Some thoughtful and interesting letters in response to the OpEd that James McWilliams and I wrote recently for the NY Times. Here are some highlights:

I think that there are many in the organic food movement who recognize that genetic engineering has a role to play in the future of food. But concerns about what it should be, and who should be making that decision, are valid. I am all for nonprofit groups and university researchers working to alleviate starvation in the third world. I trust their motivations and scientific integrity. I have no such faith in agribusiness.

Traditional small family farming, with natural fertilizers and crop rotation, should be the starting point for discussion, not viewed as some fringe agenda. Organic farmers are not wrong to want to hang on to the gains of thousands of years of agricultural learning, the benefits of biodiversity and foods’ naturally adaptive systems.

When a challenge arises that exceeds the limits of traditional farming, seeking solutions through genetics is appropriate.

But large-scale monoculture farming inhibits the ability of small farmers to choose their own methods or crops. Entire regions become dependent on Roundup, Monsanto’s pesticide for genetically engineered crops.

I am not afraid of technology, but I am distrustful of the motivations of Monsanto and its ilk.

This seems to be the crux of why many people oppose genetic engineering, They do not trust Monsanto. But the National Organic Program Standards do not prohibit farmers from growing Monsanto-purchased seed. They only prohibit seed that has been genetically engineered. So a small farmer that uses GE papaya to protect her crop from a devastating disease that cannot be controlled by any known method, developed in a university lab by a local Hawaiian using government funds (not for profit), cannot be certified organic.In contrast, a large grower that purchases Monsanto seed and plants a monoculture can be certified organic.

Are the NOP rules, which do not take into account issues of monoculture and large corporations or sustainability, already outdated? Here is what one reader had to say:

The US definition of what’s organic and what’s not grew out of the knowledge base of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s time to revisit and update the science, to create Organic 2.0, with an eye toward meeting the needs of the future rather than continuing the practices of the past.

Here is another letter about Monsanto and organic:

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, a case that addresses the ecological and economic problems caused by genetic contamination of crops.

A decision favorable to Monsanto could lead to widespread contamination of organic alfalfa with engineered alfalfa, which could destroy the organic milk industry, which depends on alfalfa.

The point here is not that any environmental or human harm will occur, but that there could be economic damage because of fear of GE crops. It is well established that the GE alfalfa in question does not cause harm to human health, to the cows that eat it or the environment. In fact according to a 2009 report by the USDA, planting of GE alfalfa is expected to reduce the contamination of waterways with herbicides that are three times more toxic. The fear then is that it would affect consumers perception of the purity of what they are feeding their cows, which could possibly affect the organic milk industry. It is highly likely that cross -pollination of organic crops will occur at some low level because alfalfa is cross-pollinated by bees. Cross pollination does not affect management of organic crops because organic farmers do not use herbicides. Nor will it affect organic certification because the NOP allows small amounts of pesticide or pollen drift from neighboring farms. The court case is expected to be decided in early June. More on this case can be found here.

And then there were letters with heartfelt concern for farmers growing crops in very difficult environments:

The growing of corn by an African peasant farmer from corn seeds that he has kept from the harvest of the previous year gives him more food security than growing a genetically modified seed, which may give a high yield, but over whose availability he has no control.” .

This comment reflects the fact that many African farmers live far from seed distribution centers or cannot afford to buy new and improved seed. It also enforces a common misperception of GE seed- that it is somehow different from conventionally bred seed. The process of genetic engineering does not affect farmers ability to save the seed. Hybrid seed, which existed for decades before the advent of GE, cannot be saved because the progeny have less desirable traits than their parents. This is why in the west many farmers (organic and conventional) buy hybrid seed each year. One of the advantages of flood tolerant rice developed by scientists at The International Rice Research Institute, is that it is not a hybrid, the seed can be saved by farmers.

Genetically engineered or conventionally bred- it is just seed, with benefits and limitations wrapped into one package, completely dependent on the farmer to maximize its potential.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin Folta
    July 18, 2010

    Anti GMO books? The problem is that everything I’ve seen anti is opinion and belief, not evidence-based. I’ve enjoyed this thread, especially atom=Hiroshima, oil=BP, GE= future disaster. All technology is a balance between its inherent power and our wisdom to use it correctly. That’s not a science problem. As scientists we can deliver solutions to your problems. Learn about science, support scientists and don’t fight the technology that can help people, especially those that need it most.

  2. #2 Veronique
    July 16, 2010

    Farmers are notoriously conventional and cautious. Tried and true methodology is what farmers tend to adhere to.

    There is not much profit in farming especially not the small type framing that doesn’t involve big agricultural conglomerates.

    There is an increasing number of people all wanting food on this planet and it doesn’t look like the population boom is going to stop any day soon. That’s another story in any case.

    I have worked a couple of small farms in my life the last one being a lettuce and herb hydroponics farm. The good thing about hydroponics is that it doesn’t damage the earth. I have blogged about this because it is an interesting and satisfying method of farming especially soft green crops.

    I always trawled through seed companies’ lists to find another seed, another variety, a cheaper and better strike rate for seeds. That is pretty normal for farmers. And when he/she finds a company that deals well with its customers, the farmer will stay with that company.

    Seeds that perform well and are resistant to root-rot are good. Those that resist blights, rusts and leaf rots, that repel insects, have a good cell structure to withstand climatic conditions, have a well regulated growth index and have good shelf life are preferred – of course.

    All these qualities (and more) are selected for in the growing of plants for seed stock. The sort of crops we grow have been subject to selection pressure by farmers and seeds companies since Homo sapiens started agricultural pursuits.

    Plants that thrived in one part of the world have been modified to perform in other climates and geography. The corn that Prof.Pedant would like will eventuate. Corn started as teosinte – a small, wispy grass cultivated in Mesoamerica and was engineered, created if you will, into the maize that we know today.

    Sure, it took a long time and sure, we don’t have that sort of time available and we have better technologies for creating different food stuffs. But to worry endlessly about organically (whatever that may mean) grown crops, pure (whatever that may mean) seed while having to feed some 6.8 billion of us is to have lost the plot somewhat.

    There will always be monoculture and for that to work, the insects that want to feed on the crop and the bacteria in the soil and the nutrient for the crop all have to be managed. If protection from performance disasters can be afforded then farmers will adopt whatever measures there are.

    That includes dusted seeds to prevent rot and being eaten before they sprout. It involves nutrient coating of seeds to promote sprouting. It involves modification to help prevent crop failure. It also involves ‘tinkering’ to add nutrient value to poor crops with little nutrient value that provide mainly bulk.

  3. #3 Prof.Pedant
    June 29, 2010

    I want a corn (many varieties of course) that grows as a moderate size bush, able to overwinter as far north as Anchorage. Temperate climate oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, and mangoes would be pretty cool too. And I am sure there are a lot of other possibilities out there as well. (An oak tree with edible acorns?)

  4. #4 red pepper
    June 11, 2010

    I’ve stated upthread – you can’t make parallels between completely different industries – BP certainly shows that regulatory agencies need to actually do their job, but the regulation of the oil industry and the GM industry is completely different – BP need to get regulatory clearance from the government of the area they’re getting oil from – GM companies need regulatory clearance from every market their seed is going to be sold in – not all are GM friendly, so in the regulatory process not only do you need to get the US onboard, you also have to get Europe, Japan (hard nuts to crack both) and everyone else – every reg approval you don’t get is another reason for farmers not to buy your seed – if BP had to meet approval of every oil importing country for its rigs I’d bet that safety features overlooked due to expense in this disaster would have been first thing on the design plans.

  5. #5 Ewan R
    June 7, 2010

    What is the best anti-book?

    I’m guessing that’d be tough one to field – in my experience the “anti” side tends to favor hyperbole and invention – my feel is that the best books to read will generally seem to be pro rather than anti – if only because they look at the facts of the matter and weigh the merits of GM technology on this basis rather than being coloured with ideology – the question to me seems parallel to questions like “what’s the best book arguing for creationism” (although that’s taking things to a bit of an extreme I admit, as there is absolutely no merit whatsoever in creationism, whereas any fair assessment of GMOs should at least look at the potential for danger)

    From memory I think the recent “Whole Earth Discipline” by Brand sounds like it offers a relatively balanced view (pro-GMO coming from an environmentalist) and to plug Pam’s book for her – Tomorrow’s table – not that I’ve read either, but from the general discussion I’ve seen around them they sound like they manage to disentangle GMOs from corporate ownership (which really are two seperate topics) and take a relatively fair balanced view on the subject.

    A lot of good discussion also goes on at http://www.biofortified.org – also generally disentangling corporate issues from actual GMO issues – and any information that comes from a plushy corn cob has to be good in my book.

    Other than that my own personal bias is to hit google scholar with whatever questions you may have – can get a tad technical at times, and a lot of info is sitting behind paywalls, but looking at the science rather than reading someones biased opinion of it can often be an eye-opener.

  6. #6 vera
    June 7, 2010

    Dr Ronald, I wonder if you could point your readers to the best there is to educate oneself? What is the best anti-book? Can you list several recent articles that are accessible to laypeople, say three for each side of the issue? I hate to have to go fishing and run into blather. Thank you!

  7. #7 vera
    June 4, 2010

    Thank you, Ewan, for tackling my last question. I will use this exchange to get better informed. :-)

  8. #8 Ewan R
    June 2, 2010

    That’s a good question, and one I’m sort of at a loss to answer for the current set of transgenics out there, and for things slated to be released in future.

    Without controls in place bad things that could happen would be stuff like introduction of allergens from one crop type into another (I don’t imagine people with a peanut allergy would be overly happy if all of a sudden whole new practically unavoidable crop types contained an allergen which could kill them for instance), I guess there’d also be potential to add prion like, or toxic proteins into plants (or pathways which increased production of toxins plants naturally produce anyway) which would likewise be bad.
    A lot of noise gets made about the dangers of transgene flow out of crop species into wild species – not something I particularly get as being a bad thing, I guess in terms of biodiversity it’s not a good thing if a Bt gene gets into a non-crop species which is used by the insects Bt targets (although I could see farmers benefitting from this to a certain extent, at least until resistance started to be an issue) but the escape for instance, of the RR gene into non-crop species would only really effects farmers who use roundup as far as I can see, it’s hard to see other detrimental effects in that area, unless you just consider the presence of a transgene as a bad thing in and of itself, but I don’t think this is a particularly rational point of view.

    In terms of massively detrimental effects like the oil geyser in the gulf, or hiroshima/nagasaki type destruction – I’m having issues seeing how this would occur, particularly with the controls currently in place, although even without the controls in place I have issues seeing how current transgenics, or the sorts of transgenics being proposed by Pam (and other academics in the field) or by industry would have that level of negative impact – particularly if you do a side by side comparison at what sort of negative impacts traditional breeding etc would be likely to have (as there is always the arguement that the impact of transgenics is the impact of agriculture which by and large is pretty harsh on the environment – the two need to be decoupled somewhat as agriculture will continue regardless of the availability of GMOs, what needs to be assessed is whether the GMOs increase, or decrease the overall impact of Ag on the environment (and thus far the impacts are generally positive))

  9. #9 vera
    June 2, 2010

    Sounds reasonable, Ewan. The only thing I am missing here is a consideration of a worst case scenario… I am basically hearing from both of you that things look dandy, and hey, so far so good.

    What are the really bad things that *could* happen?

  10. #10 Ewan R
    June 1, 2010

    Aha. What about if the farmer does not know about the contamination, but selects for a trait that happens to also accumulate the GE trait in higher quantities? I am not trying to be persnickety, I am trying to understand what folks get so upset about

    My assumption is that in a case where this occured the farmer would most likely be sued – however I don’t know that this has ever occured, or if it is particularly likely to occur, and my guess is that if the farmer could prove that the gene was still there by accidental presence, rather than by selection for the gene of interest, they would have a chance of winning the legal fight.
    There are a lot of other factors which would come into play in inadvertantly selecting for a transgene (such as not using plants from the edge of your field to select from, and the high chance that in selecting you’d use controlled rather than random pollination, and the spectacularly low number of farmers using saved seed year on year compared to those using hybrids and transgenics (ie is it economically viable not to use GM seeds to allow a tiny fraction of farmers to continue a practice which has a tiny chance of getting them in trouble in a situation where they shouldnt be getting in trouble)

    Yes. And farmers who follow bad advice from government and other agents also do not remain farmers. As for profitability, if the profit were to be computed as output minus input + externalities, low input ag would often win. Different topic though… I am not saying that GE crops would then be unprofitable.

    What specifically are you talking about here (in terms of bad advice)? Also, lets just assume that the farmers we’re talking about are pretty much like most regular folk, profit is essentially calculated in terms of the difference between money into the field and money out of the field, covering cost of inputs(pesticides, fertilizer, seed, land), cost of time spent farming and price you get per bushel multiplied by the number of bushels you get due to the various inputs.)

    Well, duh, Ewan, they make a profit at our expense, why not farmers’? Nobody is suggesting farmers are morons. We all get fooled into crap through advertising and via bad advice by experts.

    There’s a difference between consumers getting “tricked” into using something because it allegedly benefits them, and a business getting “tricked” into using something because it allegedly benefits them – businesses look for results, consumers, generally not so much. If new thing X doesn’t increase yield, or decrease cost, or make things actually easier – farmers won’t use it. Farmers also don’t just pick up things willy nilly and utilize them without testing first – as illustrated above with my example of RR2Y and smartstax – both these technologies are state of the art, bells and whistles, awesome examples of technologies to get better yields and less pesticide use – however rather than buy into the hype farmers have been very cautious in buying just enough seed to test the claims themselves, to see how new thing X will work on their farms – if it works they’ll buy more this year, more the year after, until the technology saturates the market segment in which it is useful – farmers who don’t see a benefit won’t buy the product. Nobody is being tricked here, if a biotech company releases a trick product the big loser is the biotech company – farmers will try it out, it won’t work, and $100M of R&D money is essentially gone – maybe with a few million recouped in first year sales.

    There we agree, then. :-)

    To a certain extent I believe so, as has occured in the past. It’s all shades of grey.

    am sure that is what BP told everybody too. But as it turns out, it was not enough.

    As I’ve stated upthread – you can’t make parallels between completely different industries – BP certainly shows that regulatory agencies need to actually do their job, but the regulation of the oil industry and the GM industry is completely different – BP need to get regulatory clearance from the government of the area they’re getting oil from – GM companies need regulatory clearance from every market their seed is going to be sold in – not all are GM friendly, so in the regulatory process not only do you need to get the US onboard, you also have to get Europe, Japan (hard nuts to crack both) and everyone else – every reg approval you don’t get is another reason for farmers not to buy your seed – if BP had to meet approval of every oil importing country for its rigs I’d bet that safety features overlooked due to expense in this disaster would have been first thing on the design plans.

    I did not say anywhere in this thread that the technology should not be used. I said the approach should be … ahem … different from simply assuming that because in the last 10 years things have looked good, there is no need for extreme vigilance, and for conservative, prudent approaches used. You people are tweaking the biosphere in a major way, and should actually be *looking for* possible weak links rather than pooh-poohing them.

    Apologies, it certainly appears that you were taking that stance. Thankfully the approach is different from assuming b/c things have looked good there is no need for vigilance. Levels of vigilance are high, regulatory agencies increase their requirements year on year (rightfully so – as new techniques become available these techniques should be utilized)

    I don’t agree that GE tweaks the biosphere in a major way, at least not in comparison to other ag methodologies – sure things are tweaked, but what’s a gene here or there between friends (that we know about and have characterized to silly detail) compared to a few thousand genes that we don’t know the first thing about – weak links are constantly assessed, the pooh-poohing generally comes when bad analogies to other technologies are made, or when obviously absurd claims about the impact of GE crops are made (not that you’ve made any, but there are some real gems out there that recur on a regular basis)

  11. #11 vera
    June 1, 2010

    Assuming the gene isn’t present in quantities above that which can be explained by accidental presence no, the farmer is not vulnerable to a lawsuit – as soon as you start selecting for the trait directly, increasing the transgene’s presence to high levels, then you’d be liable to a lawsuit.

    Aha. What about if the farmer does not know about the contamination, but selects for a trait that happens to also accumulate the GE trait in higher quantities? I am not trying to be persnickety, I am trying to understand what folks get so upset about.

    farmers who don’t make good business decisions do not remain farmers

    Yes. And farmers who follow bad advice from government and other agents also do not remain farmers. As for profitability, if the profit were to be computed as output minus input + externalities, low input ag would often win. Different topic though… I am not saying that GE crops would then be unprofitable.

    It isn’t bizarre to suggest companies are out to make a profit, however this isn’t parisitic, it’d be parasitic if the companies made a profit at the farmers expense.

    Well, duh, Ewan, they make a profit at our expense, why not farmers’? Nobody is suggesting farmers are morons. We all get fooled into crap through advertising and via bad advice by experts.

    I don’t advocate rushing in and doing absolutely whatever you want.

    There we agree, then. :-)

    There are stops and checks in the industry … regulatory hoops which must be jumped through, safety testing which must be done, ongoing regulatory assessment which must be passed every few years….

    I am sure that is what BP told everybody too. But as it turns out, it was not enough.

    Again, there’s no reason to assume disasters will occur just because you’re working with a relatively new technology. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t assume disasters could possibly occur, or to say you shouldnt make sure that disasters don’t occur, but you appear to be advocating not utilizing the technology because there is an imagined, nebulous risk associated

    I did not say anywhere in this thread that the technology should not be used. I said the approach should be … ahem … different from simply assuming that because in the last 10 years things have looked good, there is no need for extreme vigilance, and for conservative, prudent approaches used. You people are tweaking the biosphere in a major way, and should actually be *looking for* possible weak links rather than pooh-poohing them.

  12. #12 Ewan R
    June 1, 2010

    Ewan, what happens when there is a pollen drift, the plants are affected, and the farmer who saves seed and tinkers with developing his own land race? Is he or she vulnerable to a lawsuit?

    Assuming the gene isn’t present in quantities above that which can be explained by accidental presence no, the farmer is not vulnerable to a lawsuit – as soon as you start selecting for the trait directly, increasing the transgene’s presence to high levels, then you’d be liable to a lawsuit.

    Farmers have been gullible. They were told to get into debt, so they did, and many ended up losing their farm. They were told to get big or get out, and many lost out on that one too, while the Amish have avoided most debt and bigness and have overall thriving farms.

    Where exactly have farmers been gullible? Particularly in relation to higher input farming (preferably in relation to GM farming, but high input would do) – fertilizers increase productivity and increase profitability, as do pesticides, as do GM crops – any instance in which they do not, they will not be used – farmers who don’t make good business decisions do not remain farmers, it’s a risky unforgiving business (which explains why farmers who made poor decisions in getting into debt subsequently got out of farming – and also explains the ubiquitous nature of GM crops in conventional farming, if it was the wrong choice the adopters would be gone, not those who remain).

    Is it bizarre to suggest that companies are out there to make a profit? Is it in this economic climate bizarre to suggest that if the profit is made in helping farmers, they will be helped, but if it is made in parasitizing farmers, they will be parasitized?

    It isn’t bizarre to suggest companies are out to make a profit, however this isn’t parisitic, it’d be parasitic if the companies made a profit at the farmers expense. However the technologies offered to farmers cost them less than they make by using them (Monsanto pricing is essentially geared around this, the value of the crop to the farmer is assessed and monsanto charges a percentage of this value to the farmer (so if for instance the value charge was 50% and a farmer stood to gain $100 per acre from using the technology then Monsanto would charge $50 an acre for using it) – as soon as companies are selling technology to farmers which only allows them to break even, or lose money then it’d be fair to call them parasitic, although I don’t see exactly how this would occur as farmers, not being morons, aren’t going to buy into a technology which doesn’t benefit them (and if they do they’ll try it on a small scale first, figure out it is worthless, and ditch it – one of the reasons this years release of smartstax and RR2Y soy didn’t hit the acreage it had been projected to hit is the conservative nature of farmers – wary of new expensive technology before it proves itself on their farm they mostly bought into the tech, but on a far smaller scale than was hoped for – this year will prove the worth of the technology, next year will tell whether farmers give it the thumbs up, or thumbs down – if farmers were as gullible as you’d have us believe then Monsanto stock would be back at $150 a pop on the blockbuster success of smartstax and RR2Y, sadly (for my retirement plan at least…) this isn’t the case.

    This is not a prudent take on the matter IMO, sorry.

    What is a prudent take on the matter? I don’t advocate rushing in and doing absolutely whatever you want. There are stops and checks in the industry which far exceed anything you see for traditional plant breeding, regulatory hoops which must be jumped through, safety testing which must be done, ongoing regulatory assessment which must be passed every few years (which infact is a major hurdle which will need to be overcome following the expiry of the RR patent – with nobody to champion regulatory approval globally RR soy will not have regulatory approval after a couple of years off patent which imo would be a major blow to agriculture (although probably a good thing for my retirement account…)

    Again, there’s no reason to assume disasters will occur just because you’re working with a relatively new technology. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t assume disasters could possibly occur, or to say you shouldnt make sure that disasters don’t occur, but you appear to be advocating not utilizing the technology because there is an imagined, nebulous risk associated – despite after over a decade of use the general consensus on GM crops being that they have been environmentally and economically beneficial as compared to the practices which would have been utilized had they not been adopted (almost surprising considering that to date most GM crops utilized are corporate owned inventions)

  13. #13 vera
    June 1, 2010

    Ewan, what happens when there is a pollen drift, the plants are affected, and the farmer who saves seed and tinkers with developing his own land race? Is he or she vulnerable to a lawsuit?

    Which is exactly what using GM crops (and hybrids) is in any farming operation – good business. If it wasn’t good business farmers wouldn’t use them

    Farmers have been gullible. They were told to get into debt, so they did, and many ended up losing their farm. They were told to get big or get out, and many lost out on that one too, while the Amish have avoided most debt and bigness and have overall thriving farms. And it probably does not hurt that the Amish have a social system where technologies are carefully weighed for impact on the community. If GE crops were ever found to harm their community, they would be dropped overnight regardless of the economics.

    The rather bizarre picture of farmers somehow being there for the Ag industry to parisitize is well, bizarre, seed producers, fertilzier producers, pesticide producers – are all there to serve a need for farmers, to increase their productivity, and to positively impact their bottom line.

    Is it bizarre to suggest that companies are out there to make a profit? Is it in this economic climate bizarre to suggest that if the profit is made in helping farmers, they will be helped, but if it is made in parasitizing farmers, they will be parasitized?

    I appreciate your explanation regarding the antibiotics analogy. It sounds reasonable. I just have to read up more to be able to get the whole thing.

    Your response to my “tinkering” argument does not inspire my confidence. Questioning my luddite status is not an argument, and neither is the claim that these things have had a good side… something I fully recognize. What I was trying to make clear is that some tinkering is very risky, and ought to be accompanied by safeguards commensurable with those risks, which are typically not apparent from the outset.

    I (and many other people) find the following attitude of GE scientists to be particularly scary:

    “Tinkering with plant genes – there isn’t really any reason to assume disasters will follow as a direct result ….. imagined nebulous risk …..”

    This is not a prudent take on the matter IMO, sorry.

  14. #14 vera
    June 1, 2010

    I appears that repeating a part of the text is the latest ‘sales troll’ strategy. Ignore.

  15. #15 fix it pro
    June 1, 2010

    Tinkering with plant genes – there isn’t really any reason to assume disasters will follow as a direct result, thus far we’ve reduced CO2 output by agriculture significantly

  16. #16 Ewan R
    May 31, 2010

    Vera –

    ” have heard that Monsanto has sued people whose fields have been contaminated by neighbors, for using their GE seed. True?”

    Not true, or at least not true from that simplistic viewpoint – Monsanto sue when presense of the transgene is above levels which could be considered accidental (such as pollen drift, or accidental presence due to seed spillage) – it may be that in some cases the transgene initially gets into the field accidentally – but legal action is only taken if the farmer has clearly taken steps to select for and replant transgenic material (such as happened in the case of Schmeisser, the poster boy for the anti-GM movement)

    “Actually, if a farmer is not in debt, and feeds his own family and community from the farm, and does not fall for all the BS designed to skim off his profit, traditional farming is a pretty good way of living. (Or hers.) Check out the Amish. “

    The Amish apparently fall for the “BS designed to skim off their profit” – the GM crops they use are Monsanto crops yutilizing the Bt gene to protect against insect damage. They pay a premium for this technology. They produce crops for profit, not to feed the community and themselves – using Bt corn in this instance is just good business.

    Which is exactly what using GM crops (and hybrids) is in any farming operation – good business. If it wasn’t good business farmers wouldn’t use them, exactly the same arguement can be made for all farming inputs – if they don’t make business sense they don’t get used – which is why in years when N fertilizers skyrocket farmers not only abandon high levels of N fertilization, but also abandon hybrids which only perform under high levels of N fertilization etc etc. The rather bizarre picture of farmers somehow being there for the Ag industry to parisitize is well, bizarre, seed producers, fertilzier producers, pesticide producers – are all there to serve a need for farmers, to increase their productivity, and to positively impact their bottom line.

    My sense of the weeds is this… it’s like with antibiotics… the harder you hit it, the nastier weeds that will emerge.

    That’s not entirely right. With antibiotics it isn’t a case of “the harder you hit it” – it’s generally a case of either widespread use, or misuse of antibiotics that leads to resistance evolving (ie if you get a two week course of antibiotic and only take it for 4 days) – using antibiotics when they’re not needed (ie during a viral infection, or for an infection that poses no real threat) is also an issue, and the problem that arises is that you can no longer use a specific antibiotic to combat infections which can be fatal.

    The parallel works to a certain extent – there is massively widespread use of glyphosate, and in some cases there may be misuse (using too much, or too little, in a given area could both lead to resistance) – however the parallel with antibiotic use isn’t perfect – generally a farmer won’t use glyphosate (or any herbicide) if there isn’t a need to, likewise no farmer is going to spray glyphosate if the problem is viral, or fungal, or an insect. Also the problem that arises from using glyphosate to control weeds, is that you can’t use glyphosate to control weeds – here the parallel also doesnt work. There is a very good arguement that you shouldnt use certain antibiotics frivolously because when you really need them to work, they wont. However if you apply this same logic to glyphosate use – it falls apart – these fatal situations do not arise, there simply aren’t cases (at least none I can imagine) where you’d really wish that glyphosate hadn’t been used previously so that you could control a weed now.

    Herbicide resistant crops enable stronger poison to be spread, ergo more resistant weeds eventually. Don’t I have that right?

    Erm no – herbicide resistant crops enable the use of herbicides which the crop otherwise wouldn’t be able to tolerate. At present the main herbicide resistance trait allows plants to tolerate glyphosate, which by all accounts is far more environmentally benign than alternatives used, so not necessarily “stronger poison” – use of any herbicide will eventually lead to the evolution of resistance, therefore any new herbicide brought to the mix will lead to more resistant weeds – but again you need to define why this is a bad thing? If you don’t use glyphosate why do glyhposate resistant weeds matter? If they don’t matter then use glyphosate – once glyphosate resistance is widespread you’re just back to where you started – you aren’t worse off.

    * tinkering with the atom will lead to Hiroshima and Chernobyl
    * tinkering with oil wells will lead to Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon
    * tinkering with plant genes will lead to some as yet unforeseen disaster

    So in essence you are a luddite then? Shouldn’t you be discarding your computer as tinkering with silicon/LEDs/electricity/plastics/logic gates/processors/programming languages etc will lead to some as yet unforseen disaster (along with every other modern contrivance you utilize, for equally poor reasons)

    Tinkering with the atom also led to vast advances in our knowledge of how the universe works, led to the generation of vast amounts of energy which otherwise would have been provided by burning fossil fuels, and arguably saved ~1 million allied soldiers from dying in a seaborne invasion of Japan (not that I agree with the use of nukes on Hiroshima, and less so on Nagasaki – but the useage was not without its benefits)

    Tinkering with oil wells – well, I think it’s lack of tinkering which led to the current environmental disaster – if the most up to date technology had been utilized we’d not be in the state we are.

    Tinkering with plant genes – there isn’t really any reason to assume disasters will follow as a direct result, thus far we’ve reduced CO2 output by agriculture significantly, reduced insecticide use, reduced the environmental impact of herbicides used, have the potential to vastly improve diets for millions, to allow crops to grow in areas where previously they couldn’t (or to improve their growth in areas where previously they were poor) – is the arguement to do away with all the good because there is an imagined nebulous risk pulled together purely from an ill conceived comparison to other technological advancements which have had some bad side effects?

    Inserting periodic disclaimer here as this discusses Monsanto – I work for Monsanto, my views are mine, not their’s, etc etc

  17. #17 red pepper
    May 31, 2010

    Monsanto and other large seed companies are selling GE seed and they are selling non-GE seed. There practices (whether you like them or not) are the same for both. There is widespread concern that they are trying to monopolize the seed industry. The Obama administration Justice department is looking into that now.

  18. #18 vera
    May 31, 2010

    It looks like I will have to read the book, then! :-)

    My sense of the weeds is this… it’s like with antibiotics… the harder you hit it, the nastier weeds that will emerge. Herbicide resistant crops enable stronger poison to be spread, ergo more resistant weeds eventually. Don’t I have that right?

    But I will do more due diligence. I just want to say that from a layperson’s point of view, it’s not so much that we fear Monsanto. They are just a symbol of a system out of control. And that is what is *the* problem, IMO.

    In a socio-economic system driven by power and greed, it is only a matter of time when:

    * tinkering with the atom will lead to Hiroshima and Chernobyl
    * tinkering with oil wells will lead to Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon
    * tinkering with plant genes will lead to some as yet unforeseen disaster

    That is where my own unease comes from.

    I am rereading Animal Farm, and been reflecting that you scientists are kinda like Orwell’s horse Boxer… when a problem comes up, you say “we will work harder”! A naively honorable way to think, which in effect just gives more power to a system that is already out of control, like the pigs of Animal Farm.

  19. #19 Pam Ronald
    May 30, 2010

    hi Vera

    Anytime you spray an herbicide on a crop (GE or non-GE) herbicide resistance usually evolves. Indeed this occurred before GE crops existed, and as predicted weeds resistant to glyphosate have emerged in fields of GE crops engineered to resist glyphosate. That is why we and others advocate using ecologically based farming to reduce the emergence of resistant weeds.

    Superweeds generally refers to invasives like star thistle or European grasses that have invaded the Central Valley. These are exotic species introduced into our valley where they quickly adapted and took over large areas of land.

    Herbicide resistant weeds would not become superweeds in natural ecosystems because there is no selective advantage in the wild (only on farms where the farmers sprays herbicides). Hope this helps clarify. I have a chapter about that in our book if you want to know more.

  20. #20 vera
    May 30, 2010

    I have not taken the time so far to understand the whole GE controversy, so all this is very helpful.

    Looking over the web, one of the concerns seems to be the evolution of superweeds in response to GE seed bred for herbicide tolerance. Could you comment on that, Dr Ronald?

  21. #21 Pam Ronald
    May 29, 2010

    hi Vera

    In my view GE seed is just seed. That means that it can be very useful to farmers if it has traits that reduces their insecticide use or enhances yield or no-till farming or brings in a better profit.

    It is also just seed in the sense that if a farmer does not practices ecological based farming approaches such as incorporation of genetic diversity, rotation and other such farming practices, the farmer will not maximize the benefit of the seed.

    In most areas of the less developed world, farmers need to be able to self their seed as they cannot afford to buy it every year. That is why we need publicly funded projects to generate and innovate for the developing world where there is no profit to be made. In other words, you wont see monsanto selling seed in bangladesh anytime soon.

    As for pollen drift into heritage varieties, it is important to realize that that is how they were generated in the first place. Many heritage varieties were cultivated by generations of farmers as landraces. These farmers grew many kinds of seed and pollen flow was abundant. Heritage seed are domesticated. That means they are not found in wild ecosystems and would be considered contaminants if they were found in native ecosystems. However, they are not usually found there because they cannot survive in the wilde without a farmer.

    Monsanto and other large seed companies are selling GE seed and they are selling non-GE seed. There practices (whether you like them or not) are the same for both. There is widespread concern that they are trying to monopolize the seed industry. The Obama administration Justice department is looking into that now.

    All that I have said above goes the same for GE seed or non-GE seed. It is just seed.

  22. #22 vera
    May 29, 2010

    So… in your view, Dr Ronald, what *are* the real downsides of GE seeds?

    I have heard that Monsanto has sued people whose fields have been contaminated by neighbors, for using their GE seed. True?

    The other thing I have wondered about is… are we in danger of losing biodiversity with GE seed? If I grow a heirloom rice somewhere, and GE rice comes up in the next field, will it mess with the genetics of my own rice?

  23. #23 vera
    May 28, 2010

    Yes, Dr. Ronald, they do. I was responding to the attack on traditional family farming.

  24. #24 Pam
    May 28, 2010

    The Amish grow GE crops

  25. #25 vera
    May 28, 2010

    Shows ya, Pdiff, we shoulda stayed foragers, working 3 hours per day. What *were* we thinking! ;)

    Actually, if a farmer is not in debt, and feeds his own family and community from the farm, and does not fall for all the BS designed to skim off his profit, traditional farming is a pretty good way of living. (Or hers.) Check out the Amish.

    As Gene Logsdon says: “Almost all the ‘expert knowledge’ about farming is colored, shaped, sometimes downright fabricated, to make money for someone other than the farmer.”

  26. #26 Pdiff
    May 28, 2010

    Once again we see the “Traditional Family Farm” myth. Exactly when and where was this tradition? The rosey colored, layed back image of the pastoral lifestyle, all in harmony with “nature” simply does not exist. What did exist was people busting butt to scrape by and survive the quirks and problems nature threw at them. They moved away from that, using technology, for a good reason. It made their lives a lot easier, where they could actually enjoy the luxury of having the time to think about something other than “where is my next meal coming from?” Where I live, wheat is a big crop. Even long ago, it was grown in big monoculture fields. It was done so because it was, and is, efficient. Efficiency matters when you need to make a living. 100 years ago, people either spent 18+ hour days planting, maintaining, or harvesting the crop, or they spent an equal amount of time housing, caring, feeding, or maintaining the animals needed for the job. Little else was feasible. Technology, as in mechanical equipment, agritech, etc, freed those people to pursue other interests, jobs, and opportunities. I doubt they will want to move back.

  27. #27 pam ronald
    May 28, 2010

    If seed is developed in the public domain, the farmers obtain the seed through the national seed certification programs. This has commonly been the case in Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and China (although China is increasingly trying to emulate the US model and is now developing for-profit seed companies). After harvest, the farmer normally saves some seed for next years plantings. There are no yearly fees. This is the case of our Sub1 rice and also will be the case for Golden rice.

    If a company generates the seed and wants to make a profit the story is different. For example, in the US, most of the GE seed is hybrid. With hybrids the farmer buys the seed every year (whether or not it is genetically engineered).

  28. #28 vera
    May 28, 2010

    “The process of genetic engineering does not affect farmers ability to save the seed.”

    That is helpful to clarify, thank you. But how do the finances work? Does the farmer who saves GE seed from year to year have to pay a yearly fee to someone?

  29. #29 Ewan R
    May 26, 2010

    A simple yes would have done! (although I’m not sure we should tinker with them, it sounds so ineffectual, I’d rather be a genetic engineer than a genetic tinkerer – brings to mind images of some hobby biotechnologist with a garage full of old lab equipment and saved scraps of qiagen kits trying to make better tomatoes on his day off – which given how much I hate weeding is increasingly sounding like a good idea)

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