cause by their day-to-day operations (not limited to Monsanto, but they’re certainly a part of it.)

  52. says

    Same author, pretty much the same content,

    No, different authors and content:

    Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson

    Note: An excellent complementary piece, from one of the IAASTD authors, is:
    The IAASTD report and some of its fallout – a personal note By Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zurich, Institute of Integrative Biology, Zurich, Switzerland

    ***

    (Do not worry, I take the fuck off as a given, so we can, of course, skip the formalities (hopefully we can avoid rehashing old ground though,

    Efficiency is good. :) I’m backing off anyway seeing as you’re a fellow vegan now, I’m on my way out shortly, and I think I’ve made my major point.

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone.

  53. says

    The problem isn’t GMOs.

    The problem is IP law.
    Until IP law is fixed radically (and it probably never will be) then GMO are not going to be used to solve any problems except “how can we maximize profits?”

    Call me crazy, but the motive to maximize profits and parcel out perpetual “ownership” of foodstuffs right down to it being illegal to reuse seed… is not something I think is going to help hunger or nutrition.

  54. Anri says

    Everyone here knows that in the real world, (at least in the US), farmers rarely actually reuse seed, right?

    I mean, you all know that, I assume?

    Hybrid seed, GM or not, doesn’t breed true. As an erroneous generality you lose about 30% of whatever trait you bought it for with every successive generation.
    (Not to mention, you have company guarantees when you buy new seed – no more than a certain % of other stuff, etc. Not so if you collect and save your own).
    Buying new seed each year is not a GM thing, nor a Monsanto thing, it’s an industrialized agriculture thing. Been around for quite a while now.

    Also – and I’m pretty sure you guys know this as well, right – you don’t have to buy seed. You don’t have to sign a single seed agreement… unless, of course, you want the seeds that the companies produce.
    I guess the question you should be asking yourself, if you oppose this practice is why farmers are so stupid (or immoral).
    Seriously.
    Monsanto, DuPont, and the other seed companies can’t sell what people don’t buy.

    If you think living things shouldn’t be patented, well, that’s an arguable point. But not thinking patents should be enforceable?
    PZ wrote a book. I bought a copy.
    Do I now have the right to reproduce it and sell it myself?

  55. Anri says

    This seems to be a classic Catch-22, in some ways.
    Clearly, large corporations shouldn’t be allowed to muck about with powerful technology without substantial oversight. Unfortunately, that is one of the aspects of GM crop creation being a multi-million dollar, decade long (I think the typical time is 7-13 years) gamble – along with public perception of GM crops in general.
    There just aren’t many garage startups that can handle that kind of capital investment situation.

    Also, I neglected to say this last time (now, with sleep, thinking is slightly better!)

    I do not work for Monsanto, but I do work at Monsanto, I’m a tech contractor at one of their facilities. I am certainly not empowered or authorized to have anything like an opinion by my job – my views here are my own.

  56. gussnarp says

    @memsomerville, @ Ewan R –

    Just wanted to pop back into this thread to say you make a strong case. I’m OK with GM on principle already, I’m curious now, especially about the interviews I’ve heard where entomologists have blamed GM for some portion of colony collapse and for monarch population problems. It’s very possible those scientists were making assumptions without evidence. I’m still not sold on Monsanto, or how or why we’re using these crops, but if carbon output, water use, and total toxic chemical use can be dramatically reduced, and impact on insects is far more minimal than I’ve been led to believe, then the analysis shifts in favor of GM.

    Of course, everything would be much better off if we ate less meat, especially cows. I won’t weigh in on whether they should graze on grass more and eat less corn as I’m even more out of my depth on that issue!

  57. Ewan R says

    I’ve heard where entomologists have blamed GM for some portion of colony collapse and for monarch population problems.

    I have to admit the only link between GMOs and colony collapse I’ve seen have generally been relatively crackpot claims rather than anything solid – it still is not entirely understood but GMOs currently in use have, so far as I am aware, been discarded as being a possible causative factor (for one thing, as far as I’ve seen (which given my above inability to distinguish between articles written by utterly different authors (I blame the formatting!!) may not be particularly far past the end of my own nose) CCD has effects in both areas that use, and do not use GMOs) – Monarch issues is a bit of an interesting one – the first wave of GMO killing monarchs (Bt pollen impacting them, I believe) has been throroughly debunked – another current issue is an apparent declining population – this is being blamed in part on reduced milkweed population, which is due to weed control, which is predominantly done in soy and corn with roundup – looking at the literature this appears to hold up – glyphosate does a better job of controlling milkweed (at least according to 2 papers I looked at) than previously used methods (although I don’t see a comparison of HT to non HT acres regarding milkweed populations) and while the average milkweed population in soy/corn was pretty low compared to other habitats (roadsides and the like) the overall acreage of corn and soy production overwhelms this making it such that the ~9M hectares of corn production in Iowa accounts for just slightly less milkweed than the 330,000 hectares of roadway milkweed (pre-HT) – it must also be taken into account that corn and soy acreage has increased drastically at the expense of pasture land and such (although the abundance on pastureland is actually lower than corn anyway, approximately equivalent to soy (one presumes because you have to do better control in soy due to the size of the plants etc)) – a third paper estimates that corn and soy fields in 2000 accounted for approximately 78 times more Monarch butterflies than did non-agricultural sources – so this removal of habitat may well have resulted in a population decline (one rather hopes that said decline is to a level sustainable on habitat still available, and that every effort is made to maintain this habitat and expand upon it with conservation programs and the like (if one lives in the midwest one might do well to check regulations about growing milkweed (it may be considered invasive and thus be illegal to grow) and do the world some good by growing milkweed this year rather than say, $15 tomatoes (any home gardeners (who suck at it as bad as I do) should know what I mean there…))

  58. memsomerville says

    For people who are interested in the IAASTD, you should know that it was incomplete. I’ve seen it described as “ideological green-washing”. This piece is paywalled unfortunately, but here’s a tidbit:

    Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, is skeptical. It’s a document that has much less scientific credibility than does IPCC, he says. By being so inclusive, it ended up more a collection of opinions than an incisive summary of the scientific literature. And because its scope is so broad, the assessment doesn’t offer targeted analyses for particular problems. You end up with [platitudes] such as Small farmers need to be supported, says Emmy Simmons, an agricultural development consultant who retired from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2005.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/319/5869/1474.full

    This one is not walled: “Off the rails” http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n3/full/nbt0308-247.html

    This one is open: “Why the IAASTD Failed” http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2008/11/why-iaastd-failed.html

  59. says

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2014/03/rootworm-resistance-bt-corn/

    Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

    One of agricultural biotechnology’s great success stories may become a cautionary tale of how short-sighted mismanagement can squander the benefits of genetic modification.

    After years of predicting it would happen — and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators — scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to Bt corn.

    Until Bt corn was genetically altered to be poisonous to the pests, rootworms used to cause billions of dollars in damage to U.S. crops. Named for the pesticidal toxin-producing Bacillus thuringiensis gene it contains, Bt corn now accounts for three-quarters of the U.S. corn crop. The vulnerability of this corn could be disastrous for farmers and the environment.

    “Unless management practices change, it’s only going to get worse,” said Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State University entomologist and co-author of a March 17 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study describing rootworm resistance. “There needs to be a fundamental change in how the technology is used.”

  60. says

    For people who are interested in the IAASTD, you should know that it was incomplete. I’ve seen it described as “ideological green-washing”.

    Well, if you’ve seen it described that way I guess the matter is settled. Pretty sad when this is what you have in response to such a report.

    Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, is skeptical.

    Paarlberg is an ideologue and his books are as ideological as you can get.

    It’s a document that has much less scientific credibility than does IPCC, he says.

    Of course he does. So we have Paarlberg’s “skepticism” against a process that “lasted 3 years and involved over 400 experts and over 100 countries.”

    By being so inclusive, it ended up more a collection of opinions than an incisive summary of the scientific literature. And because its scope is so broad, the assessment doesn’t offer targeted analyses for particular problems.

    So it’s both incomplete and too inclusive. Makes perfect sense.

    You end up with [platitudes] such as Small farmers need to be supported,

    That’s not a platitude. It’s a policy conclusion – one of many – drawn from the evidence.

    says Emmy Simmons, an agricultural development consultant who retired from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2005.

    A former USAID consultant – another completely objective source. Again, this looks a lot like the responses to the IPCC from AGW denialists. This is even more clear if you read the piece I linked to:

    In these media reports, the industry states that the Report failed to ‘adequately reflect the role of modern science and technology, in particular our own industry’s technologies’ (e.g. Minigh 2008; but also Keith 2008) going on to claiming that ‘the scientific facts, were not maintained and highlighted’, the ‘stringent testing and regulatory frameworks’ not properly acknowledged, and ‘claims not supported by the evidence’ (Keith 2008). That is, for one, not true and everybody can see that for her- and himself once the Report is published in fall of 2008. But, secondly, even if ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ had been missing, the industries had more than 3 years time to bring them forward. ‘Scientific facts’ are easy to correct and could have easily been added. However, I cannot recall a single discussion verbally or in writing with Deborah Keith, Syngenta, who overall preferred not to engage in any discussion with us at all and also did not deliver the promised drafts (Heinemann 2008). We learned of her thinking the first time from the article she wrote in the New Scientist in March 2008 (Keith 2008). In reality, the evidence is all in the Report. The process, the review editors and Bob Watson himself would not allow for statements that couldn’t be supported by evidence. And any possibly missed additional paper is not going to make any difference in the overall outcome or conclusions of the experts which we had the task to capture in the Synthesis Report (Heinemann 2008). There just isn’t any meaningful key evidence missing.

    In their defense, the corporations were probably too busy stalking and trying to isolate and intimidate biologists to contribute.

  61. Ewan R says

    Paarlberg is an ideologue and his books are as ideological as you can get.

    Jack Heinemann is an ideologue also. Vehemently anti-GMO and scientifically fraudulent (or incompetent, I guess) about it.

    Angelika Hilbeck would appear to be pretty ideolguey (it’s a word!) also – she’s a member of the scientific council for CRIIGEN… which um, yeah… wow.

    If I were asked to work with these two, I’m pretty sure I’d declare it pointless and quit also. It surprises me that the IAASTD report wasn’t more damning given the authorship, one assumes the remaining two kept the crazy down to a dull roar.