What would Rachel Carson say about genetically engineered crops?

Generalizing about "GMOs" is almost completely useless. Each food we eat and each farm is so different that the genetic technologies and farming practices needed to optimize sustainability must be different too. That is why each crop (GE or conventional) must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, using science-based evidence.

I recently wrote a short Scientific American guest blog post for their "Passions of Food" day examining how cotton genetically engineered to express the organic protein Bt is affecting agriculture today. Thanks to Bora Zivkovic, former ScienceBlogger, for this collection.

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I am absolutely shocked by what you say about pesticides in your SciAm piece. I posted the following comment there:

Pamela Ronaldâs book was instrumental in helping me change my mind about GM crops. But as usual she overstates the case against âpesticidesâ:

âEven today, thousands of pesticide poisonings are reported each year (300,000 deaths globally, 1200 each year in California alone).â

This is shockingly inaccurate.

From Californiaâs Department of Pesticide Regulation:

âIn California, 157 suspected pesticide fatalities were reported to the pesticide illness registry between 1982 and 2007.â Thatâs about ten per year, and they are not caused by consumers eating foods that have been sprayed.


It is simply impossible that there were 1,200 pesticide deaths in California in one year, as Ronald indicates.

She also fails to mention that pesticides poisonings are overwhelmingly the results of attempted suicides. Most others have to do with accidents involving children from illegally stored pesticides. From the above memo:

âOf the 29 ChE cases, there were 7 occupational poisonings, including 2 accidental ingestions. Of the 22 non-occupational ingestions, there were 19 suicides. The remaining cases, described in detail in Appendix Table 1, included an accidental childhood ingestion from an unsecured container (Case #1982-1530), an ingestion with insufficient information to determine whether it was suicidal, accidental (Case # 1982-124), and 1 ingestion with insufficient information to determine whether it was suicidal, accidental or deliberate poisoning by a second party.â

Not only that:

âSixty-three cases were classified as unrelated to pesticide exposure or with insufficient information to classify. These included 22 aviation accidents (34.9%), 31 cases involving myocardial infarction, stroke or other unrelated medical condition (48.4%), 4 tractor accidents (6.3%), 5 cases with incomplete information (7.8%) and 1 murder victim whose murderer then used a pesticide to commit suicide.â

This is a pattern I have noted with Ronald before. She likes to leave the impression that consumers are being poisoned by their food even though there is absolutely no evidence that this is happening.

I donât know why someone as articulate and intelligent as Ronald could be so irrational around the issue of pesticides use. They are our friends when used properly. I feel the same way about GM products.

The most compelling reason for the farmer to scale back pesticides use is that they are expensive and time-consuming to apply.

Most of us small farmers will probably never get to use crops that have been genetically altered to resist insects due to their cost: They are scaled for factory farms, not small vegetable operations like ours here in Maine. So we will continue to use pesticidesâsafely.

Therefore, I resent the vilification Ronald places upon pesticides because it places yet another undo burden upon the really small farmer. Iâm a licensed pesticides applicator and often a properly-applied pesticide means the difference between having a crop and not having a crop.

Ronald does no one any service by spreading misinformation about pesticides.

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 17 Aug 2011 #permalink

You are improperly conflating reported deaths by pesticide poisoning with Ronald's claim of "pesticide poisonings" - which presumably includes illness caused by pesticide exposure as well as deaths. It is quite likely that the number of illnesses caused by pesticides in California is on the order of 100+ times the death rate.

"In 1987, there were 1,507 cases of occupational illness identified, with 744 of these demonstrating systemic toxic symptoms. In 1987, approximately 17,000 human pesticide exposure incidents, almost all of which were nonoccupational, were handled by poison control centers. It is estimated that about 30 to 60% developed signs or symptoms"

Weaver, here is Ronald's statement:

"Even today, thousands of pesticide poisonings are reported each year (300,000 deaths globally, 1200 each year in California alone)."

She clearly says that there are 1,200 pesticide deaths in California in one year. The statement is refuted by the memo I cited.

Also, another document makes it abundantly clear that the world deaths caused by pesticides are mostly intentional ingestion:

⢠Worldwide, an estimated three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in an excess of 250,000
⢠This mortality accounts for a substantial fraction of the almost 900,000 people worldwide who die by suicide every year.
⢠In attempted suicide, which is considerably more frequent than completed suicide, pesticide poisoning results in temporary
or permanent disability.
⢠Intentional and unintentional pesticide poisoning has been acknowledged as a serious problem in many agricultural communities
of low- and middle-income countries, including China, India, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam.
⢠Efforts to develop a systematic and sustainable approach to the prevention and management of pesticide poisoning remain


By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 18 Aug 2011 #permalink

I forgot to add:


At any rate, it is known that the pesticides that cause most deaths in rural Asia, and in the world, are WHO Class I and II organophosphorus pesticides - causing an estimated 200,000 deaths (Buckley et al., 2004; Eddleston, 2000; Gunnell et al., 2007b). At any rate, in rural Asia, the variety of pesticides available in communities for intentional or unintentional poisoning is large, reflecting the pesticides used in local agriculture. Studies from Sri Lanka suggest that less than 20% of pesticides used for self-harm are bought for the purpose; the majority are freely available in the home or nearby garden (Eddleston et al., 2006a).

The vast majority of these deaths are intentional...

Also, from the nih.gov article cited by the writer above:

"Although the amount of pesticides used annually in California is estimated to have increased 4-fold in this 40-yr period, it is believed that the actual number of pesticide-related occupational illnesses/yr increased very little."

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 18 Aug 2011 #permalink

Pesticide Poisonings =/= Pesticide Deaths.

Illness from pesticide exposure is still a pesticide poisoning.


Weaver, here is Ronald's statement:

"Even today, thousands of pesticide poisonings are reported each year (300,000 deaths globally, 1200 each year in California alone)."
She clearly says that there are 1,200 pesticide deaths in California in one year

I think that can be read either way - I have a feeling that it is just a slightly clumsy mish mash of figures - both the 300,000 and the 1200 figures pertain to the poisonings outside the parentheses and do not pertain to one and other - at least that's my reading of it, so rather than being shockingly inaccurate it may simply be a case of it being a bit of a muddled parenthetical which would have been fixed with a little extra verbage.

Pam - meh, more blog posts here, less elsewhere, I don't like moving outside my comfort zone or following links!

Indeed Ewan is correct. I made a muddle of the parenthetical. I intended to say 1200 illnesses (Not deaths) resulting from pesticide poisonings in CA. I have now corrected it in the main document.

I hope to find time to post more here soon.

Pamela was kind enough to write to say that the line in question was a mistake. She meant not that 1,200 deaths occurred in California but that 1,200 poisonings occurred. I feel a little silly and apologize for the tone of my response.

Remember that those of us who are very small farmers will probably not benefit from genetically engineered seeds and crops, and most of us are not interested in âorganicâ certification. This means we will continue to use pesticides as we see fit. The âorganicâ cult will continue to put us on the defensive with their outrageous claims about pesticides (see the Environmental Working Group and their appallingly inaccurate âDirty Dozenâ list).

I apologize if I seemed to put Ms. Ronald in the latter camp.

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 18 Aug 2011 #permalink

Good work Mike in getting Pam to own up to her mistake. Pesticides are safe when handled properly. There are plenty of suicides and deaths caused by the improper handling of pesticides in third-world countries. I have actually seen growers apply chemicals as the chemicals run down their backs and they keep applying. This is insane. And as far as the EWG's "dirty" list, this is nothing but junk science fed to gullible people to get them to donate money. Keep up the good work Mike.

I have worked for 17 of the last 20 years in developing countries. I have a media/education teaching background and have interviewed many farmers who use pesticides. The real sad point is that many farmers have limited literacy and cannot read the instructions - they do not know how to mix the pesticides in the correct ratio with water and few if any farm workers in Africa and the Pacific...where I have worked wear any protective clothing. It is either not available, not known about or to expensive. We are dealing here with human nature, farming reality as well as pesticides.

And less we forget - poor farmers, worried mothers and their families know that pesticides kill and some commit suicide with a pesticide farewell potion!!!!

By Patrick Craddock (not verified) on 19 Aug 2011 #permalink

Thank you for your blog -- very interesting.

Notwithstanding, what currently causes me worry about gmo "roundup ready" crops and the poisoning of the ecosystem from the increased use of roundup. (This is both the local effect and the runoff into the streams and oceans).

I realize that this is a different, but related concern

She likes to leave the impression that consumers are being poisoned by their food even though there is absolutely no evidence that this is happening.

I sit and think very seriously to open my own garden where I take my daily food. I think the only way I can be sure that what I eat and my family is really natural and we will not have problems. Looking over what you have written well over the above comments I realize that people do not really know what they eat just really believe what they say in commercials.