Reclaiming the future of food and farming

GE’s dirty little secret

Marcia Ishii's picture

As a scientist at Pesticide Action Network, I am frequently asked these days to explain what genetically engineered (GE) crops have to do with pesticides. When I answer that GE crops both contain and drive up pesticide use, I am often met with earnest incredulity. We seem to need to believe that GE technology is the best thing since sliced bread.

On a radio program just last week, a caller voiced his genuine hopes to me that GE crops would provide a green solution to the woes of the world since he’d heard that these crops increase yield, cure blindness and reduce pesticide use. I was sorry to have to disappoint him on all counts, since GE crops have consistently failed to improve yield, have done nothing to date for Vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and have driven increases in pesticide use since their introduction some sixteen years ago.

On this last point, a new study on GE crops out last week added yet more weight to the body of evidence contradicting the GE crop industry’s long-standing myth. Published Friday in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, the Washington State University (WSU) study offers a simple but devastating finding: GE seeds dramatically increase pesticide use, and that use will grow unless we change the course of our food and farming system.

So here it is, the pesticide industry’s dirty little secret: GE seeds are no green solution to the world’s food needs, but are rather the growth engine of the world’s biggest pesticide companies. In point of fact, the latest wave of GE crops is expected to drive a 25-fold increase in the use of one particularly nasty pesticide (2,4-D) in corn over the next seven years.

Analyzing USDA data, the study—authored by WSU research professor Charles Benbrook, a former National Academy of Sciences’ executive director—shows that GE crops have driven up overall pesticide use across the country, with 400 million more pounds applied from 1996 to 2011. Just last year, GE crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-GE crops. The adoption of herbicide-resistant crop technology has been the primary driver, contributing to a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use during the same period. And the increase in pesticide use is expected to continue, if USDA approves the next wave of GE herbicide-resistant crops.

Back to the future: new GE seeds and old pesticides

These new data remind us that–notwithstanding the marketing tactics of Monsanto, DuPont and Dow–our farmers and agroecosystems remain tethered to the pesticide treadmill in ways that we all pay for in one way or another.

At least two-dozen types of weeds are now resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. Farmers throughout the southeast and, increasingly, the Midwest, are abandoning entire fields to these ‘superweeds.’ In California, the most agriculturally productive and diverse state in the nation, weeds have developed resistance to both glyphosate and paraquat, infesting up to an estimated million acres, with the area and type of resistant weeds continuing to rise. As weeds become increasingly resistant to RoundUp, farmers use greater quantities of the product and eventually resort to older, even more dangerous pesticides. And as the Benbrook study notes, farmers are on the hook for these less effective, increasingly hazardous and expensive products.

The next cycle of the treadmill is especially frightening. 2,4-D-resistant corn is the first in a new flood of industry products currently under consideration by USDA. If the agency approves it and other 2,4-D crops, use of this hazardous pesticide in corn is expect to surge 25-fold over the next seven years, putting farms, farmers and rural communities in harm’s way. The chemical has been linked to birth defects, neurological damage and cancer, and children are especially susceptible to its effects. For these reasons, 70 medical doctors and health professionals joined Pesticide Action Network this summer in urging EPA to reject Dow AgroScience’s application for new uses of 2,4-D.

What now?

Monsanto, Dow and other major pesticide companies stand to benefit the most from the continued use of glyphosate and surge in 2,4-D and other chemical sales that will accompany the next round of herbicide-based GE crops. So it should come as no surprise that the largest opponents of California’s ‘Right to Know’ ballot initiative to label GE foods are the pesticide companies, together spending nearly $20 million to blanket the airwaves with false and misleading ads about the initiative. I am heartened, however, by recent polls showing Californians resolute in their demand that GE food be labeled.

Of even greater importance, perhaps, is the fact that people are asking serious questions about this technology, and its place in our food and farming systems. Finally we are having a genuine public conversation about genetic engineering, pesticides, our health, our rights and who should control what we eat and how we grow our food: corporations or communities. True, we should have had this conversation sixteen years ago, before the first GE seeds were ushered to market by our public agencies, without adequate safety or efficacy testing. But here and now is still a very good place to start.

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This blog post was originally published on Civil Eats.

Marcia Ishii
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LEO G YOUNGER's picture
For information about California's Proposition 37 about the Right to Know campaign to Label GMOs in Foods, please visit:
paulette453's picture
paulette453 /
I am confused. The Latimes had a very powerful editorial on the sloppy writing of Prop 37 which does not "Unfortunately, the initiative to require labeling of those ingredients is sloppily written. It contains language that, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, could be construed by the courts to imply that processed foods could not be labeled as "natural" even if they weren't genetically engineered. Most of the burden for ensuring that foods are properly labeled would fall not on producers but on retailers, which would have to get written statements from their suppliers verifying that there were no bioengineered ingredients — a paperwork mandate that could make it hard for mom-and-pop groceries to stay in business. Enforcement would largely occur through lawsuits brought by members of the public who suspect grocers of selling unlabeled food, a messy and potentially expensive way to bring about compliance. These are all valid arguments for rejecting Proposition 37, but a more important reason is that there is no rationale for singling out genetic engineering, of all the agricultural practices listed above, as the only one for which labeling should be required. So far, there is little if any evidence that changing a plant's or animal's genes through bioengineering, rather than through selective breeding, is dangerous to the people who consume it. In fact, some foods have been engineered specifically to remove allergens from the original version. By contrast, there is obvious reason to be worried about the fact that three-fourths of the antibiotics in this country are used to fatten and prevent disease in livestock, not to treat disease in people. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from overuse of pharmaceuticals poses a real threat to public health. So why label only the bioengineered foods? Because the group that wrote Proposition 37 happened to target them. What's needed is a consistent, rational food policy, not a piecemeal approach based on individual groups' pet concerns." What are your thoughts about this?
Marcia Ishii's picture
Marcia Ishii /
<p>Thanks for your very thoughtful questions, Paulette.</p> <p>Indeed, GE does differ significantly from conventional or natural breeding. In GE, artificial gene units are created by isolating and splicing together fragments of DNA from organisms and then inserting these into cells of completely unrelated organisms (i.e. not only from different species or families, but even different kingdoms - such as bacteria, viruses, animals and plants all potentially mixed together). The insertion process is in fact very crude; the artificial gene units are inserted either with a gene &quot;gun&quot;, a bacterial &quot;truck&quot; or a chemical or electrical treatment, along with a &quot;promoter&quot; gene from a virus to get the artifical gene unit to express itself. Part of the problem here is that there is no way to precisely control WHERE the new genetic material ends up, and it can easily end up destabilizing the genome which is a complex whole made up of intricately interwoven and interacting parts that together maintain complex regulatory pathways and the organism as a whole.<br /> <br /> Re: health effects, there is a growing body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence from animal studies that points to serious health harms from consuming GE food. The findings are by no means definitive, but clearly indicate the urgent need for more, comprehensive long-term health and safety studies. In the case of the recently created GE cow which produces milk with reduced beta-lactoglobulin (an important protein essential in absorption of vitamins that causes allergies in a relatively small number of people, most of whom will outgrow it in early childhood), the results are highly problematic in that for unknown reasons, the GE milk has doubled the presence of another milk protein, casein, which actually is a much more common allergen (most people with milk allergies are reacting to casein). Unlabeled, this new GE milk could dramatically increase allergies while also reducing the nutritional value for people without milk allergies. These problems illustrate the unpredictable results and unintended side effects that come along with genetic engineering.<br /> <br /> I fully agree with you that ultimately we need a comprehensive and rational food policy, and it should address antibiotics, irradiation and other interventions of concern. Unfortunately, FDA does not require any independent long-term health studies into GE food. 90 day animal studies supplied by industry manufacturer suffice. It is also virtually impossible for independent researchers to conduct studies because the seed manufacturers use licensing agreements to prohibit such research unless first approved by the manufacturer. Even so, the companies reserve the right (and have exercised it) to suppress publication of results, if not favorable. Rather than quibble over the methodology, statistcs, sample size etc of the existing studies that have raised some red flags, I believe that our public agencies should be redoubling their efforts to get to the bottom of this very important public health question, and should be funding and supporting the execution of rigorous, comprehensive studies by independent scientists.<br /> <br /> As to labeling, Prop 37 is a starting point, and a very good one. The reason it focuses on GE organisms is because for a couple years before the initiative was even drafted, national polls by major news outlets all found that 85-95% of Americans all want GE food labeled. So it&#39;s a response to a public demand, that crossed political party lines, geographic regions, class and race.<br /> <br /> I hope this long reply helps. Thanks again for joining the conversation!</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