Ok, this is a little different, but it’s annoying, so I’m going to talk about it.

Let me begin by saying I love the Union of Concerned Scientists. They’ve been wonderful advocates on climate change for decades; they are media savvy, they train scientists to be media savvy, and they push the media and policy makers alike to understand the scientific consensus. When it comes to climate change, I trust them over just about any other source.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that they are so wrong on genetically modified organisms.

Several years ago, UCS decided to branch out into the science of how we grow our food. This should be a wonderful thing – our agriculture system is badly broken, and there are scientific and technological solutions to help feed a growing human population while minimizing environmental impact.

There’s a better way to grow our food. Working with nature instead of against it, sustainable agriculture uses 21st-century techniques and technologies to implement time-tested ideas such as crop rotation, integrated plant/animal systems, and organic soil amendments.

Sustainable agriculture is less damaging to the environment than industrial agriculture, and produces a richer, more diverse mix of foods. It’s productive enough to feed the world, and efficient enough to succeed in the marketplace—but current U.S. agricultural policy stacks the deck in favor of industrial food production.

We need evidence-based advocates pressing this message, and UCS recently put out a big press release on a path to environmentally sustainable farming. They’ve got great information and resources, and I’d love to recommend them as a one-stop-shop for scientific information about the way we grow our food. But I can’t, and it’s because of this:

While the risks of genetic engineering have sometimes been exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may produce new allergens and toxins, spread harmful traits to weeds and non-GE crops, or harm animals that consume them.

There’s so much here to address, but I’ll just point you to others that make the points that genetically engineered crops are or can be more environmentally friendly, and there’s never been a credible report of any pathology linked to GMOs.  There was recently an entire issue of the journal Nature (one of the most well-respected science journals in the world), in which even the most critical article basically exonerated GMO of any health impacts.

Yes, there are problems like herbicide resistant “superweeds,” but this is not a problem unique to GMO – any strategy to stop pests, be they insects or weeds in agriculture, or infectious microbes in humans will lead to resistance. The mechanism is different but the end result is the same. It’s also clear that there are bad uses of genetic engineering technology. And there are problems with monoculture and unsustainable farming and overuse of pesticides etc etc, but once again, these are not products of GMO technology, they are a products of industrial farming – practices used by farmers of organic and GE crops alike. UCS is right to advocate for reform of these practices, but genetic engineering is a technology that could help us escape from these practices, not a barrier to reform.

The scientific consensus on GMO may not be quite as clear as on climate change, but it’s close, and it’s upsetting that the UCS is joining in with the anti-science crowd on the potential risks.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin
    NY
    May 14, 2013

    Got some bad news for you, they aren’t accurate about climate change either.

    • #2 Kevin Bonham
      May 14, 2013

      If they’re wrong, so are the vast majority of scientists that study the climate.

  2. #3 Fred Hapgood
    United States
    May 14, 2013

    Their record on nuclear power is also pretty troubling.

  3. #4 GregH
    May 14, 2013

    “any strategy to stop pests, be they insects or weeds in agriculture, or infectious microbes in humans will lead to resistance.”

    And when that strategy is in the hands of an industry who’s need for profit outweighs any long-term considerations like soil conservation, various resistances in target and non-target organisms, and secondary human health effects, we can expect exactly those results. I don’t think GM crops are inherently harmful either, but based on past evidence, handing the responsibility for careful management of our agricultural future over to GM crop patent holders seems insane.

    • #5 Kevin Bonham
      May 14, 2013

      handing the responsibility for careful management of our agricultural future over to GM crop patent holders [any corporate interest] seems insane

      I agree whole-heartedly. We should all be appalled at industrial farming techniques that are unsustainable, energy intensive, and detrimental to the environment. Of course, organic producers use many of the same techniques (monoculture, energy-intensive harvesting, heavy pesticide and fertilizer use etc), it’s not unique to GMOs.

      Farmers, and agriculture suppliers like Monsanto want to maximize profits, there’s no surprise there. It’s our terrible agriculture policy that allows them to do so without regard to environmental impact (in some cases we incentivize that bad behavior). But again, these criticisms are true with or without GMO’s being in the mix.

  4. #6 Mac
    May 15, 2013

    There may not have been any studies showing environmental or health problems, but I’m pretty cynical on the issue. Every study I’ve seen or seen used as a reference has had some tie to a large agri-business concern. It’s been shown over and over that the source of the money for studies tends to have an effect on the studies. Till we get some independent research, I’m waiting to see the results of the big test we’re doing with the US population and environment as the guinea pig. It’ll be hard to differentiate the outcomes from the multitude of other untested processes and chemicals we feed the nation, but maybe someone will be able to make a statistical study out of the sheer numbers.

  5. #7 Mary
    May 15, 2013

    Yeah. It’s unfortunate that they let their ideology trump their facts on this topic. It undermines their other work. They really ought to get a handle on that.

  6. #8 Foster Boondoggle
    May 16, 2013

    For some reason, Consumers Union has decided to get into this game as well. They started out just being advocates for GMO labeling (presumably because they think there should be some consumer right to transparency on this). But now they’ve gone over to actually claiming they’re unsafe. They just ran an ad in the LA Times on an unrelated agricultural issue, but taking a swipe at GMOs along the way: “Trader Joe’s has demonstrated its commitment to its customers’ health by saying no to GMOs…” Science? Who needs it?

    • #9 Kevin Bonham
      May 16, 2013

      That’s annoying. And I love Trader Joe’s… sucks that they’re buying into the hysteria.

      Though to be fair, it’s hard to blame them – GMO’s have such a terrible reputation, it’s good PR to do it (I believe Whole Foods did the same thing a while back).

  7. #10 Lee Flier
    June 8, 2013

    Sorry, but although I think UCS got this particular point wrong (that is, there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence that eating GM crops is harmful to the consumer), there are plenty of other arguments against the use of GMO crops that are far more legitimate, and which you and many others continually gloss over.

    At least you do acknowledge that industrial farm practices are terrible in general for the environment. I completely agree that handing over control of the food supply to ANY corporate interest is a terrible idea both for food security and the environment – not to mention the long term effects on our health.

    But you don’t seem to realize some of the problems that are inherent specifically and uniquely to GMOs, or at the very least are exponentially compounded by GMOs. The biggest issue is that unlike conventional plant breeding, GMOs cost millions to develop, and therefore the stakes are high. A company that develops a GMO must gain a huge market share in order to turn a profit. This inherently leads to an exponential decrease in biodiversity, and because GM crops can still interbreed with other locally developed crops, given how aggressive these companies are in enforcing their patents, it becomes near impossible for any farmer who’s still attempting to grow traditional crops to co-exist with GM farmers.

    And while it’s true that resistance (in the form of “superweeds” and “superbugs”) is a problem with any pest management strategy, again GM crops exacerbate the problem by a huge factor, because they have become so widespread in such a short time (which, again, they have to in order to turn a profit) that resistance is likely to (and already has in some cases) affect huge numbers of farmers at the same time (and all the hopefully obvious danger to the food supply and the environment that that entails), including those farmers who choose not to grow GM crops but have to live in proximity to those who do.

    What we need to ensure environmental sustainability and food security is more people engaged in breeding and producing food crops, not less. We need thousands of micro-labs and millions of micro-farmers, not six seed companies dominating 90% of market share (as is the case now in the US and many other countries) – a figure for which GM is largely responsible.

    In other words the Mansholt Plan has really not worked out so well, and GM is just the “logical” (extreme) endpoint of it.

    Also roundly ignored is the fact that GM crops do not actually do what they promised to do. They do not actually increase yields long term, and they are not actually necessary to feed the world – other methods (that are more knowledge intensive and less “product” intensive) have been proven by several long term studies to be more effective and in fact completely necessary to feeding the world and sustaining the environment than any strategy that includes any widespread use of GM crops. While these studies acknowledge that GM crops potentially could be incorporated into sustainable agricultural plans, the role the would play would be rather small – too small to satisfy their makers’ cost-benefit ratios. Therefore as a practical matter, it’s unlikely that GM crops (at least as we know them today) can play any role at all in a sustainable, secure and high-yield agricultural system, and furthermore they are not necessary, as there are plenty of conventional breeding techniques that can be practiced far more broadly at universities, agricultural extensions, nonprofits and independent breeder-farmers which will produce much more diverse and localized genetic traits, at far less R&D cost, and of course far less expense to the seed buyer.

    I could go on. But seriously, I am all for continuing genetic *research* but to say that the opposition to GM crops is “hysteria,” that anyone who opposes them is “anti-science,” that “organic production has the same problems” (it *can*, but it generally doesn’t), or the intimation that there’s nothing all that different about GM crops vs. traditional plant breeding… this is all very unscientific, short-sighted and plain wrong.

  8. #11 Lee Flier
    June 8, 2013

    I will also add that while the jury is still out on the effects of GM crops on the health of their consumers (and there’s a single answer to that question anyway – impact on health completely depends on the individual GE trait, so one GM crop may be harmful while another isn’t), the evidence is growing that they do have a negative effect on wildlife. To some extent this is because the GE traits in the existing commercial GM crops were engineered specifically to resist ever larger quantities of herbicides and pesticides, resulting in unprecedented amounts of these herbicides and pesticides being dumped onto fields. To suggest that these wouldn’t have any health effects on farm worker or surrounding wildlife, and possibly consumers as well, would be pretty foolish, even if we don’t have enough long term studies yet to make any specific claims. Remember, GM crops have achieved a huge market penetration in a very short time. Taking the attitude that “absence of evidence = evidence of absence” is completely insane when you’re mucking around with the entire world’s food supply and the entire ecosystem of arable land. At the very least, we should be regulating the proliferation of these crops until their impact can be better understood through long term studies – but this will not do for the biotech companies’ profit margins, so we don’t.

    Bt crops are another matter entirely, because they have a natural “pesticide’ engineered right into the plant. Bt is a bacterium that kills the larvae of many pest insects, and is often used by organic gardeners and small farmers as part of an integrated pest management system.

    The insanity of actually breeding this pesticide into a plant and then planting it on a widespread basis ought to be self-evident, but apparently it isn’t. So let’s elaborate: all the biotech industry has done is render a useful part of an integrated strategy completely useless within a few years. It’s tantamount to breeding a particular strain of antibiotic into every baby, instead of giving them an antibiotic in a small localized dosage, and only if they actually need it. This approach is not only ineffective in a very short time, but dangerous, since it ensures the rapid and widespread development of resistance, long before new strains can be developed to combat the new “superbugs.” And yet, millions were spent to develop this trait that anyone can see will only be effective for a few years, so total and rapid market penetration is essential to the company’s survival.

    I guess if there’s any “good” news here it’s that it may not even be profitable to the biotech companies at all for very much longer. Sad that this must be the driving factor behind any return to sanity, but it’s probably the case.

  9. #12 Kevin Folta
    Gainesville, FL
    June 15, 2013

    Lee! The “jury is still out on the effects of GM crops” is like the jury is still out on O.J. Simpson! The Nature article and the absolute scientific consensus is that there is absolutely zero evidence of harm over 20 years of evaluation and 10 years in widespread deployment.

    Sure, there are challenges and they will be met. “Superweeds” are not so super. Resistant to one herbicide. New technologies will cut glyphosate use and improve efficacy.

  10. #13 Charles M. Rader
    Cape Cod
    June 17, 2013

    For Lee Flier: You wrote: “This inherently leads to an exponential decrease in biodiversity, …”

    I am always intrigued by this claim, which I hear from anti-GMO people all the time. To me it sounds almost like an oxymoron. I would expect, and we actually observe, the exact opposite.

    First, when any new gene is added to a species’ gene pool, that would have to be considered an INCREASE in biodiversity. To argue that any new genetic trait decreases biodiversity, you have to say that it is so advantageous to the plant (or to the farmer) that it crowds out some other traits. But what happens in reality is that the new gene coexists with other traits instead of replacing them. An insect resistance gene doesn’t displace genes for chlorophyll, or genes for water storage, etc. The other wrong idea is that all the farmers buy the GMO seed and stop buying non-GMO seed so that older varieties disappear until there’s only one variety left. That’s also based on the fallacy that the GMO varieties are all the same. But when a GMO plant is first created, the breeders cross it into many other varieties of the crop, so that the farmer can select whatever other traits he needs. If you go to any on-line seed catalog and pretend to be a farmer wanting to buy seed, you will find dozens of choices for the GMO seed, optimized for various locations, climate, planting time, etc. In fact, since the first GMO varieties were introduced, in the mid-nineties, the actual number of varieties offered for sale to farmers has approximately doubled, not decreased.

    For the Bt types of GMO, there’s an additional layer of unreality to the biodiversity argument. By law, when you plant a Bt crop, you must also plant along side it a non-Bt crop. The two kinds of seeds are mixed together in the same bag of seeds. That’s a very strong protection of biodiversity – if the non-GMO variety was not available the seed company could not sell you GMO seed at all.

  11. #14 Charles B. Porter
    Onlsow County NC
    July 16, 2013

    Regarding GMO (GE) food crops: A prudent scientist would prefer to err on the side of caution when the food supply is involved. I can make arguments pro GMO foods but it’s just that argument. There is no data to support the notion that there is no harm. We all thought DDT was a good thing once upon a time. I seems odd that drugs which very few people will actually use require rigorous testing but food which every one uses requires none. Will we wait as long on the verdict on GE food as we waited on climate change? That is, until it’s too late.

    • #15 Kevin Bonham
      July 22, 2013

      Sorry for the delay in approving your comment.

      A prudent scientist would prefer to err on the side of caution when the food supply is involved… There is no data to support the notion that there is no harm.

      That’s just it, there are plenty of studies that show that GMO’s are not harmful. Also, there’s no reason a priori to think that they would be harmful. Also, there are no credible studies suggesting that they are harmful.

      I seems odd that drugs which very few people will actually use require rigorous testing but food which every one uses requires none.

      That would be odd, if it were true. I will point you to a recent article in Grist, hardly a bastion of corporatism: http://grist.org/food/the-gm-safety-dance-whats-rule-and-whats-real/

      Will we wait as long on the verdict on GE food as we waited on climate change?

      This is probably the greatest irony of the GMO debate. The same people that believe the science on climate change and decry the anti-science people on the other side, are completely anti science when it comes to GMOs. And GMO technology is one of the things that could help mitigate the effects of climate change.

      The arguments that Global warming deniers make about people that believe the science: it’s a conspiracy cooked up by liberals to increase the size of government, are basically the same as the arguments of anti-GMO folks, only it’s a conspiracy cooked up by businesses to increase profit. Global warming deniers also think that it’s scientifically controversial (it isn’t), and they think that in the absence of strong evidence, we should be cautious and not disrupt markets by trying to deal with climate change. This is the essentially the same argument you’re making with respect to GMOs.

  12. #16 girrtts
    australia
    July 22, 2013

    I wanted to reply to the gentleman or woman who noted he’d not seen studies showing GMO’s adverse impacts, but was concerned that was only because Monsanto impedes genuine research .

    In fact, while Monsanto does seek to stop independent scientists from researching their GMOs, there has been quite a bit of research nonetheless evidencing GMO dangers.

    You can find it at these sites:

    http://gmoevidence.com/location/lab-evidence/

    http://www.gmfreecymru.org/pivotal.htm

    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GE-agriculture.php

    http://sustainablepulse.com/

    http://www.gmwatch.org/

    http://earthopensource.org/

    Hope this helps.

  13. #17 girrtts
    July 22, 2013

    I note my comment is awaiting moderation. I have screen saved this page with my stalled comment, and will make it known that science blogs censors if it is not approved. I hope it is soon proved my suspicions were mislaid.

    thanks

    • #18 Kevin Bonham
      July 22, 2013

      Not censored, but I haven’t written anything in a while, and most of the comments I receive during lull times are spam, so I only check every couple of days.

      Edit: Wow, and your comment was held for like 4 minutes before you cry censorship? All first time commenters on this blog are held in moderation until I approve them – it’s a spam fighting measure.

  14. #19 Lee Flier
    August 1, 2013

    Charles M Rader wrote:

    “I am always intrigued by this claim, which I hear from anti-GMO people all the time. To me it sounds almost like an oxymoron. I would expect, and we actually observe, the exact opposite.

    First, when any new gene is added to a species’ gene pool, that would have to be considered an INCREASE in biodiversity. To argue that any new genetic trait decreases biodiversity, you have to say that it is so advantageous to the plant (or to the farmer) that it crowds out some other traits.”

    This is true as applied to plants in the wild. It doesn’t apply to domesticated crops, which generally can’t survive anyway without human intervention. Biodiversity in the food supply doesn’t happen naturally by genetic advantage; it happens because people (farmers and breeders) choose which crops to plant and cultivate. Therefore, the world’s food supply depends not on natural selection but on created ecosystems, and in many cases the genetic traits that are given the “advantage” by farmers are not traits that would otherwise be an advantage (i.e. natural defenses against plant disease, drought, etc).

    When farmers breed their own plants, and/or new breeds are developed at public universities and other research centers, they breed for a range of traits and thus we have many thousands of varieties of crop plants that have been adapted to a wide variety of climates, soil microbes and a host of other factors. That’s what biodiversity looks like.

    GMOs, on the other hand, tend to be focused on a single trait or perhaps a few traits, and they are only bred by a handful of companies. Independent farmers and researchers are not allowed to save their seeds and adapt them to any other local conditions, and since so many farmers are now planting the purchased GMO seed (which, again, is one of a very limited number of varieties) in the same fields where they used to grow their traditional varieties, biodiversity is greatly reduced. Saved seed for most annual crops doesn’t remain viable for more than a few years, so unless localized crops continue to be cultivated, and the seed saved, the traditional strains will die out. This is not good for biodiversity.

    When someone says “when any new gene is added to a species’ gene pool, that would have to be considered an INCREASE in biodiversity,” it’s obvious they are greatly underestimating the number of plant varieties that actually exist vs. the paucity of GMO varieties (and that can never change as long as GMOs are patented and expensive to develop). The addition of one new gene to the gene pool is a drop in the bucket compared with the number of genetic traits it is replacing in cultivated environments. This spells eventual disaster to the food supply, if the trend continues as it has and there are no longer enough viable seeds from diverse sources to rejuvenate the gene pool quickly enough to recover from a massive crop failure.

    • #20 Kevin Bonham
      August 5, 2013

      Independent farmers and researchers are not allowed to save their seeds and adapt them to any other local conditions,

      This is true, but most industrial farms were not saving seeds anyway. Seed companies – even those not using GMO – create hybrid crops that have all the desired traits, but don’t breed true. So in order to have the desired crop, farmers had to buy seeds yearly anyway (see here).

      This spells eventual disaster to the food supply, if the trend continues as it has and there are no longer enough viable seeds from diverse sources to rejuvenate the gene pool quickly enough to recover from a massive crop failure.

      This is a problem of monoculture, not GMO. Take a look at the recent story about oranges in the NYT. Oranges and other citrus crops all around the world are suffering from a common disease, and there aren’t any resistant varieties being cultivated. Oranges have never been genetically modified, but monoculture and lack of diversity is still a problem. Same goes for bananas, papaya (see: GMO papaya that saved them from fungal infection) etc.

      Genetic diversity in the food supply is certainly an issue, but let’s not pretend it’s a problem solely for GMO. In fact, as the orange story makes clear, genetic modification might be a solution to the problems caused by monoculture and lack of genetic diversity.

  15. #21 Kim
    Maine
    August 28, 2013

    I have a concern with the new adaptation of GMOs with RNAi. These implementations will kills the bugs that consume the crop by stoping protein production and RNA traslation. This is the same crop that we consume. I worry about how humans would adapt to this modification after years of consumption. It is naive to believe that we are to remain unharmed.

  16. #22 Lee Flier
    September 17, 2013

    Kevin,

    Sorry I forgot to come back to this thread – for some reason the “notify me of followup comments via email” option isn’t working for me.

    Anyway, of course loss of diversity is a problem “of monoculture, not GMO.” And of course hybrids have the same issue in terms of not being able to save seed (although independent breeders can develop their own hybrids, as the cost isn’t too great). I said in my very first comment (#10) that industrialized agriculture in general is terrible for the environment and for food security.

    But that’s just it – GMO inherently exacerbates the problem of monoculture, for the reasons I stated earlier. GMO is pretty much fundamentally incompatible with small scale, locally adaptive breeding. To top it all off, nearly all GMO traits are patented, so a small farmer or breeder, say, in a developing country can’t develop their own varieties with GMO traits unless they pay a license fee they can’t afford. Therefore it’s a “solution” that is locking us further into monoculture when we ought to be adopting techniques that move us further away from it.

    Moving away from monoculture will also help stop the spread of diseases like the ones now affecting oranges (and bananas, which are showing signs of similar problems). We need to put breeding technology into the hands of more people, not fewer, and adopt more integrated plant and soil management practices.

    Proponents of GMO make statements like “we *need* GMO to feed the world” when, in every case that has come up so far, it’s not only unnecessary but supplants practices that are superior. The fact is also that famine usually results not from actual shortages in production but from political causes – people are often displaced from productive land (due to poverty, debt and/or societal unrest) and either lose their farmland or their crops are destroyed or plundered. This isn’t something GMO or any farming technology can fix.

    You may want to take a look at this report from the U.N. specialist on food. It cites a number of long term studies across a large number of countries, which conclude that agro-ecology is the recommended strategy for “feeding the world” in the face of climate change and expanding population – not industrialized agriculture which includes GMOs. Considerable doubt is expressed whether GMOs can really be integrated into an agro-ecology system as a practical matter, or in fact whether it’s even necessary.

    http://www.srfood.org/en/report-agroecology-and-the-right-to-food

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