Crusaders against GMOs

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on Vandana Shiva, a crusader against GMO crops. I'd never heard of her before, but apparently she has charisma and cult-like followers who hang on her every word, and her word is a rather religious opposition to scientific agriculture. Weirdly, I can agree with some of it.

At each stop, Shiva delivered a message that she has honed for nearly three decades: by engineering, patenting, and transforming seeds into costly packets of intellectual property, multinational corporations such as Monsanto, with considerable assistance from the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United States government, and even philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are attempting to impose “food totalitarianism” on the world. She describes the fight against agricultural biotechnology as a global war against a few giant seed companies on behalf of the billions of farmers who depend on what they themselves grow to survive.

But that has nothing to do with GMOs. I agree that a lot of corporate agriculture is bad for us in the long run; I think the purely capitalistic drive of the major agricultural corporations is damaging. I live smack in the middle of Monsanto-land, and I see this all around me.

Shiva, along with a growing army of supporters, argues that the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth’s resources. She promotes, as most knowledgeable farmers do, more diversity in crops, greater care for the soil, and more support for people who work the land every day. Shiva has particular contempt for farmers who plant monocultures—vast fields of a single crop. “They are ruining the planet,” she told me. “They are destroying this beautiful world.”

The rivers around here are thick with fertilizers and pesticides. I drove through endless fields of corn, corn, corn this weekend...well, they were corn. Now they're plowed over, and the naked earth is left bare to receive the rain and snow and Minnesota topsoil will become Caribbean silt, because there is no incentive to maintain and preserve. And when the farmers plant, they will happily accept subsidies to plant nothing but corn, and corn tailored to produce ethanol, no less.

I have a lot of respect for the small family farmers who produce a variety of foods -- the kind of folk who show up at our farmer's market. But there's also a lot of semi-industrial farming going on, land bought up by gigantic corporations that then lease it to farmers who raise what they're told to raise, to maximize profits.

So I sympathize. But I think there's a confusion of issues, of the problem with corporate domination of the agricultural sector with the scientific improvement of our crops. The latter is necessary. This is nonsense:

“We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of the farmers and gardeners and the land was in the hands of the farmers,” she said. “They want to take that away.”

The problem there is that with more than 7 billion people on the planet, we need to optimize production. Small traditional farms using traditional methods using genetically unmodified seed stock is a formula for starvation. She's completely wrong there. The world would go hungry if we followed her recipe.

Again, this is not to say that there aren't huge problems with the current model. A heck of a lot of the farmland in Minnesota is dedicated not to food, but to making alcohol, inefficiently. Or to producing high fructose corn syrup. But this is going too far:

For her part, Shiva insists that the only acceptable path is to return to the principles and practices of an earlier era. “Fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture,” she said in a 2011 speech. “I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like war, because it came from war.”

Madness. No fertilizers equals billions of dead people. If your goal is to reduce the human footprint on the planet by any means necessary, that's a good strategy -- I'd rather do it with education and contraception, rather than starving people to death, though.

But Shiva is backed by two indisputable authorities: God and Prince Charles. How can you argue with that?

Like Gandhi, whom she reveres, Shiva questions many of the goals of contemporary civilization. Last year, Prince Charles, who keeps a bust of Shiva on display at Highgrove, his family house, visited her at the Navdanya farm, in Dehradun, about a hundred and fifty miles north of New Delhi. Charles, perhaps the world’s best-known critic of modern life, has for years denounced transgenic crops. “This kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone,” he wrote in the nineteen-nineties, when Monsanto tried to sell its genetically engineered seeds in Europe. Shiva, too, invokes religion in her assault on agricultural biotechnology. “G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,” she said in a speech earlier this year. Navdanya does not report its contributions publicly, but, according to a recent Indian government report, foreign N.G.O.s have contributed significantly in the past decade to help the campaign against adoption of G.M.O.s in India. In June, the government banned most such contributions. Shiva, who was named in the report, called it “an attack on civil society,” and biased in favor of foreign corporations.

I thought this remark was particularly telling, though.

Shiva also says that Monsanto’s patents prevent poor people from saving seeds. That is not the case in India. The Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 guarantees every person the right to “save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share, or sell” his seeds. Most farmers, though, even those with tiny fields, choose to buy newly bred seeds each year, whether genetically engineered or not, because they insure better yields and bigger profits.

Yes, exactly! GMO crops work better. Even without a corporate lock on their use, farmers prefer to use seed that produces a higher yield. That's the bottom line: do you want more acreage dedicated to less efficient crops, or reduced acreage producing a surplus?

Furthermore, GMOs actually reduce the use of those "chemicals" so hated by the anti-GMO contingent. This excellent debunking of anti-GMO bias points out that extensive use of GMO crops leads to a significant reduction in the use of pesticides. That's a good thing, right?


I just wish these arguments could dwell in the land of reason and evidence -- too often they don't.

Shiva and other opponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that the higher cost of patented seeds, produced by giant corporations, prevents poor farmers from sowing them in their fields. And they worry that pollen from genetically engineered crops will drift into the wild, altering plant ecosystems forever. Many people, however, raise an even more fundamental objection: crossing varieties and growing them in fields is one thing, but using a gene gun to fire a bacterium into seeds seems like a violation of the rules of life.

The first part, yes -- let's discuss strategies to break agriculture free of the tyranny of short-term capitalist gain. But the last is simply silly and irrelevant and not fit for consideration. Every crop plant we raise has been radically modified from its original, "natural" state by cruel domestication and mutation and selection. Modern techniques for making directed change to plant genetics are not a "violation of the rules of life", as if there are such things.


More like this

As SciBlogs resident cowgirl/GMO-shill, I feel an obligation to post a response to a few posts up at 'Whats New In Life Science Research' (Jan 8 through today). I dont want to start a blag-fight, I just want to correct some of their errors and start a conversation (LOL! BLAG FIGHT! BLAG FIGHT!)…
The journalist Marc Gunther recently posted a thoughtful article discussing public perceptions of the role of organic agriculture in a future sustainable food system. He found that many consumers believe that there are only two ways to produce food: "The first can be described, depending upon who…
The number of people on Earth is expected to shoot up from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and farm workers will be…
According to the best available research, we are going to have to double food supplies, globally, by 2050. Think about that for a moment. Children born today will be in their 40s at a time that we need to have already doubled food production, yet during the last 20 years we have seen only a 20…

and excellent summer that is in the tangled thicket. i hope this gets the discussion going, or at least makes strides in the right direction.

By Stirling Newberry (not verified) on 25 Aug 2014 #permalink

Seems to me that both of you have some good points and some weak points (occasionally shared, e.g., the tendency to think that the question of what varieties should be grown can be conflated with the question of how they should be grown). With regard to yours, some GMOs reduce spraying of chemicals, but those that are resistant to herbicides make it feasible for farmers to lay down heavier doses of Roundup than ever. And it's not always clear that GMOs improve yield: India, where Vandana Shiva hails from, has had many suicides by cotton farmers who went into debt buying expensive seeds and the greater chemical inputs they require, then found that the additional yields, if any, weren't enough to pay off the debts. There are legal restrictions on the conduct and publication of comparative tests using patented plants without manufacturer permission, so while some GMOs are clearly worth their price, farmers may not be able to find unbiased information on exactly how much yield improvement might be expected.

As for farming methods, there's a difference between "no artificial fertilizers" and "no fertilizers", which Shiva's original comment also blurred. Since organic production at its best can beat mechanized agriculture in terms of total nutrition per acre (at a cost of more human labor), it's no more necessarily true, as we are often told, that "billions would staaaarve" if the world went organic than it was true that the Chinese would starve en masse in the 1970s, as Paul Ehrlich claimed. And that's fortunate, because Business as Usual agriculture is not sustainable. Take nitrogen. We have substantially affected the earth's nitrogen cycle by manufacturing gigantic amounts of nitrogen fertilizer that, because it's so cheap and lightweight, is applied very freely. Right now, this just means that the Gulf of Mexico and people who get drinking water from the Great Lakes may be poisoned. But in future, it will become harder to afford, because the process also consumes natural gas. While natural gas is still plentiful, the limits on supply of oil will increase demand and hence cost, and eventually the supply of economically extractable gas will itself peak and decline. At some point, flushing the nutrients in our waste into the ocean then scrambling around the world trying to grab the last concentrated sources of fossil fuels, phosphorus, and the like is going to be an irrational strategy.

Animals multiply up to the limits of their food supply, and then die back to the level the food supply will support. Humans do not get an exemption.

If there are approx. 1.5 billion humans living in hunger right now, that means the world can adequately feed 5.5 billion humans, not 7 billion. Whether the shortfall is in actual production or in equitable distribution is irrelevant: the results are what count and they are the same. A world of 9 billion that can adequately feed 7 billion is no better, and in fact demonstrably worse since all of our other ecological impacts increase.

GMOs are not the problem, and anti-GMO crusaders are wasting their efforts chasing a shiny distraction. GMOs are not causing climate change, though mega-agriculture arguably contributes in various ways.

The root source of the problem is the assumption of _growth_, which ultimately translates to the belief that you can map an infinite plane to the surface of a Euclidean solid. Stated that way, the absurdity of growthism is obvious.

One way or another we will have to face this fact: the only way to avoid destroying the Earth's capacity to support human life is through the conversion to _steady-state_ economics and a _lower_ population. One way or another we will get there. The only question is whether we get there through equality for women and economic security for all (which together reduce the birth rate to sustainable levels), or whether we get there through a dieoff that will also take civilization down with it.

“The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) says that expected planting of new 2,4D-resistant seeds could prompt a nearly 300 to 700 percent increase in use of 2,4D by 2020. This is not a hyperbolic projection. According to the USDA, Between 1997 and 2014, the acreage planted in glyphosate-resistant soybeans rose from about 10 to 94 percent; glyphosate-resistant corn from about 10 to 89 percent; and cotton from about 10 to 91 percent of all such crops planted in the US. At the same time, glyphosate use climbed at a similarly steep rate.”…

Also, there was a paper recently published which pointed out that GM crops aren't particularly productive in many cases, and worse, they are responsible for a massive reduction in genetic diversity which carries the risk of massive global crop failures in the future.…

The potential benefits of GM are completely irrelevant when the commercial reality of the corporatisation of our agriculture is proving to be so massively detrimental.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 25 Aug 2014 #permalink

..."Many people, however, raise an even more fundamental objection: crossing varieties and growing them in fields is one thing, but using a gene gun to fire a bacterium into seeds seems like a violation of the rules of life."

The first part, yes — let’s discuss strategies to break agriculture free of the tyranny of short-term capitalist gain. But the last [E.N. See citationabove] is simply silly and irrelevant and not fit for consideration. Every crop plant we raise has been radically modified from its original, “natural” state by cruel domestication and mutation and selection. Modern techniques for making directed change to plant genetics are not a “violation of the rules of life”, as if there are such things.

Thus goes the standard argument I hear again and again. But you don't distinguish between qualitative differences in risks --risks which differ by their inherent characteristics as well as by the magnitude of their potentials for harm which your scientific mind--if it were working properly--would tell you are separated by many orders of magnitude. Nor do you recognize openly a difference between those risks to human life which are an inevitable aspect of a wider and prior nature-given set circumstances in natural selection and those which are entirely optional aspects of human-choice driven selective interventions.

It very much seems that you would have us place pre-historic animal husbandry and plant cultivation on a technical and a moral par with what is done by Monsanto and Dow Chemical companies. We having nothing but your good word for how and why this parity is valid and morally sound or for your flat assertion that " Modern techniques for making directed change to plant genetics are not a 'violation of the rules of life,' as if there are such things " and for dismissing the opposing view as "silly, irrelevant and not fit for consideration."

By proximity1 (not verified) on 26 Aug 2014 #permalink

@Proximity1> Thank you for providing my opinion, better written.

Respect to you, hope for PZ.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 26 Aug 2014 #permalink

Craig Thomas: GMOs are not to blame for loss of biodiversity. Industrialized agriculture was already doing that around the time the double helix was first discovered. If all GMOs were completely banned and eradicated, industrial agriculture would continue to reduce biodiversity.

proximity1: Unnatural risks are inherently worse than natural ones? Tell me, do you wash your hands? Do you drink clean water from a bottle, filter or tap, or do you drink untreated lake water, complete with animal poop?

There are so many other things we're doing to the planet which are orders of magnitude more likely to produce ecological catastrophe, worrying about GMOs is utterly absurd. Worry about global warming, which is by all evidence probably happening. Worry about clean water supplies in prime agricultural regions like California's central valley. Worry about the effects of your actions, not the tools you use to accomplish them.

By Young CC Prof (not verified) on 26 Aug 2014 #permalink

Young CC Prof - Though you strawmanned proximity1 pretty blatantly there, your implication that the direct human health risks of GMOs are minute in comparison to those of climate change is no doubt correct. However, people may reasonably worry about GMOs for the same reason they worry about water supplies in California: Current practices are not sustainable in the long term, and GMOs both demand those practices and encourage their escalation, thereby discouraging the development of more sustainable methods.

We create Roundup-resistant GMOs so we can dump more and more Roundup to kill off the weeds that would otherwise infest monocultures. This means that the weeds evolve Roundup resistance faster, so, as the Pump Handle reports, we now have to start adding 2,4-D resistance to the GMOs so we can hose them with more of that too. Presumably the same weeds will become resistant to 2,4-D as well, while other rarer and more vulnerable species in the area may go the way of honeybees hosed with neonicotinoids. Eventually, either you lose the ability to kill the weeds and, since you've put all your eggs in the basket of chemical control, your yields plummet, or else you have to start spreading poison in quantities so great that the cancers and Parkinson's disease will no longer be limited to poor farm workers who don't count.

It's not clear to me that herbicide resistance has enabled farmers to use more herbicides per crop. There are more acres under cultivation now in part due to ethanol subsidies and so total volume of herbicide use has gone up.

For example, without any genetically engineered resistance traits in a crop a farmer may use Roundup as a burn-down treatment before planting. Kill all the weeds, then plant.

But there remains the problem of those weeds that emerge along with or after your crop. Now you have to switch to tilling to control the weeds.

It may be possible that only one application is really needed, and that if you have a resistance trait you can apply it post-emergence. Once your crop gets tall enough it will shade out competitors. So herbicide resistance can enable delayed application of the same volume of herbicide. It also facilitates no-till agricultural practices that have their own set of benefits (less soil lost to erosion means cleaner water downstream and better soil for the crops to grow in).

There's the separate practice of dry-down herbicide application, but there you could only use Roundup if your crop were *not* engineered to be resistant to it (basically right before harvest you'd spray all your wheat or other non-GMO crop with Roundup to deliberately kill it so it will dry out for easier harvest).

I generally like Brian Scott's blog for learning about practices associated with GMO and conventional ag. This one touches on some issues of glyphosate:…

Note that 2,4-D has been used commercially longer than any other herbicide, since right after WWII. The reason for stacking traits of glyphosate and 2,4-D resistance is to decrease the likelihood of selecting resistant weeds (to pass on genes for survival weeds now need resistance to both).

The most important point to keep in mind is that all forms of weed removal have potential to act as selective force. Hand weeding produces Vavilovian Mimics where weeds develop to look like food crops so the farmer won't recognize them (Vavilov's story is fascinating and worth looking up btw). Tilling might be the best method as far as resistance goes, but the other associated costs are great.

The idea of spreading greater volumes of herbicide to kill resistant weeds is mostly wrong. Once the resistance evolves, more isn't a solution. More of the same antibiotic won't kill resistant bacteria so we switch to a different type.

If you can accept that all forms of weed management breed resistance of some sort (including mimicry) then the criticisms of GMO shift. For weed control it's better to use a combination of different herbicides alongside other management strategies (cover crops, rotation).

By Mike Lewinski (not verified) on 26 Aug 2014 #permalink

@ 8 :
"Unnatural risks are inherently worse than natural ones?"

No, not inherently. Fortunately, I never claimed this. But I think your comment is intended to blur the real distinction I make--and which you must have grasped, or else you'd not have felt inclined to try and blur it: By "natural risks" you mean, I understand, what I have referred to as those risks which are not optional, those which are an inevitable part of our living environment, such as the unpredictable potential hazards for human life of naturally-occuring selection-reproduction's mutations in living organisms. By "unnatural risks" I understand you to mean those risks which originate in humanly-chosen interventions and uses of genetic mutations. I include in that term the interventions that some argue "can't be helped" due to the fact that there are now an estimated at 7.185 billion people "living" on Earth. Those risks, whether their potential for catastrophe be greater or lesser, differ from the natural ones in that they are--or ought to be seen as-- elective.

"Tell me, do you wash your hands?"
The very first thing upon coming in from the outside polluted world, yes. And I use soap and hot water whenever possible.

"Do you drink clean water from a bottle, filter or tap, or do you drink untreated lake water, complete with animal poop?"

The former. Once upon a time, people, even modern and technologically-informed people, rather than simply primitive natives who have neither knowledge of nor an alternative to the potential risks of polluted (untreated) natural-water sources, could safely drink untreated lake water. Modern technology and the views and assumptions which you promote, having driven and excused it, have now made drinking untreated lake water a risky and unwise practice practically or even literallly everywhere on the planet.

Your point?
I suppose it's somewhere in the following:

"There are so many other things we’re doing to the planet which are orders of magnitude more likely to produce ecological catastrophe, worrying about GMOs is utterly absurd." (emphasis added)

With all the respect you may be due, you neither know nor can possibly know this for a fact. At most, this is your unsupported assumption about the world. The essential part in your error is your assertion of "more likely"--so I added emphasis to that. Since you haven't and can't calculate the real potential harms of these GMOs--since they are simply unknown and unknowable in advance, your assertion is false on its face.

"Worry about global warming, which is by all evidence probably happening."

I do and I find I can "do both" without straining.

"Worry about clean water supplies in prime agricultural regions like California’s central valley."

Yes, well, see my point just above.

"Worry about the effects of your actions, not the tools you use to accomplish them."

If you think that there is a clear and useful distinction there--between "the effects of (one's) actions" on the one hand and, on the other hand, "the tools (one uses) to accomplish them," I think you expose more of your faulty reasoning. I'm worried about the planet's natural environment, yes. But I'm also worried about the reasoning faculties of people like yourself and the possibility that you represent a large proportion of public opinion and of the common capacity to reason effectively.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 27 Aug 2014 #permalink

B.F. @ 7 :

You're welcome. I'm pleased that you think so.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 27 Aug 2014 #permalink

Mike Lewinski - I can't believe that the number of acres cultivated in the U.S. is several hundred percent greater than it was just a couple of decades ago. More Roundup has to be being used per acre. There have also been publications showing rapid evolution of Roundup resistance in weeds in recent years, consistent with greater selective pressure. We may be losing less topsoil by this approach than by the heavy-tilling approach, but I'm not sure how you balance those harms - so long as you're losing topsoil faster than it's formed, your agriculture is still unsustainable.

Indeed, spraying multiple herbicides at once (like using plants with multiple active compounds to treat a disease or parasite) will slow the development of resistance, though in the areas where certain weeds are already widely resistant to Roundup those weeds will only have to work on evolving resistance to 2,4-D. 2,4-D has been used for a long time, but during that time it and its contaminants have repeatedly been the subject of concern regarding direct human health risks. I don't love the idea of having its use in areas upwind of me suddenly increasing five- or sixfold.

Vavilovian mimicry is cool, but if a weed is really so similar to a crop plant that it can't be spotted by a skilled farmer it is likely to be closely related to the crop and similarly edible (e.g., two amaranths, two species of wheat/Aegilops), so a little admixture of the weedy species wouldn't make that much difference to yield or quality. Handweeding, which is not the only alternative to chemical herbicides, would not normally make unrelated useless weeds evolve to look so similar to corn or soybeans that they can never again be picked out. (Evidence: We recognize most major weeds easily now, following several thousand years of diligent handweeding by traditional farmers.) Excessive chemical use can make a useless weed so resistant to the chemical in question that it cannot be killed by spraying. Since there is legitimate reason for concern about the effects of these chemicals on human health as well as natural ecosystems, the solution of "just keep piling on more and better chemicals" is not a satisfactory one. Like fossil fuel burning, it contributes its own piece to what the Limits to Growth modellers termed a pollution crisis.

The largest impact of agriculture on the environment is simply the displacement of natural ecosystems. So, to first order, the "greenness" of an agriculture technology is directly proportional to its productivity. The higher the yield, the less land is needed, and the more land can be allowed to remain in (or return to) a more natural state.

This argument would also lead one to oppose meat consumption and biofuels, and to look skeptically at so-called organic practices.

Paul D. - That's a good criterion to value, so long as there's any reason to believe that the land thereby unused could actually be preserved long-term and not fall into the hands of developers or mining companies. However, in practice it would call for significant reallocation of manpower to small-scale intensive organic agriculture, some forms of which easily beat mechanized monocropping in terms of total production per acre. Also, it's possible for some production of domesticated animals to be compatible with continued existence of native ecosystems (if buffalo herds can graze on a prairie without destroying it or rendering other species extinct, it should be possible to graze cattle so long as you do so carefully and not greedily).

There's no doubt that glyphosate resistance in GMOs has enabled the use of glyphosate on more acres total, both newly cultivated and existing. This means average per acre goes up even if no single acre gets more application per crop as a result. Glyphosate has replaced tilling in some fields and more toxic herbicides in others. In the little picture, there are wins for every field that isn't plowed or sprayed with something more toxic (and I agree it is hard to assess the apples-to-oranges nature of the tradeoffs of tilling vs. herbicides). In the big picture, resistance is evolving too quickly due to over-reliance on one strategy and that means we'll have to switch back to other herbicides that are more toxic.

It's worth looking at some numbers here for a sense of the volume of increase of herbicides on key crops since introduction of herbicide tolerance. This paper by Charles Benbrook is open access:

In soybeans, USDA reported herbicide applications totaling 1.3 kgs/ha (1.17 pounds/acre) in 1996, and 1.6 kgs/ha (1.42 pounds/acre) in 2006, the last year soybeans were surveyed by USDA.

For soybeans that's a 35% increase in total herbicide use during the two selected endpoints of Roundup Ready era.

In cotton, herbicide use has risen from 2.1 kgs/ha (1.88 pounds/acre) in 1996 to 3.0 kgs/ha (2.69 pounds/acre) in 2010, the year of the most recent USDA survey.

For cotton that's a 43% increase in total herbicide use. However, total acres of cotton are about 5% of total acres corn + soy in 2010. So while the 43% increase looks the worst of the big three mentioned here, it's a relatively small slice of the whole commodity crop pie.

In the case of corn, herbicide use has fallen marginally from 3.0 kgs/ha (2.66 pounds/acre) in 1996 to 2.5 kgs/ha (2.26 pounds/acre) in 2010, largely as a result of lessened reliance on older, high-rate herbicides.

For corn that's a 15% decrease in total herbicide use. Since the older herbicides required a higher rate of application, switching to glyphosate has actually reduced the total volume required even though we know there are more acres of corn in production today. From table 2 in the paper above, in 1996 there were 79,487,000 total acres of corn cultivated. In 2010 there were 88,192,000 acres of corn (about 11% increase in acreage).

Since you mentioned pesticides sprayed upwind, it's worth pointing to this chart from the link provided by PZ above as "excellent debunking of anti-GMO bias". In terms of air pollution from herbicides, there's smaller peaks measured in the sampled air now than there were 20 years ago, and that which is found in the air is of lesser toxicity. Both measures are good and trending the right direction:

Farmers don't want to apply a drop more of any pesticide than they need to, and certainly don't want it blowing or washing away. Waste eats profit. Herbicide resistance provides benefits for adopting no-till and gives yield protection benefits that make it a smart investment. No-till is itself a form of advance yield protection where it helps ensure that a field will remain productive for a longer period of time (hopefully forever... we're really talking long term sustainability of the family business that is expected to provide for future generations).

By Mike Lewinski (not verified) on 27 Aug 2014 #permalink

Correction - soybean increase was 21%

By Mike Lewinski (not verified) on 27 Aug 2014 #permalink

The Anti-GMO crowd here has focused exclusively on the increased use of herbicides which has been encouraged by Roundup ready crops, but have conspicuously ignored the advantages offered by GMO crops which are more resistant to insect pests (requiring less or no application of pesticides), or which are drought resistant (producing higher yields with less water), both of which INCREASE sustainability, and which allow either more food to be produced on the same acreage, or the same amount on less. And we are also asked to accept the oft-repeated claim that purely organic farming can be scaled up to produce equivalent yields for every single food crop we grow and depend on, based on no more than isolated, anecdotal evidence. And for the same cost to the consumer. But the fact remains that there are very good reasons why organic foods are significantly more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, reasons that can't just be pawned off as a conspiracy by government and big agribusiness.

By skepticscott (not verified) on 28 Aug 2014 #permalink

proximity1 -- your assertion that GM is fundamentally "many orders of magnitude" more risky than traditional breeding is just that: an assertion. If you're going to bash PZM in such oh-so-arch tones of knowingness, don't you think he and the rest of us deserve ... um ... some evidence? Reasoning? An argument? Something to ground our acceptance of your claims in, other than your say-so?

We certainly have plenty of actual evidence of enormous changes in the biosphere created by human intervention long before the arrival of GE -- some deliberate, such as the introduction of the potato and tomato to the old world, some accidental, such as the introduction of rats to Hawaii. On the evidence, it appears that GE has already produced reductions in use of pesticides and fossil fuels per unit of output -- PZ provided the charts. So enviros should be very happy about the benefits of these -- quite tiny -- changes to genomes of crop plants that are already vastly changed from their natural ancestors. If you're going to demand a halt to all this on the basis of "vastly greater risks", you need to ground your claims in something the rest of us can understand and agree to. Otherwise why should anyone take your polemics seriously?

By Foster Boondoggle (not verified) on 29 Aug 2014 #permalink

Something overlooked so far, is that Glyphosate is pretty much the safest pesticide existing. It's harmless to humans, so using more of it in lieu of carcinogenic alternatives?

A good thing.

By Not Myname (not verified) on 29 Aug 2014 #permalink
The problem with Dr. Vandana Shiva is that any good argument she might have is destroyed by:
1. Her ludicrous tendency to nonsense (repeated in several of her books and documents): from her book Stolen Harvest: “Molecular biologists are examining the risk of the Terminator function escaping the genome of the crops into which it has been intentionally incorporated, and moving into surrounding open pollinated crops or wild, related plants in fields nearby. Given Nature’s incredible adaptability, and the fact that the technology has never been tested on a large scale, the possibility that the Terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment MUST be taken seriously. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet.” Same words at Just one sarcastic comment from Mark Lynas: “sterility is not a great selective advantage when it comes to reproduction, hence the regular observed failure of sterile couples to breed large numbers of children”.
2. Her appalling ignorance: Would someone pls let her know that Bt proteins are toxic for some insects, not for mammals?… / /
3. Her tendency to offend: she wrote that “saying farmers should be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape” ( This is a bloody insult to honest, hard-working farmers.

By Giovanni Tagliabue (not verified) on 29 Aug 2014 #permalink

@ 19

...If you’re going to bash PZM in such oh-so-arch tones of knowingness, don’t you think he and the rest of us deserve … um … some evidence? Reasoning? An argument? Something to ground our acceptance of your claims in, other than your say-so?

But I did offer those; and you've failed to grasp them. Your post, besides being devoid of a single fact which contradicts my reasoned argument, also demonstrates that in this case you cannot follow a logical argument or read and interpret it effectively.

You claim, ..."We certainly have plenty of actual evidence of enormous changes in the biosphere created by human intervention long before the arrival of GE "....

In fact, no. All the examples in pre-modern human interventions--i.e. simple animal husbandry and plant cultivation--work at the margins of the biosphere's ordinary natural processes. Not just singly but all added together, over eons of human existence, the sum of these hasn't been "enormous," as you claim, without a single piece of supporting evidence, but, rather, puny. Citing "the introduction of the potato and tomato to the old world" is not an example of genetic manipulation. It's an instance of importing an entirely naturally-occurring plant from a locale where it occurs naturally to another where it theretofore had not. In the context of the issues under discussion here, that is not an example which favors your case. Besides, I already granted these practices as long-standing. What you haven't done is show us why and how that is morally and technologically the same as the kinds of genetic manipulations which are now being done by bio-engineering firms.

Since I assume we both accept the validity of Darwinian evolution by natural selection as well as the implications which contemporary molecular biology and genetic variation have for that, I also assumed that the potential risks of such mutations--whether natural or man-made--are understood to be simply beyond our present capacities to foresee and, therefore, to adequately manage. You have it completely backwards: it's my case which is the modest one in which our limitations in knowledge and technical abiliity are given their due respect. It is your case which indulges in wild and unsupported presumptions (i.e. about what is sufficiently safe and within our ability to adequately know and predict) and intellectual hubris.

But since most of that repeats what was already set out above in my posts and you didn't grasp it in the first place, I have little reason to expect that you're going to do any better following this recapitulation. Inter-species gene transfers (such as, for example, grafting genes from a tomato with genes from a salmon) do not and cannot occur other than by human interventions. Their ramifications in open nature are simply beyond our abilities to calculate and measure. But your unfounded confidence has no respect for these facts. You abandon the most basic fundamentals of respecting a minimum level of care to ensure against uncontrollable catastrophe---and you apparently do this out of a preference for commercial profit interests.


RE : PZM's ..."yes — let’s discuss strategies to break agriculture free of the tyranny of short-term capitalist gain" ....

Yeah, sure. So, then, just when and where do we get around to even that modest undertaking, let alone facing up to our limitations in theoretical understanding and technical ability?

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Sep 2014 #permalink

P.S. to 22, above:

Readers might note that, elsewhere, PZM can actually write the following (with which I largely agree)---

..."Humans are complex organisms whose development is plastic and strongly dependent on environmental influences. There is selection pressure for the population reproduce, which we social beings accomplish with a significant subset of individuals providing sufficient progeny to replenish the population each generation, and with a similarly significant subset of the population working cooperatively to provide a supportive environment.

"Evolution doesn’t care. All that matters is that the population thrives into the next generation, and that requires that individuals cooperate. Evolution is not a micromanager, either; we acquire random variations purely by chance, some work, some don’t, and in general, there are so many competing factors driving our survival that selection cannot possibly fine-tune emergent properties of behavior to such a degree that biology can specify exactly who you will bump genitals with."

--- apparently oblivious to the implications of all that for his undbounded confidence in man-made genetic manipulations since much or exactly the same may be said with equal validity about many plants and about animals other than our own kind.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 02 Sep 2014 #permalink

So, Professor, the farmers you drive by, unlike almost all the other farmers in the Midwest, have abandoned no-till -- a technique strongly dependent on modern seed science?

I think you don't know what you are writing about.

By Harry Eagar (not verified) on 03 Sep 2014 #permalink

@24 let me offer translation services: Probably about the unfortunate phrase "plowed over". PZ is not fluent in farmer's jargon being the devastating point.