By Danny Hakim
It is rare for the mainstream media, especially the American media, to publish articles or news that put GM crops and foods in a bad light. In the case of the New York Times, this is not the first time this has happened: it was the main newspaper to echo the scandal of the Folta case, when the leak of emails from famous supposedly "independent" American academics revealed their close relationship. with biotech companies and their public relations agencies.
On this occasion, the article analyzes how the main promise made regarding transgenic crops - that they would increase production - has not been fulfilled in these twenty years.
Although we do not agree to dismiss the scientific evidence pointing to potential health damage as quickly as they do - as the National Academy of Sciences did not in its report published in spring - we believe the article is worth reading. Below you can find the translation into Spanish.
The original in English includes graphics, images and some boxes with additional information, which can be consulted on the New York Times page.
Doubts about the abundance promised by transgenic crops
The controversy over transgenic crops has traditionally centered on fears, for the most part unfounded, that their consumption will have harmful effects on health.
However, careful analysis by the New York Times indicates that the debate has overlooked a much more basic problem - genetic modification in the US and Canada has not accelerated the increase in production, nor has it led to a reduction in the use of synthetic pesticides.
The promise of GMOs was twofold: by making crops immune to the effects of herbicides and inherently resistant to various pests, they could grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feed the world's growing population, but without requiring as many pesticide applications. .
Twenty years ago most of Europe rejected the cultivation of GMOs, while the US and Canada adopted them. When comparing the results on both continents, using independent data and academic and industry research, it is seen that the technology has fallen short of what it had promised.
Click here to see the charts
The Times analysis, using data from the United Nations, shows that the US and Canada have failed to gain a notable advantage in production - of food per hectare - when compared to Western Europe, a region with similarly modernized farmers, for example in areas like France and Germany. In addition, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "there is little evidence" that the introduction of transgenic crops in the US would have led to an increase in production greater than that observed in conventional crops.
Meanwhile, the use of herbicides in the US has increased, although some of the main crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton have become transgenic. And the US has lagged behind the top European producer, France, in reducing pesticide use, including both herbicides and insecticides.
This important difference in pesticide use can be seen in data from the United States Geological Survey. Since GM crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans were introduced to the US two decades ago, the use of insecticidal toxins and fungicides has dropped by a third, but herbicide spraying, which is used in much larger volumes, has increased by a twenty-one%.
By contrast, in France, the use of insecticides and fungicides has decreased by a much larger percentage - 65 percent - with herbicide use also decreasing by 36 percent.
Deep differences over genetic engineering have divided Americans and Europeans for decades. Although as early as 1987 US activists were uprooting experimental potato plants, European anger at the idea of fooling around with nature has lasted much longer. In recent years, the March against Monsanto has gathered thousands of protesters in cities such as Paris and Basel (Switzerland), and opposition to GM foods is one of the foundations of the political movement of the European Greens. Still, Europeans consume these foods by importing them from the US and elsewhere.
The fear of the harmful effects of consuming GM foods has shown little scientific basis. The potential harm from pesticides, however, has caught the attention of researchers. Pesticides are made to be toxic - Nazi Germany developed versions for military use, such as sarin - and can produce effects such as developmental delays or cancer.
"Very little is known about these products," says David Bellinger, a professor at Harvard University School of Public Health, whose studies attribute the loss of nearly 17 million IQ points in five-year-old American children to a type of insecticides. "We do experiments with the population," he says, referring to pesticide exposure in agriculture, "and we wait until something bad happens."
The industry wins on the one hand and on the other, because the same companies produce and sell both genetically modified plants and the poison that is added to them. Thanks to these sales, the market capitalization of Monsanto, the leading seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, have increased six-fold in the last fifteen years. The two companies are at the moment, each one on their own, negotiating mergers that would increase their value to more than 100 billion dollars each.
When presented with this data, Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto's CTO, said the Times had chosen the data to paint a bad image of the industry. "Every farmer is in turn an intelligent businessman, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology that he does not believe brings him a significant benefit," he said. "It is clear that biotech tools have greatly increased production."
Regarding herbicide use, in a statement, Monsanto stated, "While total herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage weed problems, farmers in other areas with different circumstances could have reduced or maintained their use of herbicides. "
GM crops can sometimes be effective. Monsanto and others often cite the work of Matin Qaim, a researcher at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany, including a meta-analysis of studies in which he participated that concluded that GM crops had led to a significant increase in the production. However, in an interview and through emails, Dr. Qaim pointed out that the significant effects had been observed mainly in insect resistant varieties in developing countries, specifically in India.
"Currently available GM crops would not lead to a significant increase in production in Europe," he said. And regarding herbicide-tolerant crops in general: "I don't think this is a miracle technology that we can't live without."
The promise of reducing chemicals
First came the Flavr Savr tomato, in 1994, which was supposed to take longer to spoil. The following year some types of potato resistant to insects. In 1996 some of the most important crops in the US began to be transgenic.
Monsanto, the champion of these new genetic traits, was selling them as a way to reduce the use of its pesticides. "Of course we are not encouraging farmers to use more chemicals," a company executive told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. The following year, in a press release, Monsanto said that the new gene it would incorporate into its seeds, called Roundup Ready, "could reduce global herbicide use."
Initially, the two main types of transgenic crops were either resistant to herbicides, which allowed them to be sprayed on the crop, or resistant to some insects.
Figures from the US Department of Agriculture show how the use of herbicides has exploded in soybeans, one of the main transgenic crops, multiplying two and a half times in the last two decades, while the surface of the crop grew in less than a third. Its use in corn was already declining before transgenic crops were introduced, then practically doubled between 2002 and 2010, before stabilizing. Resistant weed problems in these crops have increased their use even further.
For some, this effect was predictable. The purpose of designing insect-resistant plants "was to reduce insecticide use, and it has been," said Joseph Kovach, a retired Ohio State University researcher who studied the environmental hazards of pesticides. But the goal of herbicide-tolerant seeds was to "sell more product," he said - more herbicide.
Farmers with crops infested by weeds, or by a specific pest or disease, are understood to become staunch advocates of GMOs. "It's silly, it's almost ridiculous to turn your back on a technology that has so much to offer," said Duane Grant, president of the Amalgamated Sugar Company, a cooperative of more than 750 Northwest sugar beet growers.
According to him, crops tolerant to Roundup, Monsanto's most popular herbicide, have saved his cooperative.
However, weeds around the world are becoming tolerant to Roundup - leaving room for the industry to sell new seeds and more pesticides. The latest seeds have been designed to resist two herbicides, and there are plans to introduce resistance to up to five. That will also make it easier for farmers who want to fight existing weeds to use more and more toxins sold by the same companies.
Increasing resistance to Roundup is reviving older and more controversial chemicals as well. One is 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant used in the Vietnam War. Its possible risks have long divided scientists, and have caused alarm among social movements.
There is also the dicamba. In Louisiana, Monsanto is investing almost $ 1 billion to start production of this chemical. And while Monsanto's version has yet to be licensed, the company is already selling seeds capable of withstanding it - and there have already been cases of farmers damaging their neighbor's crop by illegally spraying older versions of the toxin. .
Two farmers, 6,000 kilometers from each other, recently showed a visitor their maize seeds. Bo Stone and Arnaud Rousseau belong to families who have worked the land for six generations. The two use seeds from DuPont, the agrochemical giant that is going to merge with Dow Chemical.
At first glance the seeds appear identical. Within them, however, there are important differences.
In Rowland, N.C., near the South Carolina border, Bo Stone's seeds are packed with GMO traits. They have Roundup Ready, the Monsanto gene that makes them resistant to Roundup, and they also have a Bayer gene that makes the crop resist a second herbicide. The trait called Herculex I was developed by Dow and Pioneer, now part of DuPont, and it attacks the alimentary canal of insects (see note at the end). So does Monsanto's YieldGard.
There is also a big difference: the price. Rousseau pays about $ 85 for a bag of 50,000 seeds. Stone pays about $ 153 for the same amount of GM seed.
For farmers, operating without GM crops is not an easy choice. Modified traits are not sold à la carte.
Stone, 45, has a master's degree in agricultural science and listens to Prime Country radio in his Ford pickup. He has an experimental field in which he tests new seed, looking for the characteristics most important to him - well-erect plants, for example.
"I choose based on the production and the characteristics of the plant, rather than on the traits that transgenes give," such as resistance to chemicals or insects, he says, underlining an important point: the quantities produced continue to depend on conventional improvement, as they have been doing for thousands of years.
That said, Stone appreciates the fact that the GMO reduces its insecticide use (although he would appreciate some help with bed bugs, a problem for many farmers). In addition, the problem of resistance of some weeds to Roundup has appeared.
"No GMO is going to do everything," he says.
On the other hand, at Arnaud Rousseau's farm in Trocy-en-Multien, a town near Paris, corn does not have any of these GMO traits, most of which are banned by the European Union.
"The door is closed," says Rousseau, 42, vice president of one of the many French farmers' unions. One of the butcheries of World War I took place on his 340-hectare farm, at the Battle of the Marne.
As in the case of Stone, Rousseau's production has increased, although it rises and falls depending on the year. Agricultural technology has also brought great changes. "My grandfather used horses and oxen," says Rousseau. "I have tractors with a motor."
You want access to the same technology as your competition on the other side of the Atlantic, and you believe that GM crops could save you time and money.
"Seen from Europe, when you talk to American or Canadian farmers, it gives us the feeling that they have it easier. Maybe it's not like that, I don't know, but it's the feeling we have."
Feed the world
With the world's population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, Monsanto has long advertised its products as a way "to help meet the food demand of those billions of people," as they put it. in a 1995 release. This remains an industry mantra.
"It's absolutely key that we keep innovating," says Kurt Boudonck, who runs Bayer's greenhouses that span North Carolina. "Current production techniques are not going to allow us to feed so many people."
However, no significant production advantage has appeared. The Times analyzed regional data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, comparing the main GM crops in the US and Canada with varieties grown in Western Europe, a grouping used by the agency and that groups seven countries, among them the two main agricultural producers, France and Germany.
In the case of rapeseed, of which one type is used to produce oil, the Times compared Western Europe to Canada, the leading producer, over the past thirty years, which also spans a period before the introduction of GM crops.
Despite rejecting transgenic crops, Western Europe maintained a higher production than Canada. Although this is partly due to the fact that the two regions grow different varieties, trends in relative production have not shifted in Canada's favor with the introduction of GM crops, the data shows.
In the case of corn, the Times compared the United States to Western Europe. The trends of one and the other have hardly changed in the last thirty years. And sugar beet, an important source of sugar, has shown a greater increase in production in Western Europe in recent years than in the US, despite the expansion of transgenic varieties in the last decade.
Jack Heinemann, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, published a 2013 study comparing production trends on both sides of the Atlantic, using data from the United Nations. Western Europe, he says, "has not been penalized in any way for not choosing to use genetic engineering in agriculture."
Executives at biotech companies suggest making more concrete comparisons. Monsanto's Dr. Fraley highlighted data comparing production growth in Nebraska and France, while a Bayer executive suggested Ohio and France. These comparisons can be favorable to the industry, while using other statements to compare can be detrimental to them.
Michael Owen, an Iowa State University researcher specializing in weeds, stated that although the industry has long said that GMOs were "going to save the world," they still "have not found the mythical gene for production."
Scarcity of new markets
The agrochemical industry, battered by the falling prices of agricultural raw materials and the resistance of consumers that has made it difficult to enter new markets, has been immersed in a dynamic of mergers. Bayer recently announced a deal to buy Monsanto. And the state-owned China National Chemical Corporation has received US approval to buy Syngenta, although Syngenta later warned that the acquisition could be delayed due to scrutiny by European authorities.
These deals are aimed at creating giants even more eager to sell both seeds and chemicals. The new generation of seeds is already reaching the market or is being developed. And they have great titles. There's Bayer's Balance GT Soybean Performance System. Monsanto's Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete corn. Dow's PhytoGen, with Enlist and Widestrike 3 Insect Protection.
In the jargon of the industry, they are varieties with several "combined" transgenic traits. And more are on the way. Monsanto has said that the 2025 corn seed will have 14 transgenes and will allow farmers to use five different types of herbicide.
These new GM crops are said to do many things, such as protecting crops from disease or making food more nutritious. Some may be effective and some may not. For the industry, making crucial crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed almost completely transgenic in many parts of the world meets a real need. For its critics, it is a marketing opportunity.
"Acceptance of GM crops is exceptionally low in Europe," says Liam Condon, Bayer's agricultural director, in an interview on the day his deal with Monsanto was announced. He added: "But there are many places in the world where there is much more need, and where GMOs are accepted. We will go where the market and customers demand our technology."
Correction: November 2, 2016
A table published Sunday with the continuation of the article on the unfulfilled promises of GM crops wrongly captured the mode of action of Herculex I, a genetic trait developed by Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer. It breaks the wall of the alimentary canal of the larvae of the insects; don't create a bacteria that does.
Image: Doug Calloway
New York Times, October 29, 2016
Posted by OMG Observatory