The recent New York Times article claiming GMOs haven't delivered on the promise of reduced pesticide use and greater yields is notable both for what it asserts, and what it leaves out.
For starters, reporter Danny Hakim unequivacably states:
Fears about the harmful effects of eating G.M. foods have proved to be largely without scientific basis.
So will all the anti-GMO folks who are circulating the article as confirmation of their views also accept this as reality? Can we finally take food safety — the focal point of the anti-GMO messaging — out of this polarized debate?
Unfortunately, the article fails to explore the significant role that these same anti-GMO activists have played in preventing GM crops from reaching their full potential. It's a bit disengenous to claim the crops have underperfomed without also acknowledging that their development has met fierce resistance every step of the way, with many, especially those in the public sector, stymied completely.
Much of the work I've focused on has been the development of insect-resistant crops that are already showing the potential to reduce insecticide use and pull people out of poverty, such as the Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, Bt cotton in India and the Bt cowpea in West Africa. But the article skirts these contributions in focusing solely on commodity crop comparisons between Europe and the U.S.
The article also makes hash out of statistics. As University of Wyoming professor Andrew Kniss notes in his Control Freaks blog:
First, the data is presented in different units (thousand metric tons for France, compared to million pounds in the US), making a direct comparison nearly impossible. Second, the pesticide amounts are not standardized per unit area, which is critically important since the USA has over 9 times the amount of farmland that France does; it would be shocking if the U.S. didn’t use far more pesticide when expressed this way.
It is true that France has been reducing pesticide use, but France still uses more pesticides per arable hectare than we do in the USA. In the case of fungicide & insecticides, a LOT more. But a relatively tiny proportion of these differences are likely due to GMOs; pesticide use depends on climate, pest species, crop species, economics, availability, tillage practices, crop rotations, and countless other factors. And almost all of these factors differ between France and the U.S. So this comparison between France and the U.S., especially at such a coarse scale, is mostly meaningless, especially with respect to the GMO question.
If the increase in herbicide use in the U.S. is due to GMOs, what can explain the increase in herbicide use throughout most of Europe, where GMO varieties are not available?
I recently wrote an article about Dr. Kniss and the complexity and nuances involved in both analyzing farm chemical use and issuing value judgments about the findings. As he noted:
It's a really complex question and it can't be boiled down to a single answer when you ask, is herbicide use better or worse than it used to be? It's different. Some aspects are probably going to be better and some will probably be worse. In ag, nothing is black and white and that is particularly true with most pesticide use. Everything in agriculture is a trade-off.
Acute toxicity has decreased in all crops, whether they're GMO or not. If anything, if we had not had GMO crops the chronic toxicity would have increased even more. Glyphosate represents 70 percent of the herbicide used in these crops, but it barely registers as a [toxicity] impact.
The NYT reporter also treats all herbicide-tolerant crops as GMOs, when many have been developed through selective breeding or targeted mutagenesis, and are not GMOs at all.
What's more, he totally fails to address no-till, one of the main benefits of herbicide tolerance. According to a study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and researchers from Aarhus University:
The study confirmed that that there are significant interactions between management factors, including pesticide application, with respect to effects on soil organisms. There are many sources of variation, and the disturbance of tillage alone may be greater than the effects of pesticides.
While tilling is praised as “more natural” than herbicides, it does cause cause erosion and impact beneficial soil organisms. This again underscores the complexity of these issues.
Though people like to think in polarized terms of “good” and “bad,” the real world is all shades of gray. We only cheat ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that fact and persist in simplistic thinking.
But what really struck me about the NYT article were these quotes from French farmer Arnaud Rousseau, who is prohibited from using GM crops:
He wants access to the same technologies as his competitors across the Atlantic, and thinks G.M. crops could save time and money.
“Seen from Europe, when you speak with American farmers or Canadian farmers, we’ve got the feeling that it’s easier. Maybe it’s not right. I don’t know, but it’s our feeling.”
At the end of the day, it's all about ensuring that farmers — not activists — get to choose what to grow.