Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Debunking Mark Lynas' GE myths

Marcia Ishii's picture

Twitter-land was abuzz last week with news that a formerly ardent critic of genetic engineering (GE) has recanted his position. Mark Lynas gave a long mea culpa speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he apologized to the world for tearing up GE crops back in the day, and for what he described as his “anti-science environmentalism.”

Unfortunately, Lynas then went on to ignore the weight of scientific evidence (more on that below). He claimed that GE crop production is good for biodiversity and necessary to feed the world, that organic farming is bad, and that “there is no reason at all why avoiding chemicals should be better for the environment.” He then quickly slammed the door shut on public debate, pronouncing “discussion over.” Many of us in the global scientific community were left shaking our heads, bemused if disappointed in Lynas’ anti-science rhetorical flourishes.

Four excellent science- and evidence-based rebuttals to Lynas have since appeared, authored by University of Michigan evolution professor, John Vandermeer; Union of Concerned Scientists’ Doug Gurian-Sherman; Dr. Brian John of UK’s Durham University; and Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark.

Less rigorous was the response of journalists at the New York Times, New Yorker, L.A. Times, Slate and the Economist, who essentially reprinted large swaths of Lynas’ speech, congratulating him on his "courageous" about-face, without bothering to investigate the veracity of any of his claims. In so doing, they’ve demonstrated their adroit use of the copy-paste function on their keyboards, but little else.

Separating evidence from rhetoric

Lynas went wrong in several areas. First, he claims that GE crops are critical to feeding the world. There are two fundamental problems with his reasoning: a) GE crops do not increase yield and b) focusing on productivity is not actually the way to solve world hunger.

Taking the second, larger point first: people are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. They cannot afford food because they are poor, and their poverty is related to a host of complex political, social, economic and environmental factors. It turns out that things like global trade policies, land tenure, commodity speculation, corporate concentration ratios and biofuel mandates are more direct determinants of hunger than a crop plant’s intrinsic yield.

That is why the most comprehensive global assessment of agriculture to date — the World Bank and U.N.-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Scientific and Technology for Development (IAASTD), authored by 400 scientists and development experts from over 80 countries — highlighted the urgent need to undertake major shifts in governance, trade, finance and development policies in order to “feed the world.” This could be achieved, says the IAASTD, by rebalancing power in the food system, supporting small-scale farmers and advancing social equity.

The scientific and technical challenge of the 21st century is not one of increasing productivity but of how to strengthen the ecological and human resilience of our food systems, in the face of increasing system stresses.

The IAASTD — and numerous other U.N. reports — have also concluded that increasing investment in agroecological and diversified farming systems is crucial to meeting the closely interconnected climate, water, energy and food challenges of the 21st century. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, agroecological farming can double food production within 10 years, while mitigating climate change and alleviating poverty.

And on a purely practical level, one of the most cost-effective and sensible ways to address global food needs is to reduce food waste. From 30-50% of food produced globally goes to waste, according to a report out this month from the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In contrast, GE seeds were considered by IAASTD scientists unlikely to contribute to equitable and sustainable development or do much to reduce global hunger and poverty.

But does GE at least increase productivity?

Here too, GE seeds miss the mark. After 25 years of research, 14 years of commercialization and millions of dollars in public funding, GE has failed to deliver. GE crops neither increase yield nor provide nutritional benefits. U.S. land grant universities have even documented “yield drag” with losses of 5-10% in GE soy.

GE seeds sell pesticides

Lynas dismisses the notion that GE crops increase pesticide use. The reality is that herbicide-resistant GE seeds have driven enormous increases in pesticide applications over the past 16 years.

Virtually 100% of GE crops planted worldwide have been engineered to be used with herbicides or contain insecticidal toxins, or both, according to industry data. As superweeds and superbugs evolve resistance to GE crops and their associated pesticides, farmers resort to more chemical use, not less. This is happening in the U.S., India, China and South Africa.

The latest analysis of data out of Washington State University shows that GE crops have driven up overall pesticide use across the country, contributing to a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use between 1996 and 2011. And last year alone, GE crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-GE crops.

This is the pesticide industry’s dirty little secret: GE seeds are engineered to be the growth engine of the world’s biggest pesticide companies, not the green solution to the world’s food needs.

Will this change? Not anytime soon. Most of the "new generation" GE crops developed by Dow and Monsanto — and currently in the USDA pipeline awaiting agency approval—have been engineered for use with older and more hazardous pesticides like 2,4-D and dicamba. 2,4-D resistant corn alone is expected to drive a 25-fold increase in the use of 2,4-D on corn over the next six years, and weed scientists are predicting a new epidemic of herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”

In addition to the emergence of superweeds, pesticides drifting off-target to damage neighboring crops is a key concern among farmers. This is why the Save Our Crops coalition of conventional farmers objects to the new generation of herbicide-resistant GE crops, a fundamental concern powerfully stated by Indiana soybean farmer, Troy Roush, in the video below.


What about organic farming?

Lynas also claims that GE agriculture protects biodiversity and that organic agriculture is no better for people or the environment. Yet by definition, organic farming removes chemical pesticides from the environment, thereby protecting farmers, farmworkers and their families, rural communities and children (as well as workers at pesticide manufacturing facilities) who bear disproportionate risks from pesticide exposure. See any number of articles by my co-worker Kristin Schafer, who tracks the science documenting health impacts of pesticides. The literature on environmental harms of pesticides is likewise vast.

In terms of biodiversity, it is GE soy in Brazil and Argentina — not organic farming — that drives Amazonian deforestation, threatening the region’s fauna and flora. The IAASTD Latin America report cites damage to the Amazon, the Cerrado in Brazil and the Yungas forest in Argentina from the expansion of GE soybean plantations there, and calls for measures prohibiting the transfer of GE seeds among countries that are centers of genetic diversity for those crops.

Lynas goes on to accuse organic farmers of violating the rights and ability of GE farmers to produce their crops. In reality, it's the other way around: GE production threatens both organic and conventional farms and rural livelihoods with chemical drift and genetic contamination.

Finally, while hunger is not a matter of scarcity, it is worth noting that organic, small-scale farming can feed the world. A comprehensive examination of nearly 300 studies worldwide shows that organic farms in developing countries outperformed conventional practices by 57%, and that organic agriculture could produce enough food, on a per capita basis, to provide 2,640 to 4,380 calories per person per day — more than the suggested intake for healthy adults.  

An in-depth UNEP/UNCTAD report on organic agriculture and food security in Africa likewise concluded that organic farming provides one of the most robust solutions to that region’s food needs. For decades, cutting-edge research by the international Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the Rodale Institute and the Organic Farming Research Foundation has spearheaded scientific progress in the field and continues to demonstrate organic farming's high levels of water and land use efficiency.

Science & democracy

Science works best when done democratically; that is, in ways consistent with democratic values of transparency, accountability and participatory decision-making.

When Lynas concluded his speech, “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. The GM debate is over. It is finished,” he rejected both science and democracy. That’s really too bad.

Fortunately, we have many genuine models of science and democracy in action. When professional scientists engage respectfully with farmer-scientists, amazing things happen. When rural communities engage in grassroots science — whether monitoring pesticide drift in California, evaluating predator-prey dynamics in Indonesia, or tackling cassava mosaic virus in the Congo — we all benefit.

It's past time to move on from debunking empty arguments, and get back to the inspiring, creative work that so many are already engaged in: building vibrant food and farming systems and crafting smart policies, grounded in science and dedicated to the proposition that honesty, transparency and civic engagement matter.


This blog was originally posted on Civil Eats.

Marcia Ishii
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Santiago's picture
Santiago /
<p>Hi Marcia!</p> <p>My name is Santiago del Solar. I'm an Argentinean farmer and an agronomist.</p> <p>I'm always worried to try to work better each year and help in my country to develop and have a much better ag.</p> <p>Why do you say that GMO's don't improve yields and that we are using more chemicals when we plant GMO's? In my case it's just &nbsp;the opposite. We are using less and more friendly chemicals and I can prove it if you want the data.</p> <p>Also when we talk about yields. They are getting better each year with GMO's. Especially corn where we have a lot of new events approved in Argentina.</p> <p>But if you have better info, please share it with me! I always need to learn or realize if I'm wrong. If you want me to send info to you,just ask it.</p> <p>All the best from Argentina</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Santiago</p>
Marcia Ishii's picture
Marcia Ishii /
<p>Hi Santiago, thanks so much for writing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On impacts re: pesticide use in the U.S., what our scientists have found is that while insecticide use has decreased slightly with the introduction of Bt crops (down 56 million kg between 1996 and 2011), that decrease has been overwhelmed by a huge increase in herbicides (up 239 million kg). Also, insects are developing resistance to the Bt in Bt crops now, so the reduced insecticide effect is disappearing, as conventional farmers resort to more insecticides once again.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Overall, pesticide use in GE crops has increased in the U.S. by 183 million kg, or 7%. On average last year, GE crops used 20% more pesticides than non-GE crops, and the next wave of 2,4-D resistant GE crops are expected to drive up herbicide <a>use by 50% mor</a>e.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The data on GE crops failure to increase intrinsic yield are presented and analyzed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their report, Failure to Yield. I&#39;m not suprised, however, that you are seeing improved yields in some of the GE crops you are planting.&nbsp; The reason would not have to do with the GE traits which have been inserted by Monsanto or other biotech companies (those are typically insecticidal properties or herbicide-resistant, or both - which together account for 99.9% of all commercially available GE seeds).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rather, the reason for good yield performance in GE crops is that Monsanto and the other companies use the germplasm or seed of the best high-yielding varieties available, which have been bred to yield well through <em>conventional plant breeding methods</em><em> (and often by public universities funded with taxpayer dollars). </em>They then insert their insecticidal or herbicide resistant traits, patent it as a Monsanto (or Dow or Bayer or BASF...) product and market it as such.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A farmer in Iowa told me last year that his local extension agent advised him to buy as much of a conventional high-yielding variety of corn as possible, because - the extensionist warned him - Monsanto was engineering that variety to include Monsanto traits and the following year it would no longer be available as a conventional seed in the local seed store. So if he would want the high yielding characeristics of that seed in the future, he&#39;d only be able to get it by buying it in the form of a patented Monsanto GE seed, and he&#39;d also have to pay all the extra technology and licensing fees to Monsanto for the insecticidal/herbicide-resistant traits that he might not actually want or need!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I hope that helps answer your questions. I&#39;d be glad to learn more about the situation you are observing in Argentina. Please do send me an email.</p> <p>Thanks again!</p> <div> <hr align="left" size="1" width="33%" /> </div> <p>&nbsp;</p>
Santiago's picture
Santiago /
<p>Dear Marcia:</p> <p>Thank you for answer my comment! As I told you, as a farmer I'm trying to improve every year and learn more about Ag, and having this contact with you helps me a lot!</p> <p>I may talk about what is going on in Argentina only. And I can say that is not so easy to say how much of the yield improvement in corn is due to Biotech, genetics, better agricultural techniques or fertilizers. I think its all them added. We almost&nbsp;doubled yields in 20 years.</p> <p>This year we had terrible floods in Bs As province and the harvest was delayed for months.&nbsp;&nbsp;Even in some small&nbsp;areas I even&nbsp;harvested corn a few weeks ago! We usually harvest during April. It was so flooded, that I could harvest it very late, and because we have BT corn, we could harvest it. If not, all the corn because of insects would have&nbsp;fall down and the ear gets in contact with water and we loose all harvest.It happened with the refuge ( 10 % area&nbsp;not BT). Corn was ruined in the refuge areas as it did years ago, when floods came and we didn't have Bt corn.</p> <p>Why do you measure the increase in pesticides in pounds or kilos? We try to measure how much DL50/kg we use, so we know if we are improving or not using friendlier pesticides.&nbsp;And we are! I got all that data if you want to see it. I would like your opinion about the data.</p> <p>Here in Argentina we have free choice of seeds. We may buy any brand we like or prefer. No one is saying that we should buy this or that brand ...thanks god!</p> <p>But as I told you I would love to be in contact with you, so Im sending you my personal e-mail</p> <p></p> <p>All the best</p> <p>Santiago</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
GMOorOMG's picture
<p>Santiago</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I am interested in your response and details of how GMO&nbsp;yields are increasing and the use of chemicals is falling.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Can you give better details of this please as it is important and for many GMO food crops there is evidence of the opposite due to resistance genes entering the weeds in the area.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yields seem to be up or down year to year as you get in normal years depending on seasons and weather etc etc.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are fundamental reasons to think the GMO food actually turns to real non-food and researchers ten year study showing harm to organs of animals fed on this would vindicate such thoughts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This applies to Monsanto NK603&nbsp;and is research on one GMO food only.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fundamental things such as use of genes from bacteria and viruses and resistance to antibiotics or markers at least give huge cause for concern that only scientists and not many of those would be concerned with as I am the only one I know of who is concerned.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Its all very well selling millions of tons maybe extra of soya, maize etc etc but not good if the food quality is reduced or actually very slowly harming everyone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I fail to see logically how you would choose to eat foods that actually is LETHAL for certain living creatures but somehow marvelous for those not able to afford organic or certified non-GMO.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As this is a basic and simple concept it worries me after 40 years of use nobody thinks of how paleolithic man went about choosing what to eat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Did he for example only choose foods that killed all other creatures as seems to be done for 2013 GMO foods?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also I remember when you went to the shops you chose this variety or that variety. Why today is food heaped together so even organic food is reckoned to contain first one amount of GMO adulterant then more and then more again as all the food types interact when before they didn't?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In France it is technically or near a criminal offence to grow and sell ancient types of tomatoes and those that we get have skins so tough I now actually have to peel them! Something I do in 2013 that I NEVER had to do for fifty years before.</p>
Santiago's picture
Santiago /
<p>Dear Marcia</p> <p>Thank you for answering my post.</p> <p>As i said, I can only talk about Argentina. I do have charts and statistics&nbsp;myself, and I may send them to you if you give me an e mail address. But our Agricultural agency MINAGRI web site has all the data. YES! Corn yields are growing each year. Of course we have good and bad years. But we get double the yields we had 20 years ago.</p> <p>With my family we eat corn, and its tasty and looks exactly&nbsp;the same years ago. its safe.&nbsp;Here in Argentina&nbsp;we all eat GM corn.&nbsp;</p> <p>We always had&nbsp;weed&nbsp;resistance to herbicides. Before Glifosate and now. We also have resistance to some pesticides with insects. Now and before GM. And in&nbsp; Argentinean hospitals we have also bacteria&nbsp;resistance to some antibiotics. The answer to this is to rotate with different products. That was the way before, and that is the way today.</p> <p>Of course we are concerned about&nbsp;trying to improve Ag. Using the better techniques. Maybe in south america we don't have prejudgment about some things that in developed countries sound terrible, but here is normal, and we rely our scientist. Our university, our regulations,and our Doctors. I hope this doesn't sound defying. And we are humble enough to change if something is going wrong.We don't own the truth.</p> <p>But I never heard of any problem eating BT corn. Not animals or humans. That is may daily experience.</p> <p>We had a dramatic change in Argentinas AG . For BETTER! With new technologies such as no till,GM, presicion agriculture. And we feel proud about it. We got rid of&nbsp; soil erosion with no till, and RR Soybeans had a lot to do. Argentina is different with GMo's and all the other new techs. More jobs. Better life. Better Ag.</p> <p>And as I told you before. If we are wrong I will change. But the evidence here in Argentina is the opposite of what you are telling to me.</p> <p>Of course I'm not a scientist. I'm a&nbsp; south american farmer and an agronomist trying to improve. So if you want me to send you data here goes my e mail again.</p> <p></p> <p>All the best from Argentina!</p> <p>Santiago</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
Marcia Ishii's picture

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii