Oct 31 2016

The Times Gets it Wrong on GMOs

Bt BringalIt is unfortunate that so many journalists begin with a narrative and then back fill the facts and points necessary to tell their narrative. I have encountered this many times when being interviewed for an article or documentary – more often than not the reporter or producer is simply hunting for quotes to plug into a story they have already written. I am not giving them information so much as filling a role, which could be that of expert or of token skeptic.

We are all familiar with this phenomenon when reading about political topics in outlets that have a clear editorial policy. If the policy is clear, we don’t even expect objectivity. When reading about non-political topics, however, I do think there is a general expectation of objectivity, but the motivated reasoning can be just as pronounced.

A recent New York Times article, in my opinion, is a good example of what happens when a journalist writes about a complex and contentious topic and allows their narrative to overtake the facts. The article, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, declares the narrative in the headline (yes, I know journalists don’t write their own headlines, but they still may accurately reflect the tone of the article, as in this case).

The article begins with a false premise that sets up the narrative:

The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.

Wrong. This is a very common anti-GMO trope. Genetic modification is a tool, and is not inherently tied in any way to the two currently most common applications, herbicide resistance and pest resistance. Anti-GMO propaganda, however, frequently conflates the technology with these specific applications, because these particular traits carry no direct benefit for the consumer, and are tied to scary chemicals.

The promise of genetic modification, rather, is that it provides a tool for agricultural scientists to make more rapid and more specific changes to crop cultivars. The technology has completely fulfilled that promise. The technology works, it is safe with no demonstrable inherent risks beyond any other method of crop development.

The claim that the current applications of GM technology has not increased crop yield is also a red herring. None of the current applications were designed to increase yield. In fact, what herbicide resistant and pesticide producing GMOs are really for is increasing profits and convenience for farmers. Farmers are the customers of seed companies. They buy the seeds. Apparently the big seed companies decided that they needed to begin with the most profitable GM applications aimed at farmers.

Once the author, Danny Hakim, sets up his false premise, then he cherry picks data to demonstrate his preferred narrative. He throws in some token skepticism from the industry, knowing that most readers will just dismiss any comments from Monsanto, and he can still claim that his article was “balanced.”

The major data Hakim uses to support his narrative is an overall comparison of crop yields between Europe, that generally does not use GMOs, and North America, that has widely adopted GMOs in the last two decades. In both cases crop yields have continued to increase at a steady rate, without any discernible difference  between the two.

This is their own comparison using data from the UN. This is not a peer-reviewed study. Hakim does not even mention the 2014 meta-analysis published in PLOS One that concluded:

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

A 2015 review found:

This annual updated analysis shows that there continues to be very significant net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $20.5 billion in 2013 and $133.4 billion for the 18 years period (in nominal terms). These economic gains have been divided roughly 50% each to farmers in developed and developing countries. About 70% of the gains have derived from yield and production gains with the remaining 30% coming from cost savings. The technology have also made important contributions to increasing global production levels of the 4 main crops, having added 138 million tonnes and 273 million tonnes respectively, to the global production of soybeans and maize since the introduction of the technology in the mid 1990s.

Hakim did not even consider developing countries, where the benefit has arguably been the greatest. The increase in yield is really from a decrease in loss, mainly from pests.

Any meaningful analysis of GM technology has to consider each application unto itself. Further, the GM trait is only part of the picture – you also have to consider how it is being applied. For Bt trait crops, where a natural insecticide is produced by the plants, there is no question that this has reduced overall insecticide use, decreased crop loss due to pests, and increased profits and crop predictability for farmers. This particular application is a clear win.

Hakim reproduces a common anti-GMO trope to combine Bt crops with herbicide resistant crops – two completely different applications. Herbicide resistance, most notably glyphosate resistance, has been more complicated in its application. Farmers often love this trait because they can just spray their crops to reduce weeds. It is a huge convenience. There is also a benefit in that it can reduce tilling, which is bad for the soil and releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

However, this has clearly led to an increase in glyphosate usage. That was actually the point of the trait. The deception comes from combining herbicide resistant traits with pest resistant traits and then saying that overall pesticide (herbicide plus insecticide) use has not decreased. This is pointless, however. The fact that glyphosate use has increased takes nothing away from the fact that insecticide use has decreased. They are completely separate applications of GM technology.

Further, Hakim fails to point out that while glyphosate use has increased, it has replaced applications of much more toxic herbicides. If you measure only tons of herbicide you miss the point that overall herbicide toxicity has dramatically decreased, because glyphosate (despite claims of anti-GMO activists) is a very benign chemical.

As a minor point, but this demonstrates Hakim’s narrative, he emphasizes that Monsanto and other companies make the seeds that are paired with the chemicals they also make. But – Monsanto the chemical company is actually a different entity from Monsanto the seed company. Further, the patent has run out on glyphosate, and most of it is made by other companies, not Monsanto.

In any case, herbicide resistance is also a complicated example because how the trait is used by farmers is extremely important. Farming practice is perhaps a much larger issue than the trait itself when assessing outcome.

The Promise of Technology

I also reject the entire deeper premise of the article, that we should judge a technology by its current and early applications. This approach is fraught with bias and misdirection. Every new technology is likely to be oversold and overhyped by its major producers. The promises are also likely to take much longer to manifest than initial expectations. There are also going to be unforeseen downsides and hurdles.

All of that is true of most new technologies. It comes with the territory. This also creates the opportunity for anyone who wants to make a case against the new technology to argue that it has failed to deliver on its promises.

I was an early adopter of personal computers. I tried to use them and try them out for new applications. In the 1980s, for many of the applications I tried, they were more trouble than they were worth. They had not fulfilled their promise. It took another 10 to 20 years before they really came into their own for personal use. It also would have been foolish to judge computer technology based upon how a few software applications were working out.

One might have argued (and many people did) even into the 1990s that computers did not improve productivity. They did not reduce use of paper (remember that one – the paperless office). Even today, the use of an electronic medical record (EMR) in most practices actually reduces physician productivity. EMRs have definitely not fulfilled their promise.

It is legitimate to analyze the impact of a new technology, and examine how it is being implemented. The notion, however, that early hype is not being fulfilled is just pointless. That is not a meaningful analysis, because it is almost universally true of all technologies. We have not seen the promise of the human genome project – where are all the cured diseases?

Technology is usually more complicated than that. Much depends upon how it is developed and implemented – on the specific applications.

Saying that GM technology has not fulfilled its promise is a ridiculous anti-GMO trope. In this case it is also demonstrably wrong.

The actual promise of the technology is to increase the speed and specificity of developing new cultivars, and it has delivered on that promise.

How we implement this technology is an entirely separate question, as separate as hardware and software. In terms of each application, there are some clear wins, like Bt crops, and some more ambiguous applications, like herbicide resistance.

But there are also many other applications that people generally don’t talk about, which promise to increase nutritional content, remove toxins, prolong shelf life (and thereby reduce food waste), and resist blight.

There are also many promising applications that might actually directly increase yield, such as improved photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation.

In my opinion Hakim’s article in the Times was a hack piece with a biased narrative that is nothing more than a rehash of tired anti-GMO tropes that have already been widely deconstructed. He is entering this conversation late, and isn’t up to speed.

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