ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

With GE Crops, Pesticide Use Rose Dramatically Over 13 Years

Despite industry claims to the contrary, the adoption of genetically engineered crops has led to dramatic increase in pesticide use over 13 years, according to a new report.

The report, released by the Organic Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety, put the increase at 318 million pounds, even taking into account the 64 million pound reduction in insecticides for GE corn and cotton. The report was written by Organic Center chief scientist Charles Benbrook. 

Farmers, who have planted ever more acres with GE crops, are also battling a rising tide of herbicide-resistant superweeds, which is leading to rising pesticide applications, new seed development, and higher costs.

The price of GE seeds has risen precipitously in recent years, and the need to make additional herbicide applications in an effort to keep up with resistant weeds is also increasing cash production costs.As an example, corn farmers planting “SmartStax” hybrids in 2010 will spend around $124 per acre for seed, almost three times the cost of conventional corn seed. In addition, new-generation “Roundup Ready” (RR) 2 soybean seed, to be introduced on a widespread basis next year, will cost 42 percent more than the original RR seeds they are displacing.

The full report can be read here and a further summary at Civil Eats blog

GMOs Lose in Recent Court Rulings

In two recent court decisions, genetically modified crops suffered defeat.

On Monday,the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto's patent for genetically engineered soybeans, ending a 13-year battle. The ETC Group, which bought the law suit, said:

The patent was vigorously and formally opposed by Monsanto itself until the company purchased the original patent assignee (Agracetus) in 1996. The technology related to the now-revoked patent has been used, along with other patents in the company’s portfolio, to corner 90% of the world’s GM soybean market.

In a second decision last week, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that the USDA's approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa was illegal. The judge ordered the USDA to ban any further planting of the seed until it carried out an Environmental Impact Statement.

The court's fear was that the alfalfa would spread to non-GMO fields (just as occurred in the past year with GMO rice). The locations of all the GMO alfalfa fields must now be disclosed so that growers of organic and conventional alfalfa “can test their own crops to determine if there has been contamination,” according to the Center for Food Safety, which brought the suit.

GM Crops Advance - Without Debate

By Stephanie Paige Ogburn

Genetically modified crops are taking root at a rate that may surprise those who don’t closely follow the acreage numbers.

Roughly 252 million acres, or 6.2 percent of the world’s total cropland, are planted with GM crops, according to 2006 figures. The growth is largely occurring in developing countries, which currently boast about 40 percent of total GM acreage.

Brazil, China, and India, leaders in many development statistics, are also the three major developing nations implementing GM crops. From 2005 to 2006, India’s GM crop acreage, mostly in cotton, increased 192 percent. But even Iran’s gotten in the game, introducing Bt rice, on somewhere between 25,000-50,000 acres. (The rice contains the genetic material of the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, an insecticide.)

I found this out at a recent talk on the regulation GM crops given by Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It sponsored by the GM Plants Working Group, a subgroup of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Conko’s a leader in the field of GM regulation, and the stats above were less the object of his talk than talking points along the way as he introduced the need for a standardized regulatory system for genetically modified crops. Conko believes that GM crops, when properly regulated, are safe and can be highly beneficial to mankind and the environment, while at the same time making some people a lot of money. In other words, he backs up Monsanto in the current debate over GM crops.

While many don’t share his faith in the safety of GM plants, Conko made the point that the crops have allowed a sharp reduction in insecticide use. In the United States, insecticide use has fallen by 8 percent in field corn, 80 percent in sweet corn, 40 percent in cotton and 60 percent in potatoes. Developing countries have also seen similar reductions in insecticide use.

Herbicides are a different story. Since what’s generally being sold are herbicide-resistant crops, farmers who use GM soy or corn (Roundup Ready or Liberty Link, for example), are spraying large quantities of glyphosate (Roundup) or glufosinate ammonium (Liberty) herbicides. These herbicides kill everything but the herbicide-resistant crops. Conko’s spin on such herbicide-resistant crops ran along familiar lines: that these are some of the least persistent herbicides around, and a transition to them is better for soil health, since they allow conservation tillage, and human health, since they are less toxic than other herbicides.

But Conko’s talk glossed over many of the oft-cited concerns with GM crops. “Every known risk of bioengineered plants also occurs in non-engineered plants,” he claimed. While I won’t argue with his science (since I’m not a molecular biologist) the essential argument he made about regulation seems flawed, since it basically says: Since we don’t highly regulate these other seed types, we shouldn't regulate GM crops either.

Conko notably omitted a discussion of the wider social and ecological impacts of widespread use of GM crops. And while the negative health and ecological impacts of GM crops may be debatable, it's irrefutable that they’ve spread to non-GM corn in Mexico, non-GMO rice in the U.S, and organic crops in Spain, at a cost to farmers. Plus, weeds are developing glyphosate herbicide resistance (see this link for a list). GM crops may not be “Frankenfoods," but these issues warrant serious discussion about how they're regulated.

Coming away from this talk, I want to make several points:

  • We need a public conversation about how GM crops in this country should be dealt with. If more than 6 percent of the world’s crops are currently genetically modified - over 135 million U.S. acres - and we’ve still not had a good debate about how to regulate this industry, something is wrong.
  • As GM crops spread, there should be discussion on whether research should focus on producing more Roundup Ready corn, or whether it should focus on crafting crops adapted to poor agricultural conditions such as drought areas or specific soil types.
  • If GM crops can have positive environmental outcomes, then they are worth real exploration. As long as they are decried but not addressed in the public sphere, the private sector will control the way these crops are developed.

It’s a tragedy that GM crops have become so mainstreamed without any serious discussion. Two hundred fifty-two million acres of GM crops is a lot of land, and this transformation has largely happened out of the public eye. This fact alone makes biotech seem sneaky and underhanded, and naturally leaves one less inclined to trust the soothing assurances of the biotech advocates.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

How Transparency Works

By Samuel Fromartz

I just read three pieces that show the power of transparency in the food system.

First was the op-ed in the Times I missed yesterday on the conditions of sows in the pork industry (should we call it the pig industry?). Nicolette Hahn Niman points out that Smithfield Farm recently decided to stop using gestation cages which "virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around."

Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

You get the picture. I saw another email on how this sort of knowledge is affecting producers - in this case, in the dairy industry. The source was Dairy Line, a trade publisher for milk producers.

They are concerned that "well-funded activists" are raising questions about rBST, the synthetic growth hormone that pumps up milk production (and reduces the productive lifespan of cows). They blame the activists, but the fact is, consumers are voting for rBST-free milk with their wallets the more they hear about the issue.

As organic milk - which cannot be produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics - has raised awareness on this issue, other non-organic milk companies have followed suit and are banning rBST (which is not approved for use in Europe).

The email goes onto state that "similar scenarios have developed in other arenas in recent months ... issues that affect poultry and pork production and 'We’re concerned dairy is coming under the same kind of attack,'" the email said.

As consumers learn more, production methods come under greater scrutiny and traditional agriculture feels the heat. It's happening across the food system.

Finally, transparency can effect decisions at the farm. Albert Straus, of California's Straus Family Creamery (an organic milk producer) decided to test his feed for GM contamination. According to Time magazine, he "was alarmed to find that nearly 6% of the organic corn feed he received from suppliers was "contaminated" by genetically modified (GM) organisms.

So Straus and five other natural food producers, including industry leader Whole Foods, announced last week that they would seek a new certification for their products, "non-GMO verified," in the hopes that it will become a voluntary industry standard for GM-free goods. A non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project runs the program, and the testing is conducted by an outside lab called Genetic ID. In a few weeks, Straus expects to become the first food manufacturer in the country to carry the label in addition to his "organic" one.

The bottom line: Transparency changes food production decisions. It is now having a measurable impact on what we eat.


Eat GM Rice, But Don't Grow It

You can eat unapproved genetically modified rice, but don't try to grow it.

So says the USDA, according to a story from Dow Jones reporter Bill Tomson published Monday (subscription required).

The USDA banned planting of Clearfield CL131 rice that was apparently contaminated by an unapproved strain of genetically modified rice. The ban applies to seeds produced in 2005-2007.

Now the USDA is moving toward a food safety assessment for the unapproved rice. "We're still coordinating with the (Food and Drug Administration) to get some sort of determination ... on safety," USDA Under Secretary Bruce Knight said.

In the meantime, there's no prohibition on allowing grain from those seeds into the food supply.

Thomas Sim, a director at USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, told Dow Jones any material "not intended for seed" and "in the channels to be milled" will not be affected by the ban. The rice produced last year from Clearfield CL131 seeds is not distinguishable at the mills.

GMO Seed Sales Halted

A federal judge Monday threw out the USDA's approval of genetically engineered alfalfa and issued a temporary injunction to halt sales of the seed.

The unprecedented ruling follows a hearing last week in the case brought by the Center for Food Safety against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approving GE alfalfa without conducting the required Environmental Impact Statement.

While Monsanto and its allies claimed that delaying the sale or planting of their GE seed would harm farmers, the judge found otherwise. “Disappointment in the delay to their switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa is not an interest which outweighs the potential environmental harm…” posed by the GE crop, he wrote.

The LA Times reports:

The seeds ... are now in their second season of use. Such genetically engineered seeds are grown in 200,000 of the nation's 23 million acres of alfalfa, widely grown for hay and animal grazing.

The seeds were re-engineered so that alfalfa plants can resist the ill effects of another Monsanto product, a widely used herbicide known by the trade name of Roundup. As a result, some farmers say, they can get greater crop yield and better quality alfalfa.

California is the nation's No. 1 alfalfa producer with about 1 million acres under cultivation. The state's 2004 harvest was worth $853 million.

The ban will remain in effect until the judge considers lifting it or making it permanent. Monsanto is banking on increasing the acreage by convincing federal Judge Charles R. Breyer at an April hearing that farmers can use so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds without contaminating neighboring fields.

The Little-Known (Non-GMO) Rice Mutant

As you probably know, if you've been reading the news or this blog, rice farmers have been scrambling to find seed that's not contaminated with traces of genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant rice. (The Washington Post looked at the issue Sunday).

There's a curious fact about the current debacle that you probably haven't heard, though, perhaps because journalists don't want to confuse their readers. You know that popular "conventional" variety in which traces of genetic engineering were most recently found? Clearfield 131? Well, it's also a herbicide-tolerant line of rice. It contains a genetic mutation that allows it to tolerate doses of certain chemical herbicides. Scientists created that genetic change by soaking rice in mutation-inducing chemicals. Similar "Clearfield" varieties have been on the market for years, and nobody outside the rice industry paid much attention.

There's really no difference in the potential risks posed by these two kinds of herbicide-tolerance -- one created through genetic engineering and one created by mutation-causing chemicals. So why is one kind exempt from public scrutiny and government regulation, while the other kind sets off trade embargoes? Probably because genetic engineering, unlike chemical mutagenesis, arrived on the scene full of hype and hubris, promising a new creation. Those grand ambitions, as much as anything, provoked the anti-GMO backlash.

- Dan Charles

Genetic Mystery: Contaminated Rice Seed

Editor's note: We welcome Dan Charles, an author and occasional NPR reporter and editor, as a new contributor to Chews Wise.

By Dan Charles

The most mysterious case of genetically engineered guests showing up, uninvited and unwelcome, in farmers’ fields just got more mysterious this week.

There's no genetically engineered rice for sale in the U.S., but tests of conventional rice seed, starting more than a year ago, have found traces of three separate genetically engineered strains.

The latest case, announced by the USDA this week, hit just as farmers began spring planting in Louisiana.

The case shows just how difficult it is to prevent the spread of genes, or seeds, from one field to another. In rice, the cases of contamination have shut down rice exports to Europe and forced seed companies to take two popular rice varieties off the market.

What everybody in the rice industry wants to know is, How how did genetically engineered plants end up in stocks of conventional seeds?

Here's what happened in the latest case.

Samples of a popular rice variety called Clearfield 131 tested positive for a DNA sequence that's commonly used in many genetically engineered varieties. Then inspectors tested for other DNA sequences, ones that are found in the three specific strains of genetically engineered rice that have been approved for sale but not yet on the market. These tests came back negative.

So the gene that's loose in Clearfield 131 appears to be from non-approved line of genetically engineered rice.

As a result, the USDA banned farmers from planting Clearfield 131 -- one of the most popular rice varieties. Planting in some areas was already underway, though. An industry source says at least two fields were planted with the now-banned variety. Those seedlings will presumably have to be destroyed.

Insiders think the contamination probably occurred at an agricultural research station near Crowley, Louisiana, (the “rice capital of America”) operated by Louisiana State University.

This research station conducted field trials, a few years ago, with several different lines of genetically engineered rice. Most of them were products developed by Bayer CropScience, engineered to tolerate doses of the herbicide Liberty, also sold by Bayer.

Simultaneously, this research station was breeding new conventional varieties of rice and growing small harvests of "foundation seed" -- the ultra-pure stocks that seed companies use in growing the seed that they sell to farmers.

The most popular varieties that this research station has released in recent years are called Cheniere and Clearfield 131. These are also the varieties contaminated with traces of genetically modified rice. (Cheniere was pulled from the market last fall.)

Evidently, pollen from the genetically engineered field trials, or a few stray kernels of rice, found a way to cross the few hundred yards that separated these fields. Perhaps harvesting equipment carried the kernels from one field to the other.

Rice pollen doesn't usually travel from one plant to another, but a windstorm might produce a freak instance of cross-pollination. However it happened, the genetically modified material did end up in foundation seed that this research station released to seed companies.

USDA inspectors have been going through the records of this LSU research station, testing every sample of seed that's been stored, trying to figure out where, and when, the genetic contamination happened. Evidently, it happened at least three separate times.

Rice farmers and exporters, at this point, are wishing they'd never heard of genetic engineering. Exports haven’t actually dropped overall; most countries have agreed to accept U.S. rice exports, as long as the industry appears to be making an effort to fix the problem. But the rice industry is worried that will change.

The lesson appears to be that the agricultural system simply isn't able to ensure pristine separation of different genetic lines of grain. Farming is a messy business; grain and pollen get mixed up.

It's been a tough few months for Steven Linscombe, director of the LSU research station in Crowley. Considering the scrutiny he's under, Linscombe has been notably open and willing to discuss exactly what he did in those field trials.

He's learned a few things. Last fall, when I interviewed him for an NPR story on this saga, he said that he'll never again grow genetically engineered rice on the same research farm with conventional foundation seed. Any field trials of genetically engineered rice will take place at a separate location, with separate cultivation and harvesting equipment.
Dan Charles is the author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food