Upcoming* interview with IATP’s Dr. Jahi Chappell on GMOs for HBO’s “Vice” 

Coming up May 8*, HBO will air another episode of Vice, the Emmy-winning documentary series coming out of the Vice Media group. Already this season, Vice has addressed topics from the challenges facing us due to growing antibiotic resistance, to how much of the $10 billion in reconstruction and relief aid sent to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake has actually reached and helped Haitian communities.

The May 8 episode will focus on the future of our food system, in particular, the role of GMOs in helping us achieve a sustainable and food-secure future. Vice interviewed IATP’s Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy, Dr. Jahi Chappell, to respond to the claims they heard directly from Monsanto about how useful, necessary, and safe GMO crops are. Dr. Chappell’s arguments follow:

[*The episode, naturally, has already aired. It is Episode 31 of HBO’s Vice; you can find it here.]

Genetically modified food is the wrong answer to the wrong question

Although recent pieces in the popular media and press have dismissed critics of GMOs as being anti-science or ideological, many credentialed scientists, myself included, argue that the “GMO = Science” line is incorrect. I would point to three reasons why:

  1. GMOs are different: Genetic modification is not, as the National Academy of Science review argued, simply the same as all other breeding techniques used by humankind for 10,000 years of agriculture. It is not that there is a clear and established danger from them—it is rather the fact that we do not have a good science-based process in place to regularly determine the safety of most crops and foods, and genetic modification does introduce new techniques and new risks that could produce unforeseen harm to people and the environment without much more careful scrutiny across our food system. This includes GMOs, but—as often is called for by GMO advocates—it would also include looking much more carefully at all of our food, because while GMOs do present new risks and challenges, it is true that there are many risks that we simply do little or nothing to gauge throughout the “traditional” parts of our system.
  2. GMOs don’t help small farmers or the environment: That said, the potential unintended or unknown health risks are not the most pertinent or important part of the conversation about GMOs. As Vice’s documentary will discuss, Monsanto and its fellow companies often discuss how beneficial their products are for farmers and the environment. At best, the results are actually quite mixed The question of why and when farmers will use GM crops is relatively complicated, and it’s pretty definite that it hasn’t always brought advantages to farmers, particularly small farmers. For example, anthropologist Glenn Stone points out that even though the horrific trend of farmer suicides in India cannot be laid at the feet of GM crops, it is also true that “Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills.” In short: GM crops do not necessarily help small farmers, and in many ways contribute to existing trends that hurt them by tying them to a “modern” system that drives up debts, pushes farmers to ever expand their territory no matter the cost to the environment, often hurts already-poor farmers and the landless, and exacts huge costs on the environment and human health—such as the recent classification of Glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen” and its implication in contributing to antibiotic resistance. Given that the vast majority of GMOs in the world either incorporate a pesticide (Bt) directly into crops, or only work alongside continued heavy application of a pesticide (RoundupReady crops – Roundup is the brand name for glyphosate), the idea that GMOs decrease environmental impact or pesticide use is questionable, at best: insecticide use has decreased throughout the world, “but more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the U.S. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the U.S. when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.” At the same time, herbicide use (like glyphosate) has unsurprisingly increased over recent years—and increased more than insecticide use has decreased.
  3. We don’t need GMOs! But perhaps the most important point of all is the fact that, in order to have a future that nourishes everyone in the world and doesn’t harm the environment, GMOs are not only not the best tool, they’re not even a necessary or important one. As a team of agronomists wrote in the scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development:

    “Existing biodiversity in combination with plant breeding has much more to offer the many [sic] world’s farmers and consumers, while GMOs have more to offer the agro-industry and some large-scale farms, and this explains why they have received so much attention and research funding. GMO research should be seen as basic research, very much worth pursuing as such and with potential applications over the long term, but it cannot be seen as good strategic research directed at increasing world food production within the coming decades.  Rather, emphasis on (1.) improved agricultural practices in hunger-prone developing countries, (2.) development of agrobiodiversity resources through plant breeding, and (3.) more sustainable consumption as production of foodstuffs, could be the basis for a much better strategy if the goal is to feed the world’s population in the coming decades.”

    What’s more, it is very, very clear that the most important ways to improve food security lie in improving gender equality, women’s access to education, and increasing dietary diversity—something I’ve written about before and that was re-confirmed in a recent peer-reviewed study by established food system researchers Lisa Smith and Lawrence Haddad.

So given that GMOs are, in fact, different than the breeding we have traditionally done, that they do not necessarily help farmers or the environment and that we actually don’t need them to nourish the world, what should we do?

Agroecology For the Win

Besides the very important point to be made about the importance of gender—increasing women’s education and political equality will help decrease population growth while improving food security and nutrition, not to mention improving women’s livelihoods directly—the other thing we can do, and indeed many people are already doing, is agroecology. As seen in recent pieces in the popular press awareness of agroecology and its benefits are starting to be talked about beyond the academics, agronomists and farmers who study and practice it.

By focusing on support and collaboration with the world’s farmers, and using existing natural processes and innovative ecologically-based practices, agroecology offers the most sustainable way to go about providing for the people of the planet without irreparably damaging our environment through climate change, pollution, toxic chemicals and loss of biodiversity. Consider this: 43% of the reduction in malnutrition over the past 40 years has been tied to increases in equality for women and girls, and increases in dietary diversity. (This is more than twice the contribution by increases in productivity/food availability.) Agroecology, when done right, includes acknowledging and addressing issues of social equity and developing systems supporting autonomy and dignity for farmers across lines of class, creed, caste, and gender. It also leads to more diverse diets, as a key element of agroecology is supporting biodiversity on- and off-farm—including diversity in what you grow, and therefore, can eat.

Bad Trade Deals: Making the Bad Worse

The upcoming TPP and TTIP trade deals in the U.S.—and the “Fast Track” legislation that would allow President Obama to basically continue to write the deals in secret, with help from corporate observers—are poised to exacerbate the flaws of the GMO model. As IATP Vice President Ben Lilliston wrote last year: “The secrecy of the U.S.-EU trade negotiations, combined with the insider power of agribusiness and biotech companies, is a potentially toxic combination.” The threats posed by thissecrecy continue unabated, including the potential to pre-emptively shut down domestic attempts to label GMOs, not to mention the retaliation the U.S. government has considered against EU countries who don’t accept GM foods, as previously revealed by Wikileaks. The U.S. government wants to push back on the EU’s rational approach to GM foods based on the “precautionary principle” (i.e., “the burden of proof on the safety of an unnecessary product or technology is on the people who want to use it, not on the people who want to avoid it”). This is just one of many anti-democratic ideas lurking in these two trade deals—and GMOs are just one place where the deals could lock in corporate interests and ignore the interests and needs of farmers, everyday citizens and our democratic processes.

“No thank you” to a currently unnecessary new technology

Agricultural biotechnology is still a young area, and GMOs are a new-to-the-world technology. This means we cannot be fully sure of their effects—science can work only so fast and evidence can be slow to accumulate, especially when the effects are subtle or take years to appear. Further, the general public and independent (non-corporate) researchers have not been part of the decisions on risks and rewards, consolidated corporate interests have been.

The benefits of GMOs have not been clear, but some of their negative effects—particularly creating “superweeds”, encouraging increased pesticide use overall and putting farmers on treadmills of debt and technology where they have to take out loans to keep buying the newest thing in order to just keep pace—have become clear.

And we know that alternatives—such as the science, practice and social movements of agroecology—can do just as much or more to address the fundamental levers of food security: enhanced equality for women, dietary diversity and yes, agricultural yields. Let’s hope that Friday’s episode of Vice will help get across the evidence-based message that we don’t need GMOs, many people don’t want GMOs and in fact, with proper support for farmers and agroecology, we can do even better without them.

Dr. Chappell holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and has experience as a postdoctoral researcher in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and as a professor of Environmental Science and Justice at Washington State University.

Further Reading

See talks from a wide variety of perspectives at the National Academy of Sciences study site: “A science-based look at Genetically Engineered crops”, recordings on the Past Events page: http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/category/pastevents/

“Stick to Physics”, on how Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comments misunderstand the nature GMOs, by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace: https://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/stick-to-physics/

“Can ‘agroecology’ bring food security to Latin America?” http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/jul/28/agroecology-latin-america-smallholder-farmers

“The New Scientism”, touching on similar points, by developmental biologist Kamil Ahsan, at Jacobin magazine: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/08/the-new-scientism/

“Agroecology: Agroecosystem diversification” http://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201541 (subscription required)

“The Time Has Come for Agroecology” http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/the-time-has-come-for-agroecology/

“Agroecology can feed Africa – Not agribusiness” http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2786305/agroecology_can_feed_africa_not_agribusiness.html

“Complementary effects of species and genetic diversity on productivity and stability of sown grasslands” http://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201533 (subscription required)

“GMOs: Capitalism’s distortions of biological processes”, by genomicist Michael Friedman, at Monthly Review: http://monthlyreview.org/2015/03/01/gmos-capitalisms-distortion-of-biological-processes/

“Safety of genetically engineered foods: Approaches to assessing unintended health effects”, by National Academies Press/Institute of Medicine and National Research Council: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309092094

“No scientific consensus on GMO safety”, by Angelika Hilbeck et al., Environmental Sciences Europe: http://www.enveurope.com/content/27/1/4/abstract

“Key FDA Documents Revealing Hazards Of Genetically Engineered Foods—And Flaws With How The Agency Made Its Policy“ : http://www.biointegrity.org/FDAdocs/04/view1.html

“Can GM maize benefit smallholders and increase food security? Lessons from the field in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa”, by Mary Hendrickson et al., http://www.communitycommons.org/wp-content/uploads/bp-attachments/37359/Hendrickson-et-al-RSS-Paper-2013-a.pdf

“Interrogating the technocratic (neoliberal) agenda for agricultural development and hunger alleviation in Africa”, Moseley et al., http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19376812.2014.1003308

“Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change”, by Doug Gurian-Sherman, http://civileats.com/2014/10/10/plant-breeding-vs-gmos-conventional-methods-lead-the-way-in-responding-to-climate-change/

“Getting Past Scientized Scrutiny”, by Montenegro de Wit and Iles, http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/getting_past_scientized_scrutiny/

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