Your Feb. 8 headline “Maize genetics debate pits science against emotions” is one of the most misleading headlines I have seen in your publication in quite some time. It suggests that those opposed to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops are using irrational arguments to support a politically-motivated agenda.
I know a little about this subject, having retired from Shell Chemical after 30 years of service, 12 of which were in agricultural chemical Research & Development and during which time I authored or co-authored 53 U.S. patents in the area of chemical insect and weed control.
Despite the questionable claim of Messrs. Henry I. Miller of Stanford, and Graham Brookes, a UK economist, that “the reduced need for spraying chemical pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops, the health risks – primarily poisonings — for farm workers and their families are significantly lower than for conventional crops,” a very recent (2012) Washington State University study found that pesticide chemical use on U.S. farms has increased by 183 million kilos since GM crops were introduced in 1996.
Of that total, herbicide use increased by 239 million kilos while insecticide use decreased by 56 million kilos. One wonders if Messrs. Miller and Brookes are somehow on the Monsanto payroll. By the way, Mr. Miller is a fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative public policy think tank. He was a member-scientist of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a public relations group backed by Philip Morris to undermine science showing the ill effects of cigarettes on human health.
Realistically, the driver behind GM crops is the opportunity for Monsanto to sell more Roundup, the world’s top selling herbicide for many years. And they have succeeded. Unfortunately, that success comes with an unfortunate price tag. The use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops has resulted in the rapid spread of Roundup resistant weeds in countries where GM crops are planted due to over-reliance on a single herbicide, i.e., Roundup.
This is a typical pattern seen with pesticides where increasing use leads to the development of resistance to that pesticide. The mechanism is straightforward and universal. When the toxin is applied, some percentage of the exposed pests, because of natural genetic variation, is resistant or immune to the toxic effects of the chemical. Those resistant or immune individuals survive the application of the pesticide and then propagate throughout the population. The susceptible pests, i.e., those killed by the chemical, obviously don’t propagate. Over time, the increasingly resistant pest population is less and less affected by the pesticide. This ultimately results in the need for more of the same chemical or the introduction of additional chemicals to maintain control of the invasive species. We have seen similar effects in the overuse of antibiotics in humans leading to more virulent strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The over-reliance on Roundup has resulted in the development of so-called “superweeeds” unaffected by traditional dose rates of the chemical. Farmers are using more Roundup than previously in order to maintain the same level of pest control. In addition, Monsanto has begun subsidizing farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup as a means of maintaining control.
As for Monsanto’s claim of improved crop yields, a Union of Concerned Scientists study based on peer-reviewed research and official U.S. Department of Agriculture data concluded, “Commercial GE [genetically-engineered] crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the 20th century.”
One could easily argue that the proliferation of GM crops is a scam perpetrated by Monsanto solely for the purpose of greater profits and with little regard for the consequent increased contamination of soil and groundwater by toxic chemicals. Exercising their corporate power, they have convinced a gullible public that poisoning the environment is in the public’s best interest.
Finally, today (Feb. 8), an article in the UK-based newspaper the Daily Mail revealed the results of a new study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) describing a virus gene that could be poisonous to humans and which the international approval process for GM crops, involving biotech companies, universities and government regulators failed to identify. This work was conducted by independent experts, not GM critics. They discovered that 54 of the 86 GM plants approved for commercial growing and food in the U.S., including corn and soya, contain the viral gene, known as “Gene VI”. The researchers concluded that the presence of segments of Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” including the creation of proteins toxic to humans. They could also trigger changes in the plants themselves, making them more vulnerable to pests.” The real problem is that no comprehensive health monitoring program has been implemented to establish the long-term safety of GM crops.
In the end, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology will prevail regardless of the efforts of Monsanto and its allies to deflect them.
San Antonio de Belén