You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  “drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

Sensible dialogue about GMOs

Monsanto-protestOK, I know that’s not an attention-getting headline. I was tempted to go with “Why Monsanto cannot and never will be able to control the world’s food supply.” But because genetically-modified crops are already one of the most divisive and emotional topics in sustainability, there’s no need to pour fuel on the fire. Instead, let me point you to this forum in the current issue of Boston Review which seeks to bring insight, respectful conversation and yes, science, to the conversation about GMOs.

The forum is anchored by a long and thoughtful essay from Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis, who argues that GMOs are safe for humans to eat and pose no special environmental risks. Nevertheless, she writes, governments need to regulate new GMO crops and public-sector financing, as opposed to corporate control, is probably the best way to research and develop seed varieties to benefit farmers in poor countries.

Pamela (who I’ve written about before, here) also reminds shoppers who pursue so-called natural foods that

virtually every crop grown for human consumption has been genetically modified in some way: bananas are sterile plants with artificially induced triple chromosomes, some varieties of California-certified organic rice were developed through radiation mutagenesis, and most cheeses use genetically engineered rennet as a key ingredient.

In other words, unless you forage for wild berries, hunt game, or catch wild salmon, you are consuming a food that has been genetically altered.

Yes! There really is almost no such thing as natural foods, despite the labels that proliferate in supermarkets. [See my July blogpost, Our misguided fetish for “natural” foods.)

I also liked this essay by farmer and dietician Jennie Schmidt, explaining why farmers decide to plant GMO seeds, and the measured approach taken by Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who explains that her “major concern about genetic engineering is not its risks but that its over-hyped promises will divert resources from the pursuit of more promising technologies.”

I’ve contributed a story to the forum that looks at corporate opposition to GMOs. Companies like Whole Foods, Stonyfield Yogurt, Naked Juice (which is part of PepsiCo) and even McDonald’s have either opposed transgenic crops, or tried to steer clear of them. I argue that their resistance to support GMO technology could “stand in the way of biotech innovations that, at least in theory, could make agriculture more sustainable.”

My story concludes:

This corporate opposition to GMOs surely has effects, hard as they may be to measure. In all likelihood, they discourage research into biotech solutions to plant diseases such as the coffee rust that threatens the coffee industry and the “citrus greening” that has spread through Florida orange groves. Biotech companies have developed soybeans with a healthier fatty acid composition, which would give soybean oil a profile more like that of heart-healthy olive oil. But consumer resistance could mean that such healthier products never reach the shelves. Indeed, despite the defeat of California’s GMO labeling initiative last year, it appears as if the anti-GMO forces are winning the battle for the hearts, if not the minds, of America’s food shoppers. So much for Monsanto’s quest for world domination.

The idea that Monsanto–or anyone–can control the world’s food supply is, frankly, ludicrous. No farmer is obligated to buy Monsanto’s seeds and many, of course, do not.

Two concluding thoughts: I wrote in my story that “organic farmers understandably worry that their crops will be contaminated by genetically modified crops growing nearby.” Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project wrote me to say that “contamination” is a loaded word, and that the correct scientific term is “cross-pollinate.” Cross-pollination isn’t a health or environmental issue, but when GMO crops find their way into organic or conventional fields, by wind or insects or some other means, the organic or conventional farmers can suffer economic damage, particularly if they are growing for export markets. [See my 2011 blogpost, Attack of the mutant rice, and my 2007 Fortune story, also called Attack of the mutant rice, if you're curious about what can go wrong.]

Finally, I’ve been pleased to read some superb reporting about GMOs lately, particularly from Amy Harmon of The New York Times and Nathanael Johnson of Grist. Maybe, just maybe, we can get beyond the polarized GMO debate. The more that people understand what plant breeders and farmers do, and why they do it, the more likely that we will collectively make wise decisions about when GMO technology makes sense and how best to manage it.