For a long time I have been trying to write a post about GM foods. I’ve kept getting stuck, because my central point is that the issue is a lot more complex than most people give credit, and it’s hard to address that complexity without making the post ridiculously long.
Recently however, I covered two stories at Australasian Science that made me feel I have to address the issue, but apologies for what I leave out.
When the right is attacked for being in thrall to anti-science on Climate Change, Wind Turbines, Creationism (mainly US) etc etc, it is common for centrists and moderate right-wingers to pipe up by saying “Ah yes, but the left has it’s own anti-science attitudes”. I’ve noted before that in most cases I think this is not a valid comparison at all. It may be true that anti-vaxers, HIV deniers, Chemtrail believers and Fluoride scaremongers more common on the left than the right, but these are hardly left/green majority positions. In every case the leadership of the Greens and social democratic parties are firmly in the pro-science camp, as presumably are the majority of the rank and file.
Moreover, none of these are exclusively left. Fluoride as a mind control drug was initially A John Birch Society theory, probably because they didn’t like the idea of black Americans catching up with whites on dental health. Anti-vaccination has attracted plenty of right-wingers, particularly since Gardasil was seen as a way to let women have sex with a reduced risk of cancer.
The two issues where there is more bite to the charge are Nuclear Power and GM foods. It’s certainly true that some of the people who oppose both technologies do so on grounds that require the throwing out of large areas of science, logic or both. However, there are a number of reasons to oppose each technology, at least in the current format, while being completely in line with the latest science. You might suspect that opposition stems from deep seated misconceptions about physics or chemistry, but most of the time you can’t really tell.
For me the key thing about nuclear power is that all the sound and fury about whether is it is safe or not has distracted from the fact that it is really bloody expensive. The promise of “too cheap to meter” has turned out to be an utter joke, and while there are always claims of new ultra-cheap versions about to appear these claims have been made so often I’ll believe it when I see it. There are still parts of the world where new nuclear is substantially cheaper than a wind/solar combination, but they’re small and shrinking fast.
Surprisingly, at least to me, it seems possible that the same maybe true of GM crops. GM’s promise was that it would feed the world, rather as the Green Revolution did. Faced with rapidly rising populations with a taste for wasteful western diets something big was needed to increase world food production. The threat of degraded soils and climate change only made this worse. How could this be done without GM?
I’ve often made the point that there is actually plenty of food in the world – the problem is inequality of access. Still, more food production ought to do something to address world hunger. If production goes up prices will come down, which even without an improvement in equality should mean more people get to eat. As long as GM remains in the hands of large corporations there is a high chance it will actually increase inequality, in which case the question becomes which factor is larger. However, it did seem axiomatic that GM would increase production, even if the various downsides were too large a price to pay.
The first article was on a new method for recognising weeds. Basically the idea is that you strap three lasers, and optical sensors and a computer to the front of a vehicle and drive it across a field. The lasers are at different wavelengths and when they scan the field they produce reflections that can distinguish between the planted crop and weeds. This then allows the machine to direct a targeted burst of herbicide straight at the weed, rather than spraying the entire field. The university responsible for the technology (and I am sorry, I have forgotten which it is) thinks that the potential savings in herbicide use will vastly outweigh the cost of the machine, even if you don’t take into account the environmental and health effects of heavy herbicide use.
Now by far the largest application of GM crops is “Round-up Ready” corn, soy, canola etc. These have been engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate so one can spray it around and kill the weeds and not the crop. I asked the scientist involved if his machine would remove the need for such crops. He agreed. If you’re targeting the herbicide so that it all goes on the weed and not on the crop it’s not a problem if the crop would be killed by the herbicide – it never comes in contact.
Interesting, but while this may eliminate the need for the most widespread form of GM, it doesn’t have anything to say about other examples of GM, be they existing or potential.
The next article is potentially more significant, although also almost certainly open to challenge.
Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury compared the yields per hectare over time of the American Midwest – heartland of GM crops – and several European countries where GM is banned. The results, published in the Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (open access) are unexpected, to say the least.
In the 1960s the US had higher productivity per hectare in maize than Western Europe, although lower in wheat. This may have had to do with climate, soil or technology. Over time however, that balance has shifted, such that Europe now appears to be slightly ahead in maize, while its advantage in wheat has grown dramatically. The introduction of GM corn has not enabled the US to maintain its maize advantage, let alone to expand it. The productivity of corn fields has risen in the US since GM became the norm, but not as fast as GM-free Europe.
So much for the denunciations of anyone opposed to GM as wanting to keep the developing world hungry.
Heinemann also compared canola in Europe with Canada and found that the European advantage (presumably built on climate) had expanded since Canada adopted GM. Meanwhile in wheat, where GM has not been an issue, the European productivity advantage has expanded over time, although may have levelled off recently.
The pattern is even worse if you look at other measures. GM was touted as reducing herbicide and insecticide use. The herbicide claim has been comprehensively disproved – although GM crops initially used less weed killer, they now use more than comparable farms. However, it is true that GM crops in north America use less insecticide (at least if you ignore what the plant produces itself) than non-GM farms on that side of the Atlantic. However, Heinemann produces figures that suggest insecticide use is falling much faster in France, without GM, than in the US or Canada.
Heinemann does not say that GM is stultifying US productivity. As he puts it in the article, “GM is a symptom not the cause”. He thinks that the US agricultural system is set up in ways that are causing it to fall behind Europe, and these characteristics also make it an easy fit for GM. On the other hand, he told me, “American farmers are paying a high rent for GM seed. European farmers have put that money into other things, like keeping more moisture in the soil. Maybe they have done that by having more organic material, or maybe through better management of dams, but it has worked better.”
I certainly don’t think this paper is the final word on the topic. Maybe productivity per hectare is the wrong measure to use, although it sure looks an obvious one and other metrics Heinemann tried produced similar or stronger results. Maybe the data is highly selective and other European countries would be different, or climate change is benefiting Europe while harming the US.
Moreover, even if we accept that the first generation of GM crops have been a flop that doesn’t mean GM will never produce anything valuable. Still, GM has been around for quite a while. If, like with nuclear, the winning technology is always just around the corner, at some point you have to start questioning the whole idea.
At the very least, unless they can shoot some big holes in Heinemann’s case, it might be time for the proponents of GM to stop talking about how opponents are getting between the world’s hungry and a decent meal.
Update: It’s interesting to note that this point hasn’t registered yet with a lot of GM opponents. No one would accuse this author, for example of being pro-GM, let alone Monsanto, but the idea that GM might not be improving yields doesn’t get a look in.