GMO farming abject “failure” claims Center for Food Safety–Is it?

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In response to the recent New Yorker profile of Vandana Shiva, The Center for Food Safety’s (CFS) posted a blog by International Programs Director, Debbie Baker, “Debunking Popular Myths about GE Crops Portrayed in the Media,” on what the CFS sees as misinformation perpetrated by Michael Specter and proponents of crop biotechnology, which they claim is an abject ‘failure’.

The frame of this particular article presents Vandana Shiva, Ph.D., as the leader of an international movement in opposition to GE crops at the expense of science-based solutions to feed the world’s poor. However, it is the failure of this technology— not Luddite fear mongering—that has prompted scientists, academics, policymakers, governments and regular people to question the biotech industry.

The CFS seizes on a number of supposed failures of crops bred specifically for the developing world to address hunger and malnutrition as evidence that biotech breeding programs have fallen short of their promises. They outline what they see are six major myths perpetrated by biotech supporters:

  • Myth: Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops are a Solution to Hunger and Malnutrition—After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and over 30 years of research, the promises that GE crops would feed the world and provide enhanced nutrition have failed.
  • Myth: GE Crops Use Fewer and Safer Chemicals—Instead, GE crops have increased overall usage of pesticides by hundreds of millions of pounds, and next generation GE crops will further increase pesticide usage of even stronger, more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D and dicamba.
  • Myth: GE Crops Increase Yields—Research has demonstrated that herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans in the U.S. have shown no yield increases. Yield increases seen in Bt crops, including The New Yorker article’s citation of yield increases for Bt cotton in India, are primarily due to conventional breeding or other factors, not genetic engineering.
  • Myth: GE Crops Are a Solution to Hunger and MalnutritionThe New Yorker article cites golden rice as an example of a GE crop that could alleviate malnutrition in poor countries. For at least two decades, biotech proponents have promoted golden rice—engineered to have high levels of carotenoids, which are precursors of vitamin A—as the solution to blindness due to vitamin A deficiency.
  • Myth: GE Crops Use Fewer and Safer Chemicals— Over 99 percent of GE crop acres are either: 1) herbicide-resistant (HR) crops that withstand repeated broad spectrum dousing of one or more herbicides to kill weeds without harming the crop; and/or 2) insect-resistant, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops that produce toxins in their tissues that kill target pests.
  • Myth: GE Crops Increase Yields—Biotech corporations claim that GE crops result in higher yields and thus are an important tool for feeding the world and raising farmer incomes. An important precursor to discussing yield data is to note that the majority of today’s GE crops are not grown for humans but are instead cultivated for livestock feed and ethanol for cars.

The authors argue that “agroecology”—a trendy-in-anti-GMO circles but ill-defined farming concept similar to the loosey-goosey green term “sustainability”—offers higher yields at lower ecological costs. (Ironically, some  conceptions of agroecology embrace the use of genetically modified crops because of their reduced use of toxic inputs.). To illustrate the ideological shallowness of some of their “myths”, we flipped their arguments, substituting the word ‘agroecology’ for each of their derisive references to GE crops.

Center for Food Safety

Let’s look more closely at some of their claims. They assert that GE crops have resulted in greater herbicide use:

A recent, peer-reviewed assessment based on pesticide data from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that Roundup Ready crops have resulted in 527 million pounds more herbicides being sprayed in the U.S. than would likely have been the case without these crops (based on figures from 1996 to 2011).

This relies on faulty premise of looking only at total pounds without taking into account that by allowing for the substitution of more environmentally benign herbicides has lowered the environmental impact in ways that looking at raw pounds used cannot capture and that the large decrease in insecticide use is of greater environmental consequence than increased herbicide use. The report that they really on pegged the reduction in insecticide use at 64.2 million pounds over the 13 years. A more thorough report by the consulting firm PG Economics and based on peer reviewed papers by the authors, published this year that took the relative environmental impact into account came to much different conclusions:

GM traits have contributed to a significant reduction in the environmental impact associated with insecticide and herbicide use on the areas devoted to GM crops (Table 6). Since 1996, the use of pesticides on the GM crop area was reduced by 503 million kg of active ingredient (8.8 percent reduction), and the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops, as measured by the EIQ indicator, fell by 18.7 percent.

In absolute terms, the largest environmental gain has been associated with the adoption of GM insect resistant (IR) technology. GM IR cotton has contributed a 25.6 percent reduction in the volume of active ingredient used and a 28.2 percent reduction in the EIQ indicator (1996-2012) due to the significant reduction in insecticide use that the technology has facilitated, in what has traditionally been an intensive user of insecticides. Similarly, the use of GM IR technology in maize has led to important reductions in insecticide use, with associated environmental benefits.

The volume of herbicides used in GM maize crops also decreased by 203 million kg (1996-2012), a 9.8 percent reduction, whilst the overall environmental impact associated with herbicide use on these crops decreased by a significantly larger 13.3 percent. This highlights the switch in herbicides used with most GM herbicide tolerant (HT) crops to active ingredients with a more environmentally benign profile than the ones generally used on conventional crops.”

They also bring up new and pending herbicide resistant crops paired with the herbicides, 2,4 D and dicamba. This is the actually the strongest point they raise about herbicide resistant crops, and deserves it’s on piece to address. Those are issues that require a fair amount of unpacking and I plan on taking them on in the near future.

They also state that GE crops have not increased yields.

Biotech corporations claim that GE crops result in higher yields and thus are an important tool for feeding the world and raising farmer incomes. An important precursor to discussing yield data is to note that the majority of today’s GE crops are not grown for humans but are instead cultivated for livestock feed and ethanol for cars.

Regarding yield, a landmark report, Failure to Yield, by Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, found that herbicide- resistant (GE) corn and soybeans have shown no yield increase in the U.S.28 This report and a major peer-reviewed research paper also show that since GE corn was introduced in 1996, the majority of increased corn productivity was due to conventional breeding and improved cultivation. Data from Europe suggests that productivity increases of corn have been about as high as in the U.S. without using genetic engineering.

This is a common, but specious misrepresentation of the data. It hinges on looking at what is called “intrinsic yield” which is the amount that a crop can be expected to produce under ideal conditions.  The two main GE traits are meant to prevent loss, not increase yield. The idea being that you can get the same yield under ideal conditions and better yield under adverse conditions, using fewer inputs, with less environmental impact or health risk to the farmer. Ask any farmer who is paying the premium for these seeds, preventing losses under real world conditions means better yields. That’s why penny pinching farmers adopted this technology faster than any other agricultural innovation, with little sign of diminishing enthusiasm.

I’d like to really focus on one set of claims that they make about the supposed failure of GE crops with improve nutrition and geared towards the developing world.

CFS’ Debbie Baker correctly points out that only recently have breeders achieved acceptably high levels of beta-carotene in Golden Rice and that yields still lag the varieties that Golden Rice will hopefully replace.

However, golden rice is not on the market because a host of intellectual property issues and technical problems have inhibited its development for over a decade. Only a few months ago, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)—charged with research, analysis, and testing of golden rice—released a report revealing that the “average yield [of GE golden rice] was unfortunately lower than that from comparable local varieties already preferred by farmers.

Then, like a dog on a bone, they write:

IRRI also stated: “It has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of golden rice does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.””

That sounds like the viability of Golden Rice has been challenged. But CFS fails to provide the context. It hasn’t yet been determined because the necessary trials can’t take place until the crop has been approved–and anti-GMO organizations like CFS are doing everything in its power to prevent that. Meanwhile, feeding trials have shown that the uptake of beta-carotene in Golden Rice is superior to spinach and that a single small bowl can provide 60% of a child’s daily needs.

There is no reason to believe that Golden Rice would not provide this level of nutrition on a daily basis and we should be applauding the IRRI for setting such high standards in demonstrating the efficacy of their product. It’s far more than is asked of the billion dollar supplement or alternative medicine industries. The IRRI recognizes that they have an ethical responsibility to make sure that Golden Rice solves the problem it is meant to address and not give false confidence to consumers. Again, they should be applauded for this, rather than opportunistically discredited for their fastidiousness.

CFS criticizes research from 2000 on a GE virus-resistant sweet potato carried out by African plant pathologist Florence Wambugu in Kenya. The work was highly touted in the press, but not by Wambugu or by biotech scientists, in hyperbolic terms as potentially ending poverty in Kenya. Unfortunately, the project failed and was abandoned in 2004. They write that a competing project by conventional breeders “in Uganda and Mozambique successfully developed disease-resistant sweet potatoes with high beta-carotene content using conventional breeding, and which also had much higher productivity.”

Here’s some context. There is no low hanging fruit left in field of crop breeding. At this point, every problem that breeders of any stripe are trying tackle is a hard problem. Contemporary breeding is a long, resource intensive process with many dead ends, whether one uses recombinant DNA or not. Difficult challenges will sometimes lead to successful products and sometimes not.

Golden Rice is a breeding project that has been in the works for 15 years. This is hardly an unusual time horizon for a breeding puzzle. Take for example Frank Kutka’s nearly 15 year quest to breed conventional corn which is impervious to cross-pollination. This trait would give organic growers protection against outcrosses from GE corn. In the Civil Eats profile of the project linked above, although Kutka has been working on this new corn variety without success since 2001, the article no where suggests that the fact that he has not yet succeeded is an indictment of traditional breeding. Because it’s not. Meanwhile, in a similar time frame, Golden Rice has had to contend with organizing security for field trials, field trials destroyed by activists, and, of course, needing to wait for regulatory approval for field trials–challenges that traditional breeders do not have to contend with. In the arc of developing novel, high impact crops, 15 years is par for the course.

For one ambitious group of breeders, deciphering a puzzle that only took 15 would be seen as child’s play. Consider The Land Institute’s pursuit of perennial grains. The Land Institute is a non-profit group headed by Wes Jackon and based in Salina, Kansas. Jackson started as an academic, with a masters in botany and a PhD in genetics, going on to found the first environmental studies program at California State University, Sacramento. In 1976, he returned to his native Kansas to found the Land Institute in order to pursue research into agroecological farming, settling on a focus on perennials begining in 1978. Jackson’s group has now been attempting to breed viable perennial wheat for 36 years. Breeding perennials that can compete with annuals on yield and return on investment is a monumental task and Jackson believes the project should be envisioned over a 50-75 year time horizon. Instead of being characterized as a failure of traditional breeding, Jackson’s work is touted as that of a scrappy visionary. I’ve never seen a supporter of biotech breeding trying to make hay out of the difficulty of the task the Land Institute has taken on, or the high standards of efficacy they have set for themselves. People may scratch their heads at the quixotic nature of the project, you never see the kind of circling vulture glee in detailing every failed trial. There is no doubt that in 35 years, the Land Institute has abandoned specific projects as Florence Wambugu was forced to do. There just isn’t any one trying to score points on those failures.

What the Center for Food Safety has done is to play a game where they seize on hyperbolic statements by journalists trying tell a dramatic story, combine this with their audience’s naivety about what successful breeding takes and then claim that biotech breeding is no silver bullet. Nobody has really ever said that it was a silver bullet (except maybe in some marketing materials or in early reporting). It’s one tool in the toolbox to help us tackle some incredibly hard problems. Supporters believe we need the full toolbox, critics twist themselves into pretzels explaining why one tool should be abandoned if it can’t fix everything.

But we do need the full toolbox. In the realm of crop breeding, easy is over. Hard has just begun.

Marc Brazeau is a writer and agriculture editor for the Genetic Literacy Project. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg

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  • FosterBoondoggle

    Brilliant essay. Nicely done.

  • Benjamin Edge

    Can you imagine the press from the GM critics if IRRI put out a version of Golden Rice that yielded 5-10% less than conventional rice? But giving an honest assessment of where they stand at present is considered an admission of failure.

  • Loren Eaton

    Earth to CFS, you don’t get higher yields due to conventional breeding if insects eat the crops. You don’t get higher yields in conventional soybeans without SOMEHOW controlling weeds. They’re constantly comparing apples to oranges.

  • mem_somerville

    15 years? I’ll raise your fifteen…

    We report the first successful production of PRSV-P resistant backcross (BC) papaya plants following intergeneric hybridisation between C. papaya and a Vasconcellea species after 50 years of reports on unsuccessful attempts.

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10681-011-0388-z

    And I hear it doesn’t work.

    • Loren Eaton

      Interesting. I read several years ago that it was possible to breed late blight resistance into potatoes…..and of course the antis pointed to this as a reason that GMOs weren’t necessary. Unfortunately, the resistance required the juggling of 11 or 12 separate alleles and at least a decade of breeding.