Tag Archives: Genetic engineering

Why Does Greenpeace Like the Watermelon?

GMO Facts and Fiction

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See if you know how many of these GMO “facts” are right.

Brian Dunningby Brian Dunning via skeptoid

No matter how many articles are published detailing how and why genetically engineered crops are safe, misinformation always seems to reign. Anti-biotech activists persist in charging GMO crops (Genetically Modified Organisms) with just about every crime against humanity, ethics, and science. Although Monsanto is the company drawing nearly 100% of the flak from anti-biotech activists and is probably the only genetic engineering company known to most people,gmo-labeling_2_150px it’s actually only one of the six biggest companies that develop GMO crops. The others are DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, and Bayer Cropscience. Beyond the big six, about 20 other smaller companies located all around the world are also in the business. But don’t expect to go down to the local nursery and find seeds branded with these names: like most manufacturers, they all sell under a variety of more customer-friendly brands. Monsanto, the market leader among the big six, sells 15 different brands, each tailored to specific products or regions. What happens to all these brands of seeds that get bought, sown, and reaped? See if you can guess all of these “fact or fiction” choices right, starting with:

Supermarkets are full of GMO foods.

True, but mostly as ingredients in prepared food. About 85% of three major food crops grown in the US — corn, soy, and cotton — are GMO. Most of the produce you buy (corn and soybeans being the only real notable exceptions) are currently not GMO. Another exception is the papaya. Most of the papayas available in the United States come from Hawaii, where the ringspot virus decimated the species in the mid 1990s. But in 1998, a crop scientist found a way to insert a single ringspot gene into the papaya, thus conferring natural immunization; and now the Hawaiian papaya flourish.

But beyond those three examples from the produce aisle, it’s pretty hard to find a prepared food product that contains no corn, soy, or cottonseed products, so the answer is yes. If you live in the Americas, you’ve been eating a lot of GMO food from the supermarket for the past several decades.

GMO leads to monoculture.

False. Supply and demand is what leads to monoculture, and that’s got nothing to do with GMOs. Monoculture is when you plant the same crop over and over again in the same field, without rotating. GMO killer tomato_200pxRotating crops naturally prevents the most common pathogen and pest antagonists to gain a foothold on any particular crop, and keeps the soil as healthy as practical. Farmers have understood the benefits of crop rotation since at least 6000 BCE. If there was an equal demand for corn, soy, and cotton, farmers would be able to rotate perfectly and everything would be hunky dory.

Sadly that’s not the case. In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of corn; 74 million acres of soybeans, 56 million acres of hay, 46 million acres of wheat, but only 10 million acres of cotton. So many products, both food and industrial, come from these, but the acreage needed from each is so disparate that crop rotation is often problematic. Further complicating it is that each crop grows best in a specific climate zone and soil. It’s really, really hard to find two or more crops that are both in equal demand and that will grow well on any given farm’s ecology.

Three of these top five crops are mostly genetically engineered varieties. But as we can see, this has nothing to do with the problems of monoculture or the farmer’s ability to rotate.

GMO crops contain genes from jellyfish and other animals.

False. There have never been any GMO crops brought to market that contained any animal genes. But it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. In many parts of the world, crops can freeze and get destroyed. So one thing researchers have tried is to give them some genes that confer antifreeze abilities in the winter flounder, a fish that can survive sub-freezing temperature. These genes express a protein (found in many plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria) that binds to small ice crystals, preventing them from becoming larger ice crystals that can damage cells. Although it would be great if we could give fruit and vegetable orchards this same ability, so far it hasn’t worked. This is why genetic engineers are always going to be busy: for every one project that succeeds, a hundred fail.

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Core Truths: 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked

By Brooke Borel via Popular Science

What-are-GMOs-and-How-Safe-Are-They-_250pxLater this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may approve the Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden, the first genetically modified apples to hit the market. Although it will probably be another two years before the non-browning fruits appears in stores, at least one producer is already scrambling to label its apples GMO-free.

The looming apple campaign is just the latest salvo in the ongoing war over genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—one that’s grown increasingly contentious.

[ . . . ]

But the truth is, GMOs have been studied intensively, and they look a lot more prosaic than the hype contends.

[ . . . ]

So what, exactly, do consumers have to fear? To find out, Popular Science chose 10 of the most common claims about GMOs and interviewed nearly a dozen scientists. Their collective answer: not much at all.

Continue reading: the 10 Common GMO Claims Debunked

Top 10 Ancient Aliens Mysteries

By Bryan Johnson via Listverse

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Click the image to visit Ancient Aliens Debunked

Ancient aliens is the idea that aliens visited earth in the past. The idea of ancient aliens is not a new one either. Imagination is one of the most powerful tools in humanity’s evolutionary struggle for survival. As a race, we are hardwired to consider important concepts, such as the creation of life on Earth and the history of people on this planet. At some point, we are all presented with various explanations and theories regarding the expansion of human life on Earth. In the long history of mankind, the majority of these concepts have followed religious teachings, and the power of a spiritual God or Gods. In modern times, many people have come to challenge these claims.

The idea of evolution has been used to describe the gradual change of traits that living organisms undergo over time, which is related to the environment, but it doesn’t explain how the biological cells of human’s first ancestor were spawned. Because of the fact that everyone is interested in the creation of life on Earth, and concurrently we have been taught to believe in the power of religion and the impossibility of alien life, the idea that this article will be examining is controversial. It will be based around some concepts that have been labeled absurd by the scientific community, but let your imagination go, and have some fun with the list.

10 • Ancient Aliens

Ancientastronauts_250pxThe idea surrounding ancient aliens is a basic one. It states that the human population was influenced by a group of extraterrestrials that visited Earth in the past. The ancient aliens were directly involved in the evolution of primates, including humans. It has been suggested that this was accomplished by way of genetic engineering, cross-breeding, or a combination of both, ultimately helping in the development of human cultures, technologies and religion. The idea first gained widespread exposure with the 1968 publication of Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken, but the concept has been around since the middle of the 19th century. A common variant of the idea includes proposals that deities from most, if not all, religions, including angels and demons, are actually extraterrestrials whose advanced technologies were taken by people as evidence of a divine status.

This concept is related to the religious practice of a cargo cult, which can be seen in modern day pre-industrial tribal societies. Especially during World War II, when indigenous people were contacted by soldiers with advanced equipment, such as guns and tanks. The cults subsequently attempted to obtain wealth through magic and religious rituals and practices. The ancient alien theory states that extraterrestrials purposely tricked the human population into believing they were Gods, creating religion to help people evolve more efficiently. The Fermi paradox is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.

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It has been proposed that, with the current age of the universe and its vast number of stars, if the Earth was typical, extraterrestrial life should be common. In response to this paradox, the zoo hypothesis has been suggested. It states that aliens generally avoid making their presence known to humanity, or avoid exerting an influence on development, somewhat akin to zookeepers observing animals in a zoo, or experimental scientists observing a study of life. Adherents of the hypothesis feel that the Earth and humans are being secretly surveyed using equipment located on Earth, or elsewhere in the Solar System. Charles Fort’s unpublished 1915 manuscript, novel X, describes how Martian beings or Martian events control life on Earth. Fort ultimately burnt the manuscript, but one surviving quote from it is “The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.”

9 • Angels and Demons

raelians_250pxThe idea of ancient alien as astronauts has spawned a UFO religion named Raëlism. The Raelian Movement teaches that life on Earth was scientifically created by a species of extraterrestrials, which they call the Elohim. Members of the Elohim appeared human and were mistaken for angels, cherubim or gods. The Bible is full of accounts of angels and demons. The text mentions millions of angels and their experiences on Earth and in the heavens. In Christian tradition, demons are similar to angels. They are spiritual, immutable and immortal. The individual demon owns a specific knowledge, sometimes on only one subject. The apocryphal Book of Enoch recounts that a group of 200 rebellious angels, or Watchers, left heaven and came down to Earth to marry human women and have children with them.

The Quran depicts a story of angels that are given minds of their own, found in verse [2:34]. One of the angels was Iblis (Satan/Lucifer), who rebelled and was therefore banished on earth to create mischief amongst mankind. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, angels were all created as good beings, but some decided to become evil. It was written that angels do not need faith as they already have the knowledge of celestial things, which means that their action constitutes unforgivable sin. The idea of alien intervention on Earth can be found in the modern religious philosophy of Thelema. Thelema was developed by the early 20th century British writer, Aleister Crowley.

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Crowley’s system of Thelema begins with The Book of the Law, which he claims was a direct dictation from an entity named Aiwass. Crowley later identified Aiwass as his own Holy Guardian Angel. The religion is founded upon the idea that the 20th century marked the beginning of the Aeon of Horus, in which a new ethical code would be followed; “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” The famed American rocket propulsion researcher, Jack Parsons, was one of the first Americans to take a keen interest in the writings of Aleister Crowley. Parsons research into rocket propulsion was some of the earliest in United States history. His pioneering work in the development of solid fuel, and the invention of Jet-fuel Assisted Take Off units for aircraft was of great importance to the start of humanity’s space age. The work of Parsons and his peers helped people usher in the age of space travel. Jack Parsons was largely self-educated.

8 • Men in Black

men_in_black_Vector_03BThe extraterrestrial hypothesis is the theory that some unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are best explained as being extraterrestrial life or non-human aliens from other planets. The idea sounds simple to modern day humans, but it a relatively new concept that originated out of the saucer sightings and close encounters of the 1940s-1960s. Thousands of UFO sightings have been reported in the last 50 years, and one of the emerging themes in these events is the Men in Black. The Men in Black are men, or aliens, dressed in black suits who have been reported to harass or threaten UFO witnesses to keep them quiet about what they have seen. In most cases, the men claim to be government agents, but it is often suggested that they may be ancient aliens themselves.

People who have reported an encounter with the Men in Black often describe them as men of short stature with a deeply tanned and dark complexion. According to the accounts, Men in Black always seem to have detailed information on the person they contact, as if the individual had been under surveillance for a long period of time. They have been described as seeming confused by the nature of everyday items such as pens, eating utensils or food, as well as using outdated slang. Those who have encountered them say they produce identification, but when verification is later sought, the people described do not exist or have been dead for some time. Another defining characteristic of the Men in Black is wide grins and disconcerting giggles.

The phenomenon has been frequently reported since the 1950s and 1960s, but some researchers, including John Keel and others, have suggested similarities between the Men in Black reports and earlier demonic accounts. Keel suggests that the beings are a modern-day manifestation of the same phenomena that was earlier interpreted as the devil, or encounters with fairies. The term “the black man” has been used for centuries in reference to the Devil. In history, the Black Man was often reported as meeting with the accused and having sexual intercourse with them. Old Scratch or Mr. Scratch is another folk name for The Devil that is used in the local legends of New England and pre-Civil War America.

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During the Middle Ages, the black man was not a person with African features, but rather a man colored black and dressed in black. In modern times, another phenomenon known as the Grinning Man has become associated with the Men in Black, and various reports of paranormal activity. These creatures are larger and characterized by a wide grinning face. In most cases, people describe a strange sensation of not being able to focus in on the Grinning Man. It has been suggested that the smile is an attempt by the aliens to conform to society and keep humans feeling safe, but in all reports the figure is described as extremely creepy. In the Half-Life series of first-person shooter video games, there is a mysterious character named G-Man that parallels some of the Men in Black descriptions.

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Food Awareness Should Include Disclosing Pesticides On Organic Food

H/T: The Locke (Skeptic Wars)

By Hank Campbell via science .20

If you care about what is in your food, you have no greater sympathetic intellect than me.

Should you be worried about pesticides on organic food? You betcha.

Should you be worried about pesticides on organic food? You betcha.

But if you are an anti-science activist, you may not understand the distinction between what is in your food and what it simply is – and there we part company. A genetic modification (GMO) is your food, for example, it is no different than any other food from a health perspective. Cataloging the numerous ways agriculture has genetically engineered food for as long as food has been grown is outside the scope of this piece, but GMOs don’t bother me and that science shouldn’t bother you either. (1) 

Pesticides do bother me, and you have a reason to be concerned about those. If you think you don’t need to wash organic food before you eat it, I think you need a sanity test. An organic pesticide is not superior to a synthetic one nor is eating animal feces on vegetables any smarter than eating man-made fertilizer.

That is where anti-science activists miss the mark. Caring about one thing we know is harmless while pretending something we know is harmful is not, if it carries an organic label, is a real mistake for their credibility. I care about food but putting a label on every food that has a GMO (yet exempting mutagenesis, which is all the rage in Europe now, precisely because it is genetic optimization, but not the legally vilified kind) and not putting a label on pesticide-laden organic food would be silly.(2) 

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency did a study and found that organic foods contain high levels of pestcides.

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10 reasons why the Anti-GMO and the Anti-vaccination movement are a lot alike.

by via The Soap Box

What-are-GMOs-and-How-Safe-Are-They-_250pxThe Anti-GMO movements and Anti-vaccination movements are probably two of the biggest and most well known pseudoscience movements out there, with millions of people that adhere to their claims.

Besides the fact that both groups do have millions of proponents world wide and promote pseudoscience, both groups are a lot alike in other ways as well. Infact I’ve come up with about ten different reasons why they are so much alike, starting with the fact that…

• Proponents of both get very emotional when you criticize and/or debunk them.

Ever get into an online discussion with someone whom either promotes Anti-vaccination or Anti-GMO nonsense, and you start to tell them what they claim is BS, and tell them why what they are claiming is BS? If you’ve answered yes then you know what usually ends up happening, and that is that they tend to go off the deep end and use all of these made up “facts” and logical fallacies and conspiracy theories, and in the end threats and accusations of being a shill are often made.

• A proponent of one tends to be a proponent of the other.

Guess which child was vaccinated.

Guess which child was vaccinated.

It shouldn’t be to surprising, but usually if someone is an Anti-GMO proponent, they usually tend to be an Anti-vaccination proponent as well, and vice-verse.

While this isn’t necessarily true many websites that promote Anti-vaccination nonsense also tend to promote Anti-GMO nonsense as well. Infact some websites that claim to be “natural health” websites promote both equally instead of one overshadowing the other. Also, another thing about proponents of both are…

• They tend to promote alternative medicine.

It shouldn’t be to surprising that people in the Anti-vaccination movement are big proponents of alternative medicine, but it shouldn’t also be to surprising that people in the Anti-GMO movement are also big proponents of alternative medicine as well.

Infact many people in the Anti-GMO movement will, besides just promote the usual alternative medicine nonsense, claim that organic foods can heal you of just about anything and everything as well (including stuff that doesn’t even exist).

• The only papers they’ve ever had published in creditable scientific journals have been debunked and retracted.

vaccines retractedThere are lots of studies that have been published over the years about the “dangers” of vaccines and GMO foods, and while the number of papers published may look impressive to some the reality is that it isn’t, especially when you consider the fact almost all of these papers are published in “scientific journals” that a person pays to be published in.

Infact the only Anti-vaccination and Anti-GMO papers that I know of that have ever been published in credible scientific journals are the Wakefield study (published in the Lancet) and the Séralini study (published in Food and Chemical Toxicology) both of which have been formally retracted by the respective journals that they were published in after it was found that both studies data was founded off of both unethical experiments and fraudulent data, and they were only retracted long after both studies had been thoroughly debunked.

• They both claim the same things about the products in terms of health effects.

Both the Anti-GMO and Anti-vaccination movements not only claim that both GMO foods and vaccines are bad for you and cause a large amount of health problems (all of which have been proven to be untrue), but they also claim that they cause the same health problems!

Both most notably are claimed to cause autism, but both are also claimed to cause the spreading of diseases, and increases in infant mortality, and sterility, and cancer, and who knows what else. It almost seems like Anti-GMO and Anti-vaccination movements are claiming that GMO foods and vaccines causes something new every week.

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Scientific Journal Retracts Anti-GMO Junk Science Study

Want to completely torque the Anti-GMO people in your life? Send them the following article. Then grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.

🙂

Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)


Scientific Journal Retracts Anti-GMO Junk Science Study

Killer Tomatoes

Killer Tomatoes

By via Reason.com

A study last year by the French anti-GMO campaigner who sometimes masquerades as a scientist, Gilles-Eric Séralini, has been retracted by the journal in which it was published. Seralini claimed that rats that he fed a diet of GMO corn developed mammary tumors and liver disease. The study was widely hailed by anti-GMO activists and soundly denounced by actual scientists.

In my article, “The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops,” I reported:

One widely publicized specious study (also cited by the IRT) was done by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini and his colleagues. They reported that rats fed pesticide resistant corn died of mammary tumors and liver diseases. Seralini is the president of the scientific council of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, which describes itself as an “independent non-profit organization of scientific counter-expertise to study GMOs, pesticides and impacts of pollutants on health and environment, and to develop non polluting alternatives.” The Committee clearly knows in advance what its researchers will find with regard to the health risks of biotech crops. But when truly independent groups, such as the European Society of Toxicologic Pathology and theFrench Society of Toxicologic Pathology, reviewed Seralini’s study, they found it essentially to be meretricious rubbish. Six French academies of science issued a statement declaring that the journal should never have published such a low-quality study and excoriating Seralini for orchestrating a media campaign in advance of publication. The European Food Safety Agency’s review of the Seralini study “found to be inadequately designed, analysed and reported.” Sadly, such junk science has real-world consequences, since Seralini’s article was apparently cited when Kenya made the decision to ban the importation of foods made with biotech crops.

The journal Food and Chemical Toxicity has now retracted Seralini’s article, noting:

Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data. However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.

The journal Food and Chemical Toxicity has now retracted Seralini's article.

The journal Food and Chemical Toxicity has now retracted Seralini’s article.
Click image to view full story.

For his “research” Seralini selected a type of lab rat that is well-known to develop spontaneous tumors. One of the numerous letters to the editor explaining the flaws in the study concluded:

Discussion is important in science, but this publication stirred vigorous criticism by several scientists around the world. It has risen up great attention by the media that had no chance of getting an external expert opinion due to unusual non-disclosure clauses. The initial unbalanced media coverage is causing damage to an important tool for global food security. It is also important to avoid unnecessary distress and pain of the animals (e.g. Directive 2010/63/EU), the experiment should not go beyond the point required to meet the scientific objectives. I urge you to take adequate measures to keep the high standard quality of publications that come to your journal. This paper as it is now, presents poor quality science and dubious ethics.

It’s good that the journal has gotten around to retracting the study, but unfortunately it will become just another cause celebre among conspircy minded anti-biotech activists.


[END]

More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

by via Science-Based Medicine

GMO_rice_250pxI never used to write much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before. I still don’t do it that often. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been on my radar very much. That seems to be changing, however. It’s not because I went seeking this issue out (although I must admit that I first became interested in genetic engineering when I was in junior high and read a TIME Magazine cover article about it back in the 1970s), but rather because in my reading I keep seeing it more and more in the context of anti-GMO activists using bad science and bad reasoning to justify a campaign to demonize GMOs. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, (Forgive me, I have no idea why I like that expression, given that I don’t hunt.) I really don’t. I was, not too long ago, fairly agnostic on the issue of GMOs and their safety, although, truth be told, because I have PhD in a biomedical science and because my lab work has involved molecular biology and genetics since I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I found the claims of horrific harm attributable to GMOs not particularly convincing, but hadn’t bothered to take that deep a look into them. It was not unlike my attitude towards the the claims that cell phones cause cancer a few years ago, before I looked into them and noted the utter lack of a remotely-plausible mechanism and uniformly negative studies except for a group in Sweden with a definite ax to grind on the issue. Back then, I realized that there wasn’t really a plausible mechanism by which radio waves from cell phones could cause cancer in that the classic mechanisms by which ionizing radiation can break DNA molecular bonds and cause mutations don’t apply, but I didn’t rule out a tiny possibility that there might be an as-yet unappreciated mechanism by which long term exposure to radio waves might contribute to cancer. I still don’t, by the way, which has gotten me into the odd kerfuffle with some skeptics and one physicist, but I still view the likelihood that cell phone radiation can cause cancer as being just a bit more plausible than homeopathy.

As was the case for the nonexistent cell phone-cancer link, there has now been a steady drip-drip-drip of bad studies touted by anti-GMO activists as “evidence” that GMOs are the work of Satan that will corrupt or kill us all (and make us fat, to boot). Not too long ago, I came across one such study, a truly execrable excuse for science by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen purporting to demonstrate that Roundup-resistant genetically modified maize can cause horrific tumors in rats. I looked at the methods and conclusions and what I found was . . .

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The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops

By via Reason.com

The Institute for Responsible Technology, an organization opposed to crop biotechnology, has published a list of reasons to avoid GMOs—that is, genetically modified food. It’s a mish-mash of misinformation and disinformation. All of the institute’s assertions are unfounded, but here are the five most dubious claims on the list.

1. GMOs Are Unhealthy

Credit: Library of Congress

Every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated the safety of biotech crops has found them to be safe for humans to eat.

A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” In 2003 the International Council for Science, representing 111 national academies of science and 29 scientific unions, found “no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients.” The World Health Organization flatly states, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

In 2010, a European Commission review of 50 studies on the safety of biotech crops found “no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” At its annual meeting in June, the American Medical Association endorsed a report on the labeling of bioengineered foods from its Council on Science and Public Health. The report concluded that “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

Unfortunately there is no shortage of fringe scientists to gin up bogus studies suggesting that biotech crops are not safe. My personal favorite in this genre is Russian researcher Irina Ermakova’s claim, unpublished in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, that eating biotech soybeans turned mouse testicles blue.

One widely publicized specious study (also cited by the IRT) was done by the French researcher Gilles-Eric Seralini and his colleagues. They reported that rats fed pesticide resistant corn died of mammary tumors and liver diseases. Seralini is the president of the scientific council of the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, which describes itself as an “independent non-profit organization of scientific counter-expertise to study GMOs, pesticides and impacts of pollutants on health and environment, and to develop non polluting alternatives.” The Committee clearly knows in advance what its researchers will find with regard to the health risks of biotech crops. But when truly independent groups, such as the European Society of Toxicologic Pathology and the French Society of Toxicologic Pathology, reviewed Seralini’s study, they found it essentially to be meretricious rubbish. Six French academies of science issued a statement declaring that the journal should never have published such a low-quality study and excoriating Seralini for orchestrating a media campaign in advance of publication. The European Food Safety Agency’s review of the Seralini study “found [it] to be inadequately designed, analysed and reported.”

Sadly, such junk science has real-world consequences, since Seralini’s article was apparently cited when Kenya made the decision to ban the importation of foods made with biotech crops.

2. GMOs Increase Herbicide Use

Credit: Library of Congress

First, so what? This claim is simply an attempt to mislead people into thinking that more herbicide use must somehow be more dangerous. As a U.S. Department of Agriculture report has noted, planting herbicide resistant biotech crops enables farmers to substitute the more environmentally benign herbicide glyphosate (commercially sold as Round Up) for other synthetic herbicides that are at least 3 times as toxic and that persist in the environment nearly twice as long as glyphosate.” Glyphosate has very low toxicity, breaks down quickly in the environment, and enables farmers to practice conservation tillage, which reduces topsoil erosion by up to 90 percent. So the net environmental effect is still positive.

Second, it must be admitted that there are few honest brokers when it comes to this issue. Most of the research on biotech crops and herbicides is underwritten by either activist groups or industry. I have drawn my own conclusions, but I provide a fairly comprehensive review of the various studies on this question below.

When it comes to biotech crops and pesticide use data, the go-to guy for anti-biotech activists is Charles Benbrook. After a long career with various anti-biotech groups, Benbrook now serves as a research professor in the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. He has a long history of publishing studies allegedly showing that the adoption of biotech crops boosts the use of pesticides. Four years after commercial biotech crops were first planted in the United States, for example, he concluded in 2001 that herbicide use had “modestly increased.” Benbrook’s article contradicted research published the year before by scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who had found that biotech crops had reduced pesticide applications.

In a 2004 report funded by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Benbrook asserted that “GE [genetically engineered] corn, soybeans, and cotton have led to a 122 million pound increase in pesticide use since 1996.” In contrast, a 2005 study in Pest Management Science, by a researcher associated with the pesticide lobby group CropLife, reported that planting biotech crops had “reduced herbicide use by 37.5million lbs.” A 2007 study done for the self-described non-advocacy think tank National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, founded in 1984 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, reported that planting biotech crops in the U.S. had reduced in 2005 herbicide use by 64 million pounds and insecticide applications by about 4 million pounds. Another 2007 study, by a team of international academic researchers led by Gijs Kleter from the Institute of Food Safety at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, concluded that in the U.S., crops genetically improved to resist herbicides used 25 to 30 percent less herbicides than conventional crops did. In 2009, Benbrook issued a report for the anti-GMO Organic Center claiming that “GE crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops.”

Benbrook’s latest study, issued last year, found that the adoption of pest-resistant crops had reduced the application of insecticides by 123 million pounds since 1996 but increased the application of herbicides by 527 million pounds, an overall increase of about 404 million pounds of pesticides. The media—including Mother Jones’ ever-credulous anti-biotech advocate Tom Philpott— reported these results unskeptically.

Benbrook largely got his 2012 results by making some strategic extrapolations of herbicide use trends to make up for missing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, the USDA does not provide herbicide use data for corn in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2011, for soybeans in any year after 2006, and for cotton in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2011. (The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is expected to issue a report updating national herbicide and insecticide usage later this year.)

As the University of Wyoming weed biologist Andrew Kniss points out, in order to get an increasing herbicide trend, Benbrook’s extrapolations turned a negative herbicide use trend for corn positive. He did the same thing to a neutral use trend for soybeans. Meanwhile, a 2012 study by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot at the PG Economics consultancy found planting modern biotech crop varieties had globally cut pesticide spraying by 997 million pounds from 1996 to 2010, an overall reduction of 9.1 percent. Brookes and Barfoot calculated the amount of pesticide used by multiplying the acreage planted for each variety by the average amounts applied per acre.

3. Genetic Engineering Creates Dangerous Side Effects

Credit: Robby Ryke / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The Institute for Responsible Technology’s list simply fearmongers on this one, claiming, “By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects.” Not really.

All types of plant breeding—conventional, mutagenic, and biotech—can, on rare occasions, produce crops with unintended consequences. The 2004 NAS report that I alluded to above includes a section comparing the unintended consequences of each approach; it concludes that biotech is “not inherently hazardous.” Conventional breeding transfers thousands of unknown genes with unknown functions along with desired genes, and mutation breeding induces thousands of random mutations via chemicals or radiation. In contrast, the NAS report notes, biotech is arguably “more precise than conventional breeding methods because only known and precisely characterized genes are transferred.”

The case of mutation breeding is particularly interesting. In that method, researchers basically blast crop seeds with gamma radiation or bathe them in harsh chemicals to produce thousands of uncharacterized mutations, then plant them to see what comes up. The most interesting new mutants are then crossed with commercial varieties, which are then released to farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Mutant Varieties Database offers more 3,000 different mutated crop varieties to farmers. Many of these mutated varieties are planted as organic crops. Among of the more recent new mutant offerings are two corn varieties, Kneja 546 and Kneja 627. Whatever genetic changes wrought in these corn varieties by induced mutagenesis, they must be far less known to researchers than any changes made to standard-issue biotech crops, yet these mutants get practically no regulatory scrutiny or activist censure.

The point here is . . .

MORE . . .

Genetically Modified Crops

Why the big fuss about GMO crops?
Are they indeed as terrible as some people say?

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Full transcript and more information.
Related: Mark Lynas, environmentalist who opposed GMOs, admits he was wrong.

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