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Seeds of Doubt: An activist’s controversial crusade against GM crops
August 25, 2014 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Michael Specter of The New Yorker profiles and critiques prominent anti-Genetically Modified crops activist (and purported leading physicist) Vandana Shiva: "her statements are rarely supported by data, and her positions often seem more like those of an end-of-days mystic than like those of a scientist."

Previously on Metafilter: 1, 2, 3
posted by Bwithh (89 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
“Until the 1960s, India was successfully pursuing an agricultural development policy based on strengthening the ecological base of agriculture and the self-reliance of peasants,”

No. Until the 1960s India was in a state of famine and mass-starvation.

They want to release G.M.O.s without testing, and they want to impose this order worldwide. I decided on the flight back I didn’t want that world.

Millions of farmers have done this for thousands of years.

“Fertilizer should never have been allowed in agriculture,” she said in a 2011 speech. “I think it’s time to ban it. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. Its use is like war, because it came from war.”

Well guess what, lady. Without that fertilizer there's a better than even chance half your people would have never been born.

“G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,” she said in a speech earlier this year.

And we're done here. This is like a fucking antivaccer of food. Ignore all the poverty, famine and suffering before the invention of modern agricultural techniques. Ignore the mass environmental destruction that accompanied the ever increasing use of land instead of increasing yield. Nah, Polio wasn't that fucking bad either and kids get Measles all the time, right guys?
posted by Talez at 4:15 PM on August 25 [66 favorites]


"Antivaxxer of Food" is a great label, which I'll be using from now on.
posted by twsf at 4:28 PM on August 25 [13 favorites]


Well guess what, lady. Without that fertilizer there's a better than even chance half your people would have never been born.

While I am entirely allied with your position, Talez, I always have to pause and cringe a little when we get to the part about how modern fertilizers and farming methods have given us a world population of more than 7 billion, as though that is obviously a good thing.

I mean, would 14 billion be twice as good?

This is not a criticism so much as a confession.
posted by General Tonic at 4:31 PM on August 25 [20 favorites]


"Antivaxxer of food" sums it up pretty nicely, yeah. Often it's the same people. Whatever kernel of legitimate concern might exist is drowned out by the sea of crazy. There's a certain irony when the left criticizes evangelical Christians, then turns around and practices the exact same sort of fundamentalist, science-denying magical thinking...
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:32 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


GMO would be the prefered appellation.
posted by Meatafoecure at 4:33 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


"If global population reaches 9.1 billion by 2050, the FAO says that world food production will need to rise by 70%, and food production in the developing world will need to double. The projected 70% increase in food production will have to overcome rising energy prices, growing depletion of underground aquifers, the continuing loss of farmland to urbanization, and increased drought and flooding resulting from climate change. The FAO estimates that doubling food production in the developing world by midcentury alone will require an average annual net investment of US$83 billion dollars (in 2009 dollars). That translates into a 50% increase over current investment levels, and that does not include funds that may be needed to build roads and large scale irrigation projects." (source)

“By 2050, we will not have a planet left that is recognizable” if current food trends continue, said Jason Clay at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Clay, who has taught at Yale and Harvard and worked at the USDA and is now senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, says a population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050 will see more competition for increasingly scarce resources, necessitating the production of “as much food in the next 40 years as in the last 8,000 years." (source)

"Climate change and an increasing population could trigger a global food crisis in the next half century as countries struggle for fertile land to grow crops and rear animals, scientists warned yesterday. To keep up with the growth in human population, more food will have to be produced worldwide over the next 50 years than has been during the past 10,000 years combined, the experts said." (source)

-------

GM won't solve our problems. It is not a magic techno-fix. Lack of water, lack of land, climate change, loss of top soil, poor distribution due to conflicts and corruption, sprawl, etc.. and even if we do solve it with Green Revolution 2.0 .. what are we going to have 15 billion people, then what? Maybe 2 billion is sustainable at an affluent level.
posted by stbalbach at 4:34 PM on August 25 [10 favorites]


Yeah, with all the shit-smeared death, destruction, corruption and horror in the world, it's Vandana Shiva that is the problem.

The New Yorker's a neoliberal rag.
posted by metagnathous at 4:37 PM on August 25 [12 favorites]


If the net effect of your green revolution is a population explosion which results in again outstripping your new food production capacity in just a few decades, the solution isn't another green revolution, it's maybe finding a way to exist as a species that doesn't rely on starvation as the limiting factor on population.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:41 PM on August 25 [18 favorites]


GM won't solve our problems. It is not a magic techno-fix.

That's.... exactly what Specter's article says.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:41 PM on August 25 [11 favorites]


>stbalbach,

that seems to be more of an argument for birth control/population control than anything to do with GMO's (for or against). I mean, is starving people to death really our best method of preventing overpopulation? I really hope we come up with something better.

----

>metagnothous,

I'd say anyone arguing for banning fertilizer (and starving millions to death) is firmly on the "death, destruction, corruption and horror" side of the coin.

----

I once worked at a grocery store that was often accused of taking your "Whole Paycheck", and while the upper management was anti-GMO kool-aid drinkers, I didn't find a single employee that was anti-GMO. We all knew it was an incredibly effective marketing ploy, and so you'd see labels for "Non-GMO tomatoes", despite the fact that no GMO tomatoes exist on the market today.
posted by DGStieber at 4:43 PM on August 25 [18 favorites]


The New Yorker's a neoliberal rag.

This little bit of hyperbole made me laugh, but, yeah, you're right, but Morning Star or Socialist Worker it is not. On the bright side, the New Yorker is never going to conform to predictable party lines.

Like it or not, the world's population will continue to grow until it peaks sometime in this century. We need more food. On top of that, climate change means we need food that uses less water, and we also need food where we don't have to spray neurotoxins etc on them to control pests. GMO's will help with that.

Don't forget, the environmental degradation has been inflicted on the planet by a minority of the planet's population - people living in the rich countries of the north. The problem is not population, it is consumption by a minority. This should give us hope.
posted by Nevin at 4:48 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Yeah, with all the shit-smeared death, destruction, corruption and horror in the world, it's Vandana Shiva that is the problem.

There are thousands of articles out there, many of them discussed right here on MetaFilter, that aren't about "shit-smeared death, destruction, corruption and horror". Those are not the only legitimate things to discuss, not even for Surrious Jernalists, and writing an article about something is not a proclamation that it's the most burning issue facing civilization.

Anyway, if we allow our food policy to be guided by hysteria and mystical thinking rather than science, it will contribute to the suffering in the world.

and so you'd see labels for "Non-GMO tomatoes", despite the fact that no GMO tomatoes exist on the market today

I'll see your tomatoes, and raise you one container of non-GMO salt.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:50 PM on August 25 [27 favorites]


I think it's really unfortunate that anti-GMO people often bring anti-scientific arguments into their rhetoric. To me, the only argument that needs to be made is the economic one: GMOs are (often) designed to be completely controlled by their manufacturer and not the farmer. This just doesn't pass any sort of basic fairness test and shouldn't be allowed. If there was a ban on that practice, I would be much more receptive to them.
posted by frogmanjack at 4:55 PM on August 25 [42 favorites]


As this excellent article points out, any sensible debate over GMOs must separate the basic technique of genetic modification, from the specific traits that are engineered into transgenic crops. Unfortunately, that's quite a bit more nuance than any given Facebook shouting match can tolerate.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:01 PM on August 25 [15 favorites]


I think it's really unfortunate that anti-GMO people often bring anti-scientific arguments into their rhetoric. To me, the only argument that needs to be made is the economic one: GMOs are (often) designed to be completely controlled by their manufacturer and not the farmer. This just doesn't pass any sort of basic fairness test and shouldn't be allowed. If there was a ban on that practice, I would be much more receptive to them.

That has more to with hybrids than whether there has been genetic modification. Hybrids don't breed true. Are you proposing a ban on hybridization?
posted by Area Man at 5:02 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


Separate issues, separate solutions. If stupid patent laws say farmers have to buy seed from big ag companies or pay a certain amount, change the laws. If the seed is engineered to not be reusable, hack the genome. If there is proof of any nutritional or medical problem with the genetic changes, then keep tinkering until it's right. Being able to feed more people with less burden on the environment and prevent blindness in developing countries is much more important than these superstitious hangups.
posted by fraxil at 5:02 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


It is quite likely true that GMO crops don't pose a health danger to people eating them; however, patented food poses other dangers. Monsanto's take on patents on food starts with this article. It includes perfectly reasonable statements like "Farmers are presented with a contract that gives them a license to purchase the proprietary seed and traits,"..."It also spells out the obligations and responsibilities that they would have in growing that seed. Among those obligations, farmers agree not to save seed and plant it again the following year." ... “Roundup Ready soybeans did not exist except by science,” Baucum said. “It was man-created. We took something that would not have occurred without our efforts and intervention and we created something of much higher value. In this country, that qualifies for a patent.”
Monsanto uses Farmers Reporting Farmers to ensure there patents are enforced. “People need someone to call,” Lockhart said. “They just can’t sit and stew about it. A lot of people that call have that personal sense of ethics that a line has been crossed. I feel really good about what I do; I don’t do this because I enjoy putting people on the spot or having investigators go out and check them. I’m helping to make the playing field fair.”
Once you have been accused, Monsanto has a complete, very fair process to handle any violations. The farmer has my word that we’re going to gather his records and do it in a respectful way,” McDowell said. “We’re going to take those records, go through the farming operation, and find out what the size of the violation is. And we’re going to bring in a person from Monsanto and get this worked out. There’s nothing good about seeing a farmer or a family upset.”
I can see where India, which has a very different tradition of intellectual property protection might take a different view of the benefits of GMOs.
posted by TheProudAardvark at 5:03 PM on August 25 [12 favorites]


I mean, would 14 billion be twice as good?

No it wouldn't. But you can't change the past. However, in the present you can at least stop billions of people from starving to death through the magic of science and innovation.
posted by Talez at 5:05 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


GM won't solve our problems. It is not a magic techno-fix. Lack of water, lack of land, climate change, loss of top soil, poor distribution due to conflicts and corruption, sprawl, etc.. and even if we do solve it with Green Revolution 2.0 .. what are we going to have 15 billion people, then what? Maybe 2 billion is sustainable at an affluent level.

Nothing in a vacuum is a silver bullet. But deliberately throwing away one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal against food insecurity seems silly. Especially when the reason is "it's not natural" even though every food we eat is nothing like the original that the domesticated variant was bred out of thousands of years ago.
posted by Talez at 5:10 PM on August 25 [10 favorites]


The closest I've heard to a reasonable anti-GMO argument is that the business practices of Monsanto and such are deplorable, which, while true, sounds to me a bit like suggesting that Comcast's shadiness is reason enough to call it a day on that whole internet fad.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:11 PM on August 25 [25 favorites]


Are you proposing a ban on hybridization?

No, I'm proposing a ban on the practice of creating "zombie seeds" that are designed not to be re-plantable. Perhaps it would be difficult to word such a ban so that it doesn't ban hybridization.
posted by frogmanjack at 5:14 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


While I am entirely allied with your position, Talez, I always have to pause and cringe a little when we get to the part about how modern fertilizers and farming methods have given us a world population of more than 7 billion, as though that is obviously a good thing.

I agree with both of you, here.

Yeah, with all the shit-smeared death, destruction, corruption and horror in the world, it's Vandana Shiva that is the problem.

You're right! We should only talk about the top ten problems facing humanity.

GM won't solve our problems.

I won't go so far as to call that a straw man, but I will point out that I don't think anyone has said otherwise. What is being claimed here is that GMO seeds and products are probably a good thing on the net balance.
posted by Edgewise at 5:15 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


If stupid patent laws say farmers have to buy seed from big ag companies or pay a certain amount, change the laws.
...
Farmers are presented with a contract that gives them a license to purchase the proprietary seed and traits,"..."It also spells out the obligations and responsibilities that they would have in growing that seed. Among those obligations, farmers agree not to save seed and plant it again the following year."

As the article points out, Shiva's home country of India bans such practices with the Farmers' Rights Act of 2001. Farmers in India have the right to save and replant their seeds. So this is not a concern there.

No, I'm proposing a ban on the practice of creating "zombie seeds" that are designed not to be re-plantable.

These have never been commercially available, and from what I can tell, it does not appear that they are currently being developed. They're also illegal in India.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:19 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I know Monsanto developed suicide seed technology, but did they ever actually deploy it? I thought not, but can't find a definitive answer after some light googling.
posted by Area Man at 5:20 PM on August 25


Separate issues, separate solutions. If stupid patent laws say farmers have to buy seed from big ag companies or pay a certain amount, change the laws. If the seed is engineered to not be reusable, hack the genome. If there is proof of any nutritional or medical problem with the genetic changes, then keep tinkering until it's right. Being able to feed more people with less burden on the environment and prevent blindness in developing countries is much more important than these superstitious hangups.

Because god knows we've been totally reforming the patent laws to help people and hurt large corporations? And it's not like New Zealand sent their version of a SWAT team to deal with one guy making bank off of stolen intellectual property, so it's not as if your genomic hacking lab wouldn't be incinerated from orbit as a terrorist threat once Monsanto figured out what you were doing (not too mention everyone being sued into oblivion.)

The problem with GMOs is that they are a tool for tying the world food system even more tightly to US intellectual property laws than it already is. But, even Jacobin can't seem to make the right argument. They start off well:
Any discussion of the state of science must deal directly with the massive expansion in privately funded science over the last few decades. In other words, it must grapple with a status quo few scientists question or even recognize.

Today, large numbers of scientists are in the employ of Big Pharma, Big Ag, and all kinds of corporations with anti-environmental and anti-social justice agendas. Meanwhile, academics, while still largely publicly funded, have their own ties to capital. Many receive grants or training fellowships from biotech, pharmaceutical, or agricultural companies; serve on advisory panels and committees; oversee and participate in industry-funded events and colloquiums; and rely on industry links as funnels for outgoing graduate students or postdoctoral candidates.

GMOs are a good example of how academics function as cheerleaders for Big Ag.

Professors often appear in the pages of popular science magazines or journals, hailing the arrival of modern GMOs. These essays aren’t lacking in facts — i.e., most of the food we eat has already been genetically manipulated and cultivated — but they’re entirely unhelpful because they rarely discuss the way corporate agriculture operates.
But the problem is that you can't talk about "food issues" in "left" progressive circles in the US and be open about how "organic" and anti-GMO talk is completely a class signifier and nothing else. Everyone wants to eat the food they personally want, rather than think hard about a food system that is just for everyone.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:23 PM on August 25 [13 favorites]


You can't save hybrid seed.
posted by JPD at 5:30 PM on August 25


As for the unalloyed good of fertilizers, we can consider the dead zone, or hydrocarbon use in their production.
posted by TheProudAardvark at 5:33 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I'm currently reading the The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka in which he outlines how he was able to grow as much, if not more crops than farmers using modern techniques. Though he was farming before genetically modified crops were the norm, his experiments in permaculture and organic farming are still notable.
posted by nikoniko at 5:35 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


I think it's really unfortunate that anti-GMO people often bring anti-scientific arguments into their rhetoric. To me, the only argument that needs to be made is the economic one: GMOs are (often) designed to be completely controlled by their manufacturer and not the farmer.

That's not an argument against GMOs, it's an argument for patent reform.
posted by spaltavian at 5:42 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Thank god having a farming uncle pretty much disabused me of any romance over the farm.

And I've seen Shiva's claims, on the authority of her being a physicist, used to trot out tons of dubious Fukushima rad-scare Luddite propaganda. It's kind of embarrassing to look back at a bunch of my textbooks from poli-sci classes about developing nations and see how often Shiva is included as an authority on development when she's really more demagoguery than anything else.
posted by klangklangston at 5:42 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


Just to throw out a sidebar on the issue of feeding a growing population ... Jonathan Foley, until recently director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, and now executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, touts a broad five point plan recently profiled for the layperson in National Geographic. A good starting point on a variety of issues of which questions about fertilizers and GMOs are just a part.
posted by buffalo at 5:47 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Bt cotton, for instance, contains genes from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that is found naturally in the soil. The bacterium produces a toxin that targets cotton bollworm, a pest that infests millions of acres each year. Twenty-five per cent of the world’s insecticides have typically been used on cotton, and many of them are carcinogenic. By engineering part of the bacterium’s DNA into a cotton seed, scientists made it possible for the cotton boll to produce its own insecticide. Soon after the pest bites the plant, it dies.
Wow this Bt thing sounds like a great way to eliminate carcinogenic insecticides from our environment. Sign me up!
In November 2009, Monsanto scientists found the pink bollworm had become resistant to the first-generation Bt cotton in parts of Gujarat, India - that generation expresses one Bt gene, Cry1Ac. This was the first instance of Bt resistance confirmed by Monsanto anywhere in the world.
Uh oh.
Monsanto immediately responded by introducing a second-generation cotton with multiple Bt proteins, which was rapidly adopted.
Phew, thanks Monsanto, I was worried for a second there. How long can we expect this amazing solution to our insecticide problems to last us?
Based on the 24 cases reviewed here, pests can evolve resistance to toxins in Bt crops in as few as 2 years under the worst circumstances; under the best circumstances, however, efficacy can be sustained for 15 years or more.
15 years, that's great! It's more than enough time to develop and test a final and permanent fix for this problem of evolving resistance in insects.
Although regulations in the United States and elsewhere mandate refuges of non-Bt host plants for some Bt crops, farmer compliance is not uniformly high and the required refuge percentages may not always be large enough to achieve the desired delays in evolution of resistance
Or, maybe we won't get 15 years.
posted by euphorb at 5:49 PM on August 25 [9 favorites]


I'm always doubtful when people claim that GMO is just like breeding that's gone on over the centuries. Aside from the patent problems, it's obviously faster and it seems like it can involve combinations that could never have occurred in nature no matter how much you tried. As for nothing possibly bad ever happening, africanized bee research didn't really turn out too well, did it?
posted by idb at 5:50 PM on August 25 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I just...this article swerves wildly between making valid points and being totally ignorant.

This is so on point, for example:
White rice is the most ridiculous food that human beings can cultivate," he said. “It is just a bunch of starch, and we are filling our bellies with it." He shrugged. "But it’s natural," he said, placing ironic emphasis on the final word. "So it passes the Luddite test."
And then he says weird, Orientalist shit like this:
Pawar is forty-seven, with skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a well-worn saddle.
Even this quote, which blames Shiva's popularity on romantic Western ideas about pastoralism, totally ignores Gandhi's influence:
"Shiva is lionized, particularly in the West, because she presents the romantic view of the farm," Conway said. "Truth be damned. People in the rich world love to dabble in a past they were lucky enough to avoid—you know, a couple of chickens running around with the children in the back yard. But farming is bloody tough, as anyone who does it knows. It is like those people who romanticize villages in the developing world. Nobody who ever lived in one would do that."
Whether or not you agree with him, Gandhi was very much in favor of villages (as opposed to cities) and could be quite anti-industrialization. To paint Shiva as a demagogue propped by the West is so one-dimensional and makes me question the author's motives and biases.

Also, Golden Rice is even less of a panacea than the article claims. Specter writes this:
In their study "The Economic Power of the Golden Rice Opposition," they calculated that the absence of Golden Rice in the past decade has caused the loss of at least 1,424,680 life years in India alone.
This is the study he's referring to, which hinges on this statement:
A recent study with children has shown that the bioavailability of provitamin A from Golden Rice is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil, and far better than spinach in providing vitamin A to children. A daily intake of 60 g of rice (half a cup) would provide about 60 per cent of the Chinese Recommended Nutrient Intake of vitamin A for 6–8-year-old children and be sufficient to prevent vitamin A malnutrition (Tang et al., 2009, 2012).
Two things: First, those Tang et al. studies (1, 2) focus only on healthy Chinese schoolchildren. However, children with severe vitamin A deficiencies usually suffer from other nutrient deficiencies as well, which can complicate their ability to absorb supplements (citation). Additionally, a report by Dasra shows that children under the age of 36 months require mostly non-food interventions to improve their nutrition and thus are not likely to benefit from enriched foods like golden rice. Proper nutrition early on is crucial to a child's development and later health, but the most successful strategies to mitigate malnutrition are breastfeeding, preventive health care, prompt illness treatment, and immunizations. Direct food relief is less effective.

It is difficult to believe the other things Specter writes, because there is SO much context that he ignores behind all of these issues -- which is maybe understandable, given length constraints. But talking about India and the "developing" world without really understanding the nuances is so common that I have little patience for it.

That said, Shiva's anti-science schtick is total bullshit and really undercuts any reasoned debate.
posted by Ragini at 5:54 PM on August 25 [15 favorites]


You can't save hybrid seed.

But it's disingenous to suggest that from the intellectual property law with respect to hybridized seed and plants is the same as transgenic, or however GM, organisms which can be much more tightly patented.

If you like the way Microsoft, Oracle, etc develop technology, you'll love the way Monsanto or Cargill will develop genetically modified organisms.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:57 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


No. It's just response to the seed-savers. Not a commentary on bad IP law.

Indeed the problem is the IP law, not the fact that GMO crops don't grow true from seed.
posted by JPD at 6:00 PM on August 25


It is difficult to believe the other things Specter writes, because there is SO much context that he ignores behind all of these issues -- which is maybe understandable, given length constraints. But talking about India and the "developing" world without really understanding the nuances is so common that I have little patience for it.

That said, Shiva's anti-science schtick is total bullshit and really undercuts any reasoned debate.


that's the problem in a nutshell, you have people like Specter, whose career is based around fluffing for corporate science and big science in general... the science-industrial complex (and often military too...)vand then on the left you have the usual circus of cranks and charlatans.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:01 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Don't forget, the environmental degradation has been inflicted on the planet by a minority of the planet's population - people living in the rich countries of the north. The problem is not population, it is consumption by a minority. This should give us hope.

That isn't the way many see it. Overpopulation and lack of coherent regulation in poor regions leads to bad agricultural practices, deforestation, widespread habitat destruction, and rampant pollution. I might agree that this degradation has been inflicted by a minority of the planet, but the effects are worldwide. Why else would it make sense to move polluting industries to poor countries?

As an example, Starbucks has recently had a photo-mural addition in many stores I've been to (in Canada), showing the happy owners of coffee-producing land in S. America, and SE Asia. Look behind the colorful farmer and you see nothing but miles of deforested land. We're eating ourselves out of house and home.
posted by sneebler at 6:02 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Starvation in India is not because of insufficient food production. It is because of inefficient distribution. GMO crops in India will help nobody but the Monsantos of the Western nations.
posted by asra at 6:09 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


Overpopulation and lack of coherent regulation in poor regions leads to bad agricultural practices, deforestation, widespread habitat destruction, and rampant pollution.

The vast majority of C02 emissions that are pushing us rapidly towards 400 ppm come from the "nations of the North" with a minority of the world's population.

If we're talking deforestation, Europe's environment is radically more transformed than, say, Brazil. Same as the US.

Anyway, my point is that the Malthusians always think that pop growth in developing nations will cause environmental collapse, when in truth people living in, for example, Egypt or Pakistan consume far far far fewer resources than their counterparts in N America or Europe.
posted by Nevin at 6:11 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Starvation in India is not because of insufficient food production. It is because of inefficient distribution. GMO crops in India will help nobody but the Monsantos of the Western nations.

From the article:
Everyone had a story to tell about insecticide poisoning. “Before Bt cotton came in, we used the other seeds,” Rameshwar Mamdev told me when I stopped by his six-acre farm, not far from the main dirt road that leads to the village. He plants corn in addition to cotton. “My wife would spray,” he said. “She would get sick. We would all get sick.” According to a recent study by the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, there has been a sevenfold reduction in the use of pesticide since the introduction of Bt cotton; the number of cases of pesticide poisoning has fallen by nearly ninety per cent. Similar reductions have occurred in China. The growers, particularly women, by reducing their exposure to insecticide, not only have lowered their risk of serious illness but also are able to spend more time with their children.

“Why do rich people tell us to plant crops that will ruin our farms?” Narhari Pawar asked. Pawar is forty-seven, with skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a well-worn saddle. “Bt cotton is the only positive part of farming,” he said. “It has changed our lives. Without it, we would have no crops. Nothing.”
posted by mr_roboto at 6:11 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Cotton is not a food crop. Anyways - Food supply & starvation . This is a fairly well researched subject, at least in the subcontinent.
posted by asra at 6:21 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


So since cotton isn't a food crop, it's fine that people get poisoned using pesticides on it?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:26 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Here's my "anti-GMO" stance (as much as it can be called one):

1) No patents on things like genetic modification. OR... If there ARE to be patents it should be short or something like recovery of cost + x% profit (not compound interest) until patent expires...

2) Possibly, instead of for profit corporations doing GMO research, only Government research, whereby the fruits of all are put into the public domain so that no singular commercial entity may profit from a particular technology.

3) Transgenic crops should be more tightly regulated than cisgenic or subgenic. I'm not sure to what degree this is feasible or desirable. I am not one to say that "frankenfoods" are "evil". However, I do think there is a degree of danger from cross-species genetic interplay that arises from complexity (And I mean "complexity" not in the "hurdur we're too stupid to understand complexity of what we're doing, let's not play god" but rather in the System Sciences sense). I think this degree of danger is much less than what the anti-GMO nutters think, but not as safe as the pro-GMO crowd would like to admit.

The two forms this would take is:
a) Secondary effects within the given organism, that might cause undesirable traits/effects arising as an unknown feature of interactions between the two species. This may be obvious right away, but it might also be problematic only when viewed within introducing a third entity - the entity which consumers the organism.

b) Tertiary effects within the larger ecosystem. This could be seen as an expansion of the last issue above: Sometimes the dangers of a product is not known until it is already released into the wild. The anti-GMO crowd would have you believe that these dangers are all known beforehand and kept secret by the corporate masters who hide these dangers from the relevant authorities so they can make money, but I wouldn't necessarily go that far. I certainly think some of that happens, but I also think that there are truly systemic effects that cannot be known until something is released into the larger system. This could come into play via the secondary effects mentioned above being spread further (that is, a trait in a species causes it to interact via metabolism in a second entity (for example) that causes an unknown negative process and in this process spread through the food chain. It's probably an unlikely issue, but I can perceive it being a problem.

The other tertiary effect is more due to things like genetic drift where a trait becomes the dominant trait amongst all members of that species over time.

This is problematic, but I don't think it should preclude any work done with GMOs. Of course the pure virtuous antiGMO/antiVaxx hippies would think so.

I mean my god, the term "Frankenfoods" is not only because of the "cross-species" interactions and mix/matching parts, but also because, IIRC, Frankenstein is a sort of modern day parable of the fear of scientific advancement and "the unknown". In this way, the anti-GMO crowd are the crazed out rabid townsfolk with their pitchforks, the anti-tech zealots ready to destroy any advance out of fear of what it might be, not necessarily from what it actually is.

4) Another possibility, with regard to the above is that transgenic crops seem to be related to three general purposes. Again this is my vague, cursory layman's understanding:

a) Nutritional Enhancement - Such as rice containing beta carotene ("golden rice").
b) Drug Synthesis - A way to produce medical substances.
c) Crop Hardiness - My initial understanding was things like bt/roundup ready that contain a pest-killing gene or makes a crop resistant to herbicides, but apparently "drought hardiness" and other similar features are also being researched (if not already exist).

I would say that there are useful effects for some if not all of these. What is in the public interest, what needs to have more stringent standards and what might be best to use in the private sphere (i.e. drug synthesis) but kept out of full public access (i.e. we don't really want crops that produce antibiotics released wildly into the larger genomic population due to the already dangerous widespread antibiotic useage/weakening abilities)

5) Terminator seeds are wrong and should be banned. Anything that prevents farmers from working with seeds after they've obtained them (as much as is "naturally" possible) should be made illegal. Control of the food supply should not be left to corporations or the government itself. This ties into the issue of patents and public-domaining the technology. The difference between me and the antiGMO crowd here is that instead of banning altogether, we would ban the rules that make these terminator seeds a legal entity for a given entity (corporate, government) to produce.

So there are a multitude of legitimate legal issues regarding a variety of effects that we can look into with regards to these organisms, and instead of a binary YES/NO, we should be able to separate these concerns and deal with them individually, but also as part of a total system of regulations on how GMO is done.

I think the hardest thing is finding process whereby all parties involved can work towards finding a solution that benefits the public the most, while limiting overreaching power towards those who produce said GMOs.

I honestly don't know if that's possible in our current political system, let alone political climate, but I think it's important we try. I certainly think we can do better than the go it alone patchwork set of laws we have now that have evolved via legal precedents, corporate backed laws, and hysteria backed counterreactions.
posted by symbioid at 6:28 PM on August 25 [14 favorites]


And the award for the most ridiculous statement in the piece is....

Exxon Mobil is worth seven times as much as Monsanto, yet it has never been able to alter the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the principal cause of climate change.

Often, the best lies are the most blatant ones.
posted by euphorb at 6:32 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Exxon Mobil has certainly been able to shape public opinion, but they have not altered the scientific consensus: the validity of anthropogenic climate change is settled science.

Shiva claims that Monsanto controls the editorial boards of major scientific journals. This is an outrageous (and slanderous) claim to make with no proof.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:41 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


despite the fact that no GMO tomatoes exist on the market today.
posted by DGStieber at 7:43 AM on August 26 [1 favorite +] [!]


True, but for the record, GMO tomatoes are a thing that exists and were on the market at one time. They're just not being produced at the moment: The Flavr Savr.
posted by BinGregory at 6:51 PM on August 25 [4 favorites]


To me, the only argument that needs to be made is the economic one: GMOs are (often) designed to be completely controlled by their manufacturer and not the farmer. This just doesn't pass any sort of basic fairness test and shouldn't be allowed.

People still buy iPods and Kindles. I used to have a VCR too.
posted by maryr at 6:58 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


BinGregory: "True, but for the record, GMO tomatoes are a thing that exists and were on the market at one time. They're just not being produced at the moment: The Flavr Savr."

Eh, that's what they called my goatee long before the tomatoes.
posted by symbioid at 7:05 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


People still buy iPods and Kindles.

For one thing, these are rich people who have disposable income. The farmers forced into bad contracts with agribusiness usually aren't. Also, I think people shouldn't buy those devices because of the lack of control that they receive, but because of my last point I don't think that should be legislated.

I used to have a VCR too.

VCRs were a pretty open platform. I'm not sure what point you are making there.
posted by frogmanjack at 7:15 PM on August 25


People still buy iPods and Kindles. I used to have a VCR too.

Steve Jobs never tried to tell you when you could or couldn't use your iPod, though.

I think all the scaremongering from both the right and the left (and don't kid yourselves--this is an issue with some overlap at the fringes) on GMOs is at least partly calculated political propaganda. Voters' eyes tend to glaze over once you start talking about abstruse matters in IP law and economics. Much easier to fill their heads with scary science fiction scenarios to get their attention. Like how some politicoes were trying to opportunistically exploit the Ebola situation to promote tighter border control to resolve the "border crisis." The demagogues do it because that's all that works to motivate people politically in the US nowadays: fear. Certainly not subtle ethical or economic considerations. We're the land of the 'fraid.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:25 PM on August 25


symbioid:
"2) Possibly, instead of for profit corporations doing GMO research, only Government research, whereby the fruits of all are put into the public domain so that no singular commercial entity may profit from a particular technology."
I agree with everything else in your comment as well but this I consider to be the most important part. There are certain areas where little if any good is likely to come from a strong profit motive. This is one of them.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:44 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Yeah I don't like pseudoscience and antivaxxers but we have a long legacy of hubris and I for one envision snake eating gorillas that will die off after solving some Rube Goldberg Pandora epidemic like in that Simpsons episode, except we have to make the gorillas ourselves and they're actually retroviruses that are trying to save the last 10% of humanity that has taken on a "die before 12" genetic dilemma after too many cooks including humans and retroviruses and transpovirons and what not get into the kitchen. We say "those things manipulate genetic code willy nilly, what's the worst we can do?" I dunno, I'm not knee jerk anti GMO but don't tell me it's the same as breeding.

Also I think that Simpsons episode was alluding to xenomorphs
posted by aydeejones at 7:49 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Obviously I'm exaggerating but if anything our tenacity at manipulating our environment to achieve specific ends while minimizing the immediate effects they have on the greater environment (success, nitrogen fertilizer, whoops, dead zones) allows us to experiment with things much more insidiously. It's a bit of a stretch but when a retrovirus causes a transcription error and fucks something up maybe that cell will die or turn into cancer and that's the end of it. Meanwhile we tend to find solutions with externalized long term problems, which is human nature and the nature of time, but sometimes the better you are at finding a solution with no obvious downside, the more likely you are to be dead or retired by the time the downside you didn't predict ends up fucking up a generation or two.
posted by aydeejones at 7:55 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Ia there any evidence of terminator genes being used at all, anywhere? There are a couple of articles speculating that may be the case, but more about the multi-nationals suing farmers for saving patented seed. There are also companies developing semi-terminator systems which require a second agent applied to activate the GM trait ("genetic use restriction technology").

To date most of the restrictions on saving seeds from GM crops seem to be entirely legal, not technological, at least in commercial crops.
posted by bonehead at 10:29 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


"While I am entirely allied with your position, Talez, I always have to pause and cringe a little when we get to the part about how modern fertilizers and farming methods have given us a world population of more than 7 billion, as though that is obviously a good thing."

"If the net effect of your green revolution is a population explosion which results in again outstripping your new food production capacity in just a few decades, the solution isn't another green revolution, it's maybe finding a way to exist as a species that doesn't rely on starvation as the limiting factor on population."
It depresses me how often, even or almost especially in liberal circles, the solution to the West's problems is the starvation of brown children by the billions. Have you ever been hungry? And I don't mean skipping a few meals because you feel like it, I mean hungry, your body eating itself because someone else could not be assed. The staple crop strains that Norman Borlaug developed, which directly saved a billion lives, prevented what would have been the greatest genocide in human history - dwarfing all of the wars of the last thousand years. He did what no supposedly moral army could when he stopped the logical and seemingly inevitable conclusion of the five hundred years of brutal naked theft that was colonialism emptying the resources of societies colliding with the benefits of germ theory.

Fuck nuclear fire, the world you are envisioning, the one without Borlaug, is the worst conceivable timeline. It is a world where only the white wealthy west would have both the agricultural resources to survive and the military resources to protect them. It is a world quickly filled only with bright shining white faces feeling good about their moral choices with regards to diet, where a great Generalplan Ost would not only feel justifiable but inevitable and right. How the fuck can the human annihilation you are suggesting so easily feel like sweeping unwanted dust under a rug?
posted by Blasdelb at 11:04 PM on August 25 [13 favorites]


"True, but for the record, GMO tomatoes are a thing that exists and were on the market at one time. They're just not being produced at the moment: The Flavr Savr."
The US Davis professors who founded Calgene to develop the Flavr Savr look back at the life and death of their company
posted by Blasdelb at 11:11 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I mean, would 14 billion be twice as good?

No it wouldn't. But you can't change the past. However, in the present you can at least stop billions of people from starving to death through the magic of science and innovation.


And future billions because that population growth exponent isn't going down for a while.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 3:47 AM on August 26


I feel like anti-GMO is almost a reflex at this point. People just don't want to admit GMO is okay so we get into these discussions of patents as if patenting food didn't predate the existence of Monsanto. Things like Golden Rice are going to save many lives if the anti-GMO people get out of the way, and the possibility for more products like that are huge. Time to let it happen.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:13 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Even though I've never had any particular issue with GMOs in the abstract, I definitely sympathize with people who worry that collectively saying "GMOs are just unequivocally great!" will lead to the public checking out and too little regulatory and public scrutiny of the way businesses are making and marketing them now and in the future, and I'd suggest it might not really be necessary or in anybody's long-term interest to squash people's skepticism of these technologies and business practices too thoroughly. Even if GMOs as they are made and used today are perfectly fine, that doesn't necessarily mean we should permanently relax the rules and not keep an eye out for new problems with the tech now and in the future. If wanting to keep a wary eye on some new technological/business development makes a person anti-science now, then we might as well just call it a day, because that precludes any independent human judgment from the process completely, which I think would also be a mistake of a kind known to have the potential to lead to human death. There's nothing wrong or undesirable about people being more concerned about how their foods are produced, both in terms of the economics and the sourcing of ingredients. Lord knows, if any thing ever does go wrong on the production side, consumers usually find themselves blamed in the press. The whole idea of industrial commodification creates major problems for consumer choice.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:15 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


But the reasons for the skepticism matter. If the driving force behind GMO wariness is "G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over'" or an insanely idyllic fantasy of India pre-Green Revolution, that's going to lead to far worse policy choices than unlabeled modified tomatoes.
posted by spaltavian at 6:21 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


You won't get any disagreement from me there. And I don't care for the scaremongering at all. We're too scared about too many things as a society to think straight already.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:43 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


But deliberately throwing away one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal against food insecurity seems silly.

The biggest weapons in our arsenal against food insecurity are truly democratic governments, women's rights, social and economic justice, and local food production and economies but paired with globalized support networks. The biggest threats to food security are wars, mysogyny, dictatorships trying to establish and maintain control over their populations, and disruption of local food economies by neoliberal global capitalism. GMO technology doesn't have much to do with food security in the grand scheme of things, and I find it hard to trust folks who support their particular point of view with such unscientific/non-evidence-based arguments.
posted by eviemath at 7:00 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Yeah, with all the shit-smeared death, destruction, corruption and horror in the world, it's Vandana Shiva that is the problem.

The New Yorker's a neoliberal rag.


You are aware that The New Yorker is a magazine which publishes nearly every week, and contains articles on a wide variety of topics, correct?
posted by breakin' the law at 7:30 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


It depresses me how often, even or almost especially in liberal circles, the solution to the West's problems is the starvation of brown children by the billions.

Yeah, the strain of apocalypse fetishization in environmental circles is always so off-putting and crypto-racist.

The people "regretfully" wondering if the prevention of the starvation of millions of people was really a good thing are one step behind the eugenicists who call for forced sterilizations and strict population controls as "regretful but necessary".

We've just got to do something about these brown people breeding like insects!
posted by Sangermaine at 7:56 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


We've just got to do something about these brown people breeding like insects wanting meat!

FTFY. Right wingers use straight racism. Bleeding hearts use concern trolling.
posted by Talez at 8:03 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Birth rate decreases with wealth and food security, if I understand the stats correctly. The best thing we could do to reduce overpopulation is to make sure everyone has steady access to food.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:53 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


"We've just got to do something about these brown people breeding like insects wanting meat!"
While I'll happily concede that wishing billions would just remain in supposedly convenient poverty and marginal malnutrition is less racist than musing casually about a human annihilation by starvation on a scale that makes the term genocide feel inadequate, its still pretty fucking straight up racist.

Besides, check out the world's most carnivorous countries.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:02 AM on August 26


While I'll happily concede that wishing billions would just remain in supposedly convenient poverty and marginal malnutrition is less racist than musing casually about a human annihilation by starvation on a scale that makes the term genocide feel inadequate, its still pretty fucking straight up racist.

But this is false equivalence.

Wanting poverty and malnutrition to end in ways that don't involve starvation and mass death isn't equivalent to...wanting that, which many well-meaning people, even some in this very thread, seem to implicitly desire or at least ponder as better than our current state.

It just strikes me as creepy to see people musing that maybe it would have been better for the world if enormous numbers of people had died horribly.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:06 AM on August 26


It just strikes me as creepy to see people musing that maybe it would have been better for the world if enormous numbers of people had died horribly.

Not only that, it's illogical. If eliminating a potential life is worth it to reduce suffering, shouldn't we end all human life to avoid all suffering? You end up with a compelling argument for voluntary human extinction.

If you want to be utilitarian, you could come up with some kind of formula: we want to maximize X - 0.5Y, where X is person-years of life lived in comfort, while Y is person-years of life lived in suffering. Or something like that.

This is all assuming you believe we have any right to make decisions on behalf of people who live in profoundly different situations from us, and may not even be born yet.
posted by miyabo at 10:55 AM on August 26


It seems like in the US there are quite a few things we need to look at in regards to the green revolution, GMO being one of a many-faceted problem. GM food might not be dangerous to humans on the kitchen table, but there are both environmental and patent concerns. The honey bee situation being the tip of the iceberg. No one knows for sure, but are we making pesticide-resistant crops so that we can spay more pesticides, & doing in the pollinators we count on vis. the honey bee? More chemical pesticides have got to be an environmental concern on their own. Also I'm not a big fan of the legal situation GM seeds are putting farmers, as has been discussed in the thread already. GM food -- maybe. GM patents, let's regulate that shit a little bit in favor of the farmer & consumer.

Food waste. How much food grown in a America actually makes it into human stomachs? It's pretty abysmally bad, across the board. We'd need a lot less land under cultivation, thus a lot less fertilizer & a lot less pesticide if we could get a grip on waste. Or we could export more, & do it more cheaply.

The other big thing that really gets to me is the fuel ethanol situation. An utterly ridiculous and wasteful subsidy that does no good in the fuel chain & wastes millions of acres-worth of corn every year. We need to cut that shit out yesterday.

Also, increased food supply does not necessarily mean higher birth rates. Developing countries, as they develop, are known to experience lower birth rates, as the chances of children surviving infancy increase. Developing a stable, dependable food supply, along with other structural improvements in health care, education & living wages will slow the curve of population growth
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:58 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Birth rate decreases with wealth and food security, if I understand the stats correctly.

A women's educational level is the best predictor of how many children she will have. Of course, to go to school she needs to be fed and have security, but education is the critical factor in reducing population growth.
posted by bonehead at 11:25 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


Genetic modification is one of the most exciting, most potentially culture changing, but also most dangerous techs we have available. It's a new atomic age.

But, I think people are massively underestimating the accuracy we achieve and knowledge we currently possess of genetic modification.
Predictive modelling of what changes to a single 'gene' will do, are - ha! Even the definition of a gene is a massive simplification. A stretch of DNA (or RNA), that 'does something'. And a lot of assumptions are still made on the basis that one stretch/gene, only has one effect, or that it's actually a single contiguous stretch, whereas something that could be described as a gene may be spread across multiple chromosomes.

The ways we actually insert/change those stretches, puts the 'scattershot' into scattershot approach.

Finally, for food modification, it's all being driven by the worst of the worst big corporations, and you cannot disentangle the tech from the abusive, and unregulated manner in which it is being applied by Monsanto etc. That IS the problem.

And bullSHIT are they using it to feed the hungry. GMO crops are generally NOT aimed at increasing crop yields, crop resistance, or even taste. No, seriously, overall yields are lower, because it's all aimed at increasing pesticide use, turning the plants into pesticides (causing, yes, increased contamination down the food chain), or stuff like more appealing fridge-ability for supermarkets. Great. Nice to know the lofty goals we aim our money at.

For medical tech? Oh HELL yes. Sure. Risk is worth the reward. The equivalent of using chemotherapy. I would be willing to volunteer my body for the medical testing of some of the approaches being explored, I think this progress is so important to humankind.

Releasing it into the ecosystem, with only the safeguards that an ethically dubious multinationals encourage? What? Why? That's ridiculous.


I do of course worry, that when it gets too easy, accessible from 3rd rate university labs, we still won't have had anything like the advances in making-humans-not-self-destructive-&-crazy necessary to prevent someone brewing up a flu variant that's going to exterminate most the human species (remember that attempt to create a mouse contraceptive, that accidentally instead created a 100% mortality mouse smallpox variant?), but, eh, what can you do. Genie is partly out of bottle, but it's not stupid to still want to contain it.


There are so many things we could be doing if I trusted human nature, and safety standards. I don't.
Example, if Japan and Germany don't trust their own safety protocols with regards to nuclear power plants, then no, I don't trust anyone else in the world to get it right either.
This is similar.
posted by Elysum at 3:57 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


The GMO debate has been contorted and messed up by the foul atmosphere of anti-science noise pollution: that regrettable loose association with Creationism, AntiVacc, and Climate Change denial.

As mentioned, it's not really anti-science, it's about the serious misuse of potentially valid technologies. There are good reasons to be skeptical about the current practices and applications of GMOs, the main one being that Monsanto and other bioCorps have no interest in anyone's heath or welfare, as long as they disperse their products indiscriminately without regards to consequences.

It's kinda funny that the original protestors against GMOs described the products as "Frankenfoods". In the first truly modern science fiction novel by Mary Shelly, the real error that Doctor Frankenstein makes is not taking full responsibility for his work. His monster would not have turned against him if he had only paid more attention.
posted by ovvl at 7:28 PM on August 26


"And bullSHIT are they using it to feed the hungry. GMO crops are generally NOT aimed at increasing crop yields, crop resistance, or even taste. No, seriously, overall yields are lower, because it's all aimed at increasing pesticide use, turning the plants into pesticides (causing, yes, increased contamination down the food chain), or stuff like more appealing fridge-ability for supermarkets. "

I'd have to see some actual citations on this; that overall crop yields from GMO are lower contradicts pretty much every single statement I've ever heard from a farmer. And saying that it's aimed to increase pesticide use when a large chunk of the article was about how it has decreased pesticide use means that either that's not the goal or they're very, very bad at it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:02 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of GM Crops. Published by Union of Concerned Scientists.

I haven't read it. My impression is that GM soy is cheaper to produce because of more efficient weed control, not that the plant itself has a higher genetic yield potential.
posted by BinGregory at 9:33 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Two other reports by UCS - No reductions in N fertilizer use from GM thus far. And No improvement in water conservation and minor improvement in drought tolerance from GM thus far.
There may be some instances where GE is the best and cheapest approach, but to date no such cases have actually been developed.
posted by BinGregory at 9:45 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


increase pesticide use when a large chunk of the article was about how it has decreased pesticide use

Herbicide use way up on roundup-ready soy or clearfield rice, insecticide use down on BT corn and cotton is I think how that works out.
posted by BinGregory at 9:59 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


As mentioned, it's not really anti-science, it's about the serious misuse of potentially valid technologies.

^ What every anti-science movement claims.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:14 AM on August 27


Thanks BinGregory!

Me: all aimed at increasing pesticide use, turning the plants into pesticides (causing, yes, increased contamination down the food chain), or stuff like more appealing fridge-ability for supermarkets.
And sorry, I meant to say increasing herbicide use, or turning the plants into pesticides, etc. I think you get the gist.



klangklangston: it's aimed to increase pesticide use when a large chunk of the article was about how it has decreased pesticide use means that either that's not the goal or they're very, very bad at it.

Yeah. I'm going with... bad?
I would EXPECT to see increases in productivity, and decreases in pesticide use, given the amount of resources they've devoted to this, and the increased costs of GMO seed, etc.

Although, that's also if you count insecticides being produced within the plant, as a decrease in insecticides/pesticides?

And, man, I've just wasted too much time googling - additional to BinGregory:
U.S. GMO crops show mix of benefits, concerns - USDA report (Released this year)

"But in its report, the ERS researchers said over the first 15 years of commercial use, GMO seeds have not been shown to definitively increase yield potentials, and "in fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties," the ERS report states.

Several researchers have found "no significant differences" between the net returns to farmers who use GMO herbicide tolerant seeds and those who use non-GMO seeds, the report states."

"But while insecticide use has gone down, herbicide use on GMO corn is rising, the report states. Herbicide use on GMO corn increased from around 1.5 pounds per planted acre in 2001 to more than 2.0 pounds per planted acre in 2010. Herbicide use on non-GMO corn has remained relatively level during that same time frame, the ERS said.

And the over reliance on glyphosate has translated to an increase in weed resistance, which makes crop production much harder. Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in Roundup herbicide sold by Monsanto, and its use has translated to the glyphosate resistance seen in 14 weed species and biotypes in the United States, according to ERS."

I think this is the full report here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err162.aspx#.U_12x6PqRI0



Reports that compare US to say, Western Europe, with almost no GMO crops grown, or other nations that don't grow GMOs widely, are worse I feel, as yields have also gone up, suggesting it's better efficiencies in crop production driving yield increases, and pesticide usage has gone down in Western Europe, but no similar decrease in the US.

Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest

I also looked for any critiques of the above report, and found one here.
Unfortunately, to my eye, their graphs still aren't showing significant yield increases against WE, and, it drops off 2011 & 2012 as US was affected by droughts, except the current GMO varieties are less diverse and drought resistant (ok, I should source that too, but I've already sidetracked heaps), which isn't much of a point in favour. Anyway.



There just seems so much potential, and then we're wasting it, because the goals are always going to be making Monsanto more money, and not more efficient food production in any of the really food starved areas. Or drought resistance, which has so far been a dead end, GMO wise.
It's a failure in the tool users, not the tool.


But, again, I come back to the main problem - Genetic engineering is an awesome tool, but also awe-inspiringly terrifying if we screw it up.

I see the dangers as being, say, doing field trials on wheat, corn, cotton, etc, of something that turns out to say, kill essential soil microbes (since that's already happened a few times). Safety considerations are directly proportional to how easy a screw up is to contain, and once you've got a field trial to maturity of a freaking wind pollinated crop, that's it, you can consider it out of the bottle.
Overview of some of the escapees


Moral of the story, "and this is why we can't have nice things". :P
posted by Elysum at 12:35 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


As mentioned, it's not really anti-science, it's about the serious misuse of potentially valid technologies.

^ What every anti-science movement claims.



Wait til you get a climate change denier telling you that climate change is all an 'anti-science plot'*.
:P


* Aside from all the other crazy pants there, I feel like a lot of people get 'science' and 'business' (/industrial growth) mixed up.
posted by Elysum at 12:41 AM on August 27 [4 favorites]


I feel like a lot of people get 'science' and 'business' (/industrial growth) mixed up.

Absolutely they do.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:06 PM on August 27


Vandana Shiva's response to the New Yorker piece "Seeds of Doubt’ contains many lies and inaccuracies that range from the mundane ... to grave fallacies that affect people’s lives. The piece has now become fodder for the social media supporting the Biotech Industry."
posted by dhruva at 5:14 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Ok, I feel embarrassed. Despite my points above, I still hadn't had a high opinion of Vandana Shiva, and had assumed that the criticisms in the original article were still valid, but the rebuttals in the comment above makes me even more cynical about the whole mess.


While I'm here, rolling back, first comment in our thread:
They want to release G.M.O.s without testing...

Millions of farmers have done this for thousands of years.


Nooooo! No they haven't.
Regardless of your views on gmo food crops, genetic modification isn't plant breeding.
Convergent evolution, freak mutation - it requires adaption of existing features, and freak mutation of individual base pairs into useful, or at least non-lethal expressions. The maths involved, means that GM allows for changes that just wouldn't happen.

That's the best part! That's... amazing, and simplifying it down and equating it to selective breeding (and look how much THAT has done for us over human history!), is inaccurate and wrong.


We could really easily make civilisation ending changes. Ooops. To take it down a level non-gm organisms we suck at biocontrols. Existing plants, insects, viruses, bacteria, fish, mammals etc do so much damage when they go outside their ecosystem. We're great at killing things, and we're still pretty terrible at managing to eliminate 'invasives' once they get established in the wrong spots. Thats WHY we're trying to engineer plants with pesticides, and increase herbicides etc - because keeping them out is hard.
On a sidetrack, elimination of smallpox, and, fingers crossed, polio (please!) - thats a monument to our civilisation.


I want humans to go to Mars, ok? I'm a dreamer, and the problem isn't going to be rockets, or the distance, it's going to be developing self-sustaining closed ecosystems.
Living beings aren't simple. THOSE are our hard problems.

(Sorry for the late night posts - at least I don't have the flu this time. I'm out!).
posted by Elysum at 7:16 AM on August 28


before the invention of modern agricultural techniques.

Like the steam shovel, pumps to remove water from mines, ships to take islands of old bat/bird fecal material and the detection of heavy metals in "greensand" instead of going to mass graves to dig up bones from past wars to be ground up and placed on the land?

Mostly potable water is important, sure. But so is Phosphorous, and Peak Phosphorus is waiting in the wings.
posted by rough ashlar at 10:59 AM on August 28


Dr. Shiva calls out many inaccuracies, falsehoods, and shoddy journalistic practices in the New Yorker article in this response on her blog. Personally I find her account compelling and her arguments considerably more cogent and evidence-based than Specter's.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 9:05 PM on September 2


Really? The New Yorker's fact checkers are a tough bunch to get past, and her response is full of petulance, ad hominem attacks and misrepresentations.

1) I have no reason to doubt Shiva's itinerary. I would be very surprised if she hadn't been asked for it by NY fact checkers, and I would be very surprised if she had provided it and the story hadn't been edited to reflect that. Still, let's give this one to Shiva. What does it show? That Spector was sloppy with her itinerary, but that it's still fair to describe her as leading a pilgrimage.

2) Has she ever worked as a physicist? The answer is no, or at least she has repeatedly been asked and avoided the question. Her bio on several of her books, and indeed the Amazon author page for Shiva describes her as having been one of "India's leading physicists," which would only be true in the sense that Carter was one of America's leading peanut farmers.

Her description of quantum physics also sounds like spiritualist mumbo jumbo.

3) The dig at beta carotene bananas is unnecessary and doesn't show her with a great command of the issue; they're discussed here, and are a project of the Gates Foundation, and based on an Australian variety of banana with the higher beta carotene content — it's beneath someone who is a purported agricultural expert to say, "They could have just used the banana with higher Beta-Carotene if the intent was to alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency, but there’s no money in that." Plants from different areas aren't inherently fungible — plenty of things live in Australia that wouldn't live in Uganda, including plant varietals.

4) The price increases aren't dispositive of anything, especially given that the Bt and conventional have both fallen from their peak, and have other plausible mechanisms besides Monsanto monopoly (More on costs and profits for Indian cotton farmers here).

5) The Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 is sufficient to find 'the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001.' If Shiva could tell Specter to jfgi, she should think that the New Yorker's readers could do the same.

With this, and repeatedly through the response, she refers to Specter as having "deliberately" misled or "deliberately" worked to sever IP rights from GMO discussions, without actually supporting that. It's an impugning of him that she hasn't provided evidence for and makes her look less credible.

6) Her mentions of Schmeiser and Bowman are dishonest. Schmeiser was sued over $20k, not $200k, and basically because he intentionally violated the patent by buying and planting unlicensed seeds and Monsanto won a very, very narrow judgment that basically said that they had a right to set conditions on the growing of seeds they sell, something that's been a part of agricultural patents for over 100 years. It dealt with nothing about GMOs, really. Bowman signed a contract with Monsanto, then broke that contract, then told Monsanto that he'd broken that contract and basically dared them to sue him.

Just as a note — I think that Monsanto is a pretty shitty, plutocratic company and I have real problems with industrial agriculture. But I think that those issues are best served by an honest debate, not misrepresenting apocrypha and saying that every critic is bought off.

7) Her suicides graph is unsourced and not apparently based on any peer-reviewed literature. The actual numbers both show no influence from GMO/Monsanto, and that the rates have been consistent — especially controlling for broader economic trends — since at least '97.

8) She describes a "cause" of Monsanto monopoly, but plays fast and loose with causation for someone explicitly relying on scientific expertise. Further, Monsanto has a 3-4 percent market share of cotton seed in India while roughly 80 percent of Indian cotton is Bt. Monsanto does have a monopoly on is Bt cotton seed, which apparently people want a lot of. While this is Shiva's strongest position, she does herself no favors by misrepresenting the relative positions and ignores that farmers do have other options that they're not choosing.

9) This is just dopey: Shiva says, "Specter is ill informed about the cyclone in Orissa, or he copied this information from another inaccurate report accusing me of making the cyclone victims starve. The US aid was a blend of corn and soy, not grain." What did she quote to respond to? "When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims…" Corn's not grain? Which means when she says, "The shipment Specter mentions, under a humanitarian guise, was an attempt to circumvent India’s ban on the import of GMOs," couldn't it also be an actual humanitarian shipment? That she supported destroying because "the farmers who received the tainted shipment called it inedible," isn't it reasonable to think that someone who doesn't know that grain and corn are the same thing might be hearing what she wants to hear out of the farmers?

She's back to faking the moon landing here — every piece fits into a preconceived conspiracy with no actual consideration of motivations of the actors outside of her psychodrama. (And I'm someone who recognizes the colonialist/domestic politics of aid shipments and how they're used as policy instruments.) She's to the point where she has constructed wheels within wheels that can only be explained by the perversity of Monsanto and the West because simpler, more direct means would accomplish the same goals for those actors.

10) Like when she says, "An obvious question is whether Specter set out to do a profile on me at all or whether this was a calculated attempt to attack the burgeoning anti-GMO movement within the US?" Uh, looks like he set out to write a story about the future of food, latched onto you for a good hook, then you acted batshit insane and he kept digging?

11) "The Bt-cotton seed is not dominating markets because it is effective." That claim just isn't backed by any peer-reviewed science, and is baffling for anyone that knows farmers, especially given that Monsanto has less than five percent of the Indian cotton seed market, yet Bt comprises 80 percent of crops. But seriously, there's a decent longitudinal study on this.

12) The elephant and cell phone thing is representative of a different model of development that's happening across Global South countries, where things like digital network technology is leapfrogging our century of halting technology adoption. Rural farmers aren't having landlines put in. It's not "quaint," the proper skewering would have been Friedman-esque.

13) Arguing about food supply here relative to cotton GMOs is a non sequitor, and is another moment of Shiva conflating all arguments into a syncretic mishmash.

14) That she cites Amartya Sen on the Benghali famine is ironic; Sen's done a lot of great development work in economics generally, but his Benghali famine work is largely viewed as discredited revisionism. But the reason was not speculation, as Shiva says, but rather massive fucking incompetence in India and in the British Raj.

15) Even down to details like, "In the nineties, because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), prices of tortillas in Mexico City rose sharply while the price of corn, sold by Mexican farmers, went down," show that she's loose with facts and dubious on economic understanding. The tortilla crisis happened in the end of the 2000s, because corn was still subsidized through 2007, unlike other industries in which liberalization started around '91. But in the 2000s, the price of corn sold by Mexican farmers went up, even though one of the explicit goals had been to replace rural agricultural employment, specifically corn farming, with more economically diverse options.

… it goes on. Pretty much every assertion that Shiva makes is dubious, even when she should be entirely right it's like she can't resist adding some bullshit to make it go over even bigger. It's frustrating and makes her look like a quack.
posted by klangklangston at 12:15 AM on September 3 [4 favorites]


Today The New Yorker released its response to Dr. Shiva sent on August 27. The New Yorker originally intended this to be private communication to address concerns she had expressed to its editors in private emails but decided to release it after Dr. Shiva published her criticism. We reproduce it unedited in its entirety as sent to the GLP by The New Yorker:
"Dear Dr. Shiva:

This is in reply to the letter you sent and subsequently posted on the Internet earlier this week. It is not for publication in any way or on your website, but I thought you were asking for a serious reply. So here it is: I should say that since you have said that the entire scientific establishment has been bought and paid for by Monsanto, I fear it will be difficult to converse meaningfully about your accusation that the story contained “fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.” But maybe I am wrong; I’ll try.

As to some of your more specific problems: Mr. Specter met you in the lobby of your New York hotel; you then talked in a café in that hotel. He didn’t interview you in the lobby. I regret that we suggested you were in Greece when you were not. You did, however, invite Mr. Specter to join the caravan there, and then sent him to an informational site titled: International Solidarity Caravan with Vandana Shiva. The dates on the site were April 26th to May 4th and it gave as locations: Greece, Italy, France.

Part of the problem is that after encouraging Mr. Specter to travel with you both in Italy and India, you apparently changed your mind, and stopped replying to his interview requests (or emails.) Our fact checker also tried for more than a week to contact you directly, as well as through your headquarters in New Delhi. You never replied. Without any participation from you it was impossible to know you changed your plans. Mr. Specter never suggested that the journey was an “unscientific joyride.”

You also charge that Mr. Specter misrepresented your education. We were interested in the field you entered as a doctoral student; but nobody disputes that you received a master’s degree in physics and I am sorry we didn’t note that in the piece. Nonetheless, Mr. Specter “twisted” neither your words nor your intentions when writing about your work history. When he realized you were not going to grant him another interview he sent you a quite detailed list of questions, two of which asked about your work history as a physicist. Instead of answering his questions, you replied – to me – asking why we were “interested in academic qualifications of four decades ago.

One hardly needs to hold a Ph.D. in physics to become an effective environmental activist, as you have demonstrated. Yet, when a prominent figure, such as yourself, is described for decades—in interviews, on web sites, in award citations, and on many of your own book jackets, as having been “one of India’s leading physicists” it seems fair to ask whether or not you ever worked as one.

It is not true, as you claim, that Mr. Specter neglected to include Africa in his piece. He discussed research in Africa on Golden Rice, cassava, and maize – which he described as the most commonly grown staple crop in Africa. He mentioned Tanzania’s efforts to produce a version of cassava that is resistant to endemic brown-streak virus, as well as research into insect-resistant cowpea and nutritionally enriched sorghum. Specter also quoted Sir Gordon Conway, who is a member of the board of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, and perhaps the world’s most renowned agricultural ecologist. “In Africa, the pests and diseases of agriculture are as devastating as human diseases.” Conway also told Specter that the impact of diseases like the fungus black sigatoka, the parasitic weed striga, and the newly identified syndrome maize lethal necrosis—all of which attack Africa’s most important crops—are “in many instances every bit as deadly as H.I.V. and TB.”

Your math and conclusions on the issues of farmer suicides and seed prices and values differ from the math in studies carried out by many independent, international and government organizations. Mr. Specter is far from alone in rejecting, based on data, your charge that Monsanto is responsible for “genocide” in India. In your letter you state that “Specter promotes a system of agriculture that fails to deliver on its promises of higher yield and lower costs and propagates exploitation.” This has always been your position, but as Mr. Specter pointed out in his article, there have been many studies on the effects of planting BT cotton in India, and on the whole, scientists – none of whom were connected to Monsanto –have found the opposite to be true.

You say that the prices of seeds are extremely high, but also that as a result of your action the government regulates their price. Several recent studies have shown that Bt cotton has been highly beneficial to cotton farmers in India. One of the best recent studies on the economic impact of Bt cotton on farmers found that “Bt has caused a 24% increase in cotton yield per acre through reduced pest damage and a 50% gain in cotton profit among smallholders. These benefits are stable; there are even indications that they have increased over time.’’ The researchers also show that Bt cotton adoption has raised consumption expenditures, a common measure of household living standard, by 18% during the 2006–2008 period and conclude that Bt cotton has created large and sustainable benefits, which contribute to positive economic and social development in India.

You describe in your letter the stories of farmers who you believe were driven to suicide by Monsanto. Specter saw different farmers with different stories. Anecdotes involving a few people out of millions prove nothing. That was why he included the following sentence in his piece: “It would be presumptuous to generalize about the complex financial realities of India’s two hundred and sixty million farmers after having met a dozen of them.” The anecdotes happened, however, to support the vast preponderance of data that demonstrate that farmer suicides are driven largely by debt.

In the piece, Mr. Specter wrote that you had confused “a correlation with a causation.” That was specifically in reference to your charges that glyphosate caused increases in Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney disease and autism rates in America. But you have applied the phrase to another issue entirely.

On a few of the other points you raise:

1.) The Orissa Cyclone occurred in the last week of October 1999. Specter referred to letters from you and Oxfam, both of which are freely available on the internet. It might also be noted that your letter to Oxfam was dated November 4th, the day after the worst of the cyclone had passed.

2.) Corn is considered both a grain, and a vegetable (and by some, a fruit.)

3.) Specter used the anecdote about the farmer and the elephant to illustrate the remarkable complexity and clear signs of progress evident in even the most rural parts of India. Having been to India many times, several of them for this magazine, he is well aware how ubiquitous cell phones are there.

4.) We take particular exception to your charge that Mr. Specter’s physical description of a farmer, with “skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a worn saddle” was racist. It wasn’t. In a 2005 profile he described the Italian designer Valentino this way: “Valentino spends a lot of time in the sun. His skin, the color of melted caramel, has the texture of a lovingly preserved Etruscan ruin.” Last year, Specter described a sixty-eight year old American farmer as having “ a tan, weather beaten face.”

Dr. Shiva, I was distressed to read in your letter that you have been harassed and have received death threats. Nobody has a right to threaten you for expressing your views. It was all the more dismaying then, to learn that just a few weeks ago you posted on your web site a suggestion, made by Mike Adams, who runs the NaturalNews web site, that publishers, journalists, and scientists who support agricultural biotechnology have “signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day”, and that they should be “tried for crimes against humanity.” I am glad to see that you have now removed that awful screed from your web site.

Sincerely,

David Remnick
posted by Blasdelb at 12:02 AM on September 22 [1 favorite]


"NOTE: For additional context, read the Genetic Literacy Project’s backgrounder on Vandana Shiva–a complete history of her campaigns and views. Also check out the GLP’s in-depth profile of Shiva: Who is Vandana Shiva and why is she saying such awful things about GMOs?"
posted by Blasdelb at 12:06 AM on September 22 [1 favorite]


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