Guest Post by Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman
Note: This article is the second part of a critical review of the widely-circulating documentary about GMOs titled “Food Evolution”. [See AgroEcoDoc’s take on the film, posted earlier on this blog, here.] The documentary is premised on the challenge of feeding an increasing population, and suggests that science shows that GMOs are clearly safe, have a lot to contribute to food security, and therefore should be developed. It is also premised on the claim that the film’s points are anchored in science, and therefore its conclusions should be accepted over those of activists and scientists who argue against GMOs. The two parts of this article attempt to show why many of the arguments advanced by the film are not just wrong, but the result of a biased examination of the evidence. Therefore, the film can be properly described, as it was by Marion Nestle of New York University, as pro-GMO propaganda.
In the first part of this article, I ended with a discussion about the unjustifiable and factually incorrect dismissal by Scott Kennedy, the film’s director, of the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) conclusion that glyphosate was a “probable” carcinogen. Presentation of this important cancer assessment should have been included in “Food Evolution”.
A comment by prominently featured pro-GMO scientist Allison van Eenennaam of University of California Davis, formerly with Monsanto, further reveals the bias of the film toward herbicide resistant crops. She dismisses, in part, the increasingly serious problem of glyphosate resistant weeds that developed due to use of the herbicide on engineered crops. She remarks that if glyphosate was not used, it would simply be replaced by older and more harmful herbicides.
This statement is sadly ironic, because the increasing use of older, harmful, herbicides is happening now on a continental scale on crops engineered to be immune to those herbicides, thanks to glyphosate resistant weeds and corporate approaches to weed control. However, these old herbicides are being used in addition to the massive use of glyphosate, not replacing it.
Monsanto and friends have introduced this next batch of GMO herbicide-resistant crops that are immune to some of the oldest herbicides like 2,4-D (developed in the `40s) and dicamba (developed in the `60s). These are particularly bad actors because of their unsurpassed propensity to move beyond the field they are applied to through volatilization as well as spray drift, and have already caused millions of acres of damage to soybeans and fruit and vegetable crops, leading some hard-hit states to restrict their use and weed scientists to vehemently complain. And these crops, if they are not banned or substantially restricted, are likely to lead to the use of unprecedented amounts of these older herbicides, as has occurred with glyphosate.
As with the IARC findings, the known and potential problems with these older herbicides mated to GMOs has been discussed for years by weed scientists. Most of the damage from these recently-introduced GMO crops occurred as the film was being released (this year), and thus the observations of damage from them were too late to be included. But it has been clear that the use of these older herbicides were already on their way several years ago, and had already started to be deployed and cause harm in 2016. Had Kennedy included weed scientists in his film in addition to pro-GMO crop scientists, this would likely have become apparent.
The industry bias of the film is further revealed when Monsanto’s Robert Fraley tries to minimize the importance of glyphosate-resistant weeds, remarking that only 12 weeds have developed resistance in the U.S. While technically true, this statement neglects to mention the outsized impact of these particular weeds. It is like saying that only two strains of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria behind Staph infections are responsible for most of such infections in the U.S.: it is not merely the number of resistant species that are a problem, but their extent, aggressiveness, and difficulty to control. In the case of glyphosate-resistant weeds, this extent had reached close to 50 percent of U.S. agriculture as of five years ago. The tremendous overreliance on glyphosate due to GMO crops has meant that these weeds have spread dramatically. And some of these resistant weeds, Palmer pigweed in particular, have been especially difficult to control, leading to a crisis in weed management. This in turn led to several national “weed summits” sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. It has also contributed to the aforementioned dramatic increases in glyphosate use and the next generation of GMO crops resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba.
Harm to the Environment
Perhaps the most dramatic and visible impact on the environment associated with GMOs in the U.S. is the startling 90 percent reduction of monarch butterflies in the 20 years since the introduction of herbicide resistant corn and soybeans.
Monarch larvae (caterpillars) must have milkweed to feed on. But milkweed is more susceptible to glyphosate used with GMO crops than to previous herbicides. While milkweed usually was not prevalent enough to cause meaningful crop yield loss, the vast amount of land those crops occupied provided enough milkweed to support monarchs in the past.
Many of the most respected Monarch scientists have published numerous papers pointing to herbicide resistant crops and glyphosate as the main cause of monarch losses. Several other scientists have proposed another hypothesis based on supposed losses during migration. But given the substantial data in favor of glyphosate’s role, this issue should have been included in the film, even if qualified as being unsettled. In addition, several leading monarch research scientists found serious flaws in the data supporting the migration hypothesis over the year prior to “Food Evolution”. These problems have become more clear in recent months, with additional data supporting reduction of milkweed due to glyphosate as the main cause of monarch loss.
More broadly, GMO crops have marked a continuation and intensification of industrial monoculture, which has major negative impacts on the climate, water pollution such as dead zones and toxic algae, reduction of biodiversity such as pollinators needed to produce our food, loss of soil fertility, and more. For example, the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone”, caused primarily by nitrogen fertilizer use on corn, was the largest since measurements began in 1985, roughly the size of New Jersey. Companies and academic scientists have been saying for years that engineered crops that use less nitrogen fertilizer were just around the corner, but none have been commercialized.
In the U.S., genetically engineered seeds are part of the nexus of seed and chemical “packages” that have resulted in an increase in the amount of corn, our biggest crop, that is treated with dangerous insecticides. This increase has gone from about 30 percent of corn before engineered crops to about 90 percent of corn acres now. These neonicotinoid insecticides are linked to harm to bees and other pollinators, aquatic organisms, birds, and possibly people, and could be beneficially replaced with more ecological farming systems.
Although GE did not cause the use of neonic seed coatings, they did not prevent them, which challenges the film’s claim that Bt has reduced insecticide use in the U.S. by 10-fold. The volume of insecticide use has been reduced, a trend well under way nearly 10 years before Bt crops were introduced (see USDA, appendix figure 4.1). But as noted above, the acres of corn treated with neonic insecticide, which is associated with exposure risk, has increased dramatically. So has the toxicity to beneficial organisms like many pollinators, while they may be less harmful to people than previous insecticides. Especially given the films’ focus on the toxicity of glyphosate, rather than amount, the environmental toxicity of neonics should also have been given prominence. However, as with other substantial problems associated with or caused by GE crops, the use of neonics is not mentioned.
It is not enough for a new technology that has been touted as improving the environment to maintain, let alone intensify, unsustainable and globally destructive harm caused by industrial agriculture. Genetic engineering is only one contributor to the continuing intensification of industrial agriculture, but as the subject of the film, the failure of GMOs to improve the global environmental impact of agriculture in any meaningful way should have been addressed.
Although these are complicated issues, they are crucially important. That none were tackled is yet another example of how “Food Evolution” told an excessively one-sided and highly inaccurate story about GMOs.
Unsupportable Attack on Organic Farming
Food Evolution includes an inaccurately disparaging analysis of organic farming. This discussion culminates in Mark Lynas (who is not a scientist) claiming that if we relied on organic farming for global food security, we would have to use two or three times as much land to grow our food as we do now.
First, this claim is wildly inaccurate. The best recent research has shown that when organic is coupled with several ecologically sound farming practices, it is only about 8 or 9 percent less productive than industrial agriculture, not 50 or 60 percent less productive as Lynas claims. Even those critical of organic have typically claimed that it is 20 or 30 percent less productive. Importantly, lower organic productivity occurs with organic agriculture receiving only a few percent of the research resources of industrial agriculture. A film that touts science and the ability of science research to improve agriculture should recognize that if this gross disparity is remedied, organic productivity might well be on par with, or more productive, than industrial agriculture.
And Lynas’s argument neglects using ecological science to improve agricultural resilience to climate change, reduce environmental impact, and increase productivity. Agroecological methods have been shown to greatly improve these measures compared to industrial agriculture, and have been profitable even for large farms. For a film ostensibly concerned about science, this is another grave oversight.
Lynas’ point is also uninformed regarding the ecological science and economics of preserving biodiversity. His remarks about area needed for crop production imply simplistic relationships between crop yield and biodiversity preservation. But ecological science has shown that when the impact of farm fields is accounted for, regions using organic or similar farming methods are often better for biodiversity than wild areas embedded in industrial agriculture. This due to the need for organisms to migrate across landscapes that include agricultural areas. The older idea of intensifying agriculture to “spare land” as the predominant means of preserving biodiversity that is behind Lynas’ claims have been challenged by newer science. Lynas also neglects the economic realities of Jevon’s paradox: as agriculture becomes more efficient and profitable, it often encourages more destruction rather than conserving wild lands, unless there are adequate policies in place—which is often not the case.
Finally, the idea that production is tightly tied to food security has long been challenged, for example by the work of Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, and many others since. Poverty and political disempowerment are and have been the cause of food insecurity rather than insufficient food abundance, and there is nothing to suggest that a technology focused on livestock feed and biofuels such as patented GMO corn and soybeans will work to the benefit of the poor. That is one reason why large farmer organizations such as La Vía Campesina fight for food sovereignty and are highly skeptical of GMOs.
The film also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to discredit Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist who has published important and respected peer-reviewed research on GMO crops as well as organic farming. Benbrook is used as a surrogate to raise questions about the integrity of organic research. Although he is only one of many organic researchers, he alone is included in “Food Evolution”. He is criticized for receiving funding for his research from the organic industry, although he has usually disclosed funding sources on his web sites, a practice of openness that is not necessarily the norm for pro-GMO scientists.
In fact, the much more extensive and questionable industry funding of pro-GMO research and scientists went completely unmentioned in the film. For example, a New York Times article named several pro-GMO scientists who received industry money and worked closely with GMO companies behind the scenes, compared to only Benbrook on the organic side of the ledger. And the GMO scientists actively tried to hide, and thereby green-wash their industry connections and influence. It is not inappropriate to mention Benbrook’s organic industry funding. But it is highly hypocritical to exclude the influence of the GMO industry on agriculture research.
Had Food Evolution biased its coverage on one or two of the issues I raised in these articles, it might be chalked up to mistakes or preference. Much of the science raised here is complex and not completely settled. But lack of complete resolution is the rule rather than the exception for complex research and social issues. If these topics are going to be covered at all, this complexity cannot be avoided. Rather, the film is unremitting in presenting perspectives favorable to GMOs at every turn, through error or omission, even where the majority of the science contradicts the film’s perspectives.
It emphasizes “minor” GMOs at the near exclusion of those planted on 99 percent of acreage, and it is unjustifiably one-sided on the risks of the most widely used, and GMO-driven, pesticide in the world. It excludes mention of an important carcinogenicity assessment of glyphosate based on incorrect evaluation of the responsible agency by the film’s director. It misrepresents the use of insecticides on major GMO crops and ignores harm to monarch butterflies. It misrepresents organic farming and GMO industry influence on research and media by never mentioning the much larger influence of the GMO industry over scientists. It favors the anecdotal opinion of a few pro-GMO farmers over the concerns of large farmers organizations in the developing world that are troubled by GMOs. It ignores the most prestigious U.S. science body’s assessment that GMOs are just one of several possible means of assuring food security. And it ignores the role of GMOs in globally harmful industrial agriculture. The film excludes the substantial peer-reviewed science on these topics that are not favorable to GMOs, and includes almost exclusively perspectives or research that supports the safety and value of GMOs, including by major representatives of the GMO industry.
In the end, the film is a mockery of science. Acceptance of such propaganda as science will only serve to raise questions about the credibility of the endeavor of science itself unless recognized and identified for what it really is.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, is an Independent Consultant with Strategic Trainings and Expansion. Previously, he was Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Senior Scientist for the Center for Food Safety. Prior to that, he was Senior Scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He also worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where he was responsible for assessing human health and environmental risks from transgenic plants and microorganisms and developing biotechnology policy. He is a widely cited expert on biotechnology and genetically engineered food, and is working to build transitions from industrial agriculture to food systems based on agroecology, food sovereignty and food justice.