Sep 01 2016

Bt Brinjal – Destroying the Anti-GMO Narrative

Bt BringalIt is amazing how a rigid ideology can so dramatically alter one’s perception of reality and justify bad behavior. Consider the following summary of events:

One side of the GMO debate opposes the use of seeds that were created in the public interest and given freely to farmers, without any corporate ownership or profit motive. These plants dramatically reduce the use of pesticides and reduce loss due to pest damage.

The activists on this side don’t have any facts at all to back them up, so they willfully spread lies and misinformation, spread propaganda as if it were journalism, and make personal attacks against those on the other side. Yet, they still think they are the good guys.

The Anti-GMO Narrative

The anti-GMO narrative – and that is what it is, a story – has several consistent elements. According to this narrative GMOs are poisonous, bad for farmers, and solely promoted by companies out to make money by controlling the food source and exploiting farmers and the public. The problem with this cartoon is that it does not comport with reality.

Genetic modification is a technology, and it is used in a variety of ways by a variety of agents for a range of purposes. There is no inherent problem or risks from the technology itself, so those opposing it falsely claim that there is and also substitute other issues and pretend that they are inherent to the technology. These other issues are all misdirections, however.

For example, they argue that GMOs are bad because farmers cannot save and replant their own seeds. However, in developed countries at least, farmers have not been saving and replanting seeds for most crops for a century. Early in the 20th century hybrid plants became popular for their superior traits, and you cannot save and replant hybrid seeds because the traits do not breed through.

They argue that life should not be patented. However, many non-GMO plants and crops are also patented, in order to reward the research and development that went into creating the new variety. Patents are limited to 20 years, then the varieties are in the public domain. This is fairly standard practice in many industries and is not unique to GMOs.

Anti-GMO activists try desperately to tie GMOs with the use of pesticides (herbicides and insecticides). Of course, this is only one application of GM technology, and in no way is inherent to the technology itself. Further, Bt GMOs significantly reduce the use of insecticides and have been good for the environment. Herbicide tolerant GMOs have increased the use of specific herbicides, like glyphosate, but they reduced the use of other more toxic herbicides.

The net effect of Bt and herbicide tolerant GMOs is complex and depends on farming practices, but overall it has reduced pesticide use and toxicity – the opposite of what is claimed by anti-GMO activists.

That, however, is the anti-GMO narrative – that all GMOs are a health risk, increase pesticide use, and are used by corporations to exploit farmers. All of these claims are not true.

Bt Brinjal

There are some specific GMOs that obviously break the anti-GMO narrative. These crops have anti-GMO activists in a panic, because they expose their lies and might just soften the public on GMOs in the process. One such GMO is golden rice, which I have discussed previously.

The story of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is perhaps and even more dramatic example, and is farther along in development. Bt brinjal (eggplant) varieties were developed by several universities. In 2014 Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) released four Bt brinjal varieties that had completed years of field trials showing that they were safe and viable.

Seeds were given to farmers who, by many accounts, are thrilled with the results. Brinjal is a staple in the region. Typically a farmer might expect 40% of their crop to be lost to pest damage. They have to spray heavy doses of insecticide 140-180 times throughout the growing season, as often as several times per week.

Farmers growing the Bt varieties report a dramatic reduction in pesticide use by over 80% and virtually no crop loss to pests. The plants are healthy and productive.

This is a disaster for the anti-GMO narrative. Monsanto is no where to be seen, nor are any big ag corporations. There are no patents, the plants reduce pesticide use, and the farmers are happy.

This reminds me of the general in Full Metal Jacket who says, “We’ve gotta keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.” Anti-GMO activists are worried that a GMO might help poor farmers and be good for health and the environment. The horrors.

Their response has been a campaign of lies and misinformation. After reports of happy farmers in Bangladesh, some anti-GMO activists returned to the farmers, posing as journalists, and somehow managed to come away with a completely different story. This appears to be partly due to ignorance, and partly due to willful deception.

First, they spread anti-GMO propaganda to the farmers, trying to convince them that the Bt brinjal would cause paralysis or birth defects. This, of course, in addition to being wrong, taints any journalism they hoped to accomplish.

Further, this is another example of the fact that reality is complex and affords multiple opportunities for confusion. As Mark Lynas and others report, the fields with Bt brinjal also contained areas of traditional brinjal as a control, and those plants were affected by the root borer pests to which the Bt varieties are resistant. So, it is likely that the anti-GMO “reporters” saw the control plants and wrongly concluded that they were failed Bt plants.

Further, brinjal plants produce for a time and then die at the end of their life cycle. This is normal. Reporters also apparently saw dying plants and concluded that they were a failed crop, even when the farmer explained that those plants had already produced and were just at the end of their life.

Finally, Bt varieties are not immune to bad farming practices. Over watering can result in bacterial wilt, and some plots were affected by this, but this has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the Bt trait.

So – the anti-GMO activists posing as reporters did their best to poison the farmers against GMOs, and failing that they simply saw what they wanted to see, completely misinterpreting and misreporting the reality.

Fortunately, as the links above show, video-taped interviews with the actual farmers document the reality. The Bt brinjal varieties are performing well and the farmers are delighted.

As you can see here, this reality has not deterred those in the anti-GMO crowd from their preferred narrative one bit. They just attack the messenger and go back to railing against corporate greed and tampering with life.


Bt Brinjal seems to be an incredible success, improving yield and reducing pesticide use. This is good for both the health and the profits of poor farmers in the developing world.

Rigid anti-GMO ideology (and in some cases, ironically, corporate interests of the organic lobby) makes this an inconvenient reality. Once GM technology starts to show its true potential, anti-GMO propaganda is in trouble. The public will also learn that GMOs are not toxic.

In the end those who base their entire philosophy on defense of the environment, health, and the poor are doing their best to harm the environment and hurt poor farmers in the developing world. In the case of golden rice, they have also put themselves in opposition to the health of children in the developing world.  Their narrative has been pulled out from under them, so they simply manufacture lies that the crop is failing, but this is demonstrably not true.

I tend to watch such episodes like a driver watches an accident on the side of the road, with morbid fascination. How disconnected from logic and reality can people get? For how much longer can misguided environmentalists oppose the environment and the poor? Will reality ever break their fanatic adherence to their false narrative?

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