The likelihood of pollen from GE cotton causing harm to the environment is about as likely as a poodle escaping into the wild

posted in: Syndicated | 1

One more day to vote in the , which asks the question “Is Biotechnology compatible with sustainable agriculture?”

PZ Myers answers the question this way: “this is weird: agriculture is biotechnology, and just breaking ground with a sharp stick and throwing some seeds in is an example of an ‘unnatural’ human practice”

He also publishes the opposition’s “top secret email“, which has some gobbledy-gook about how farmers are turning against GE crops (um, name one?) and contaminating nature (massive reductions in insecticide use on BT cotton fields and enhanced biodiversity is destruction?). PZ also asks you to “notice who is backing up all their arguments with citations of the peer-reviewed literature.”

Don’t forget to vote.

My final statement:

Virtually every food we eat has been genetically altered. Unless you eat wild Alaskan salmon, chanterelles gathered from your local forest, Sierra Nevada yampah and wild blueberries, your diet consists entirely of foods that have been modified by humans and domesticated in artificial, fabulous ecosystems–called farms.

GE crops are the latest addition to our farms. Are Bt cotton and GE papaya different from conventionally bred cotton and papaya? Yes.

Scientists have introduced a bacterial gene into corn and a snippet of virus into papaya. These alterations are not feats that could have been carried out with conventional breeding technologies. But do these crops pose harm to human health in some entirely new way? No.

Bt toxins, produced by a common soil bacterium, cause little or no harm to most non-target organisms including beneficial insects, wildlife and people. For these reasons, sprayed formulations of Bt toxins are among the favoured insecticides of organic growers.

When you eat GE papaya, you ingest only trace amounts of viral nucleic acids, much less than when you bite into an organic papaya infected with vast amounts of the virus.

What about the environment–are there risks of unintended consequences with GE crops? Yes.

But the risk is similar whether or not the seed was developed using GE or non-GE approaches. And the likelihood of pollen from GE cotton causing harm to the environment in most regions of the world where it is grown is about as likely as one of our domesticated Ameraucana hens, a breed developed in the 1970s to incorporate the favored “blue” genes from a South American bird, mating with the red-tailed hawk circling our coop. Or, as Freeman Dyson once said, “about as likely as a poodle escaping into the wild”.

In addition to the clear benefits today, the future benefits of this technology are also considerable. Is the genetic engineering of rice for provitamin A, an essential nutrient woefully lacking from the diets of many small children, so different from adding iodine to salt, a process credited with drastically reducing iodine-deficiency disorders in infants? Probably not. Still, just as some people today view vitamin A-enriched rice with suspicion, in some nations, iodisation was thought by many to be a governmental plot to poison the salt. In a 2006 New York Times article, journalist Donald McNeil describes how iodised salt was blamed for AIDS, diabetes, seizures, impotence and peevishness. He wrote, “Iodised salt … will make pickled vegetables explode, ruin caviar or soften hard cheese.” In Kazakhstan, breaking down resistance to science-based evidence took both money and political leadership. But it eventually succeeded. Today 94% of households in Kazakhstan use iodised salt and the UN is expected to certify the country officially free of iodine-deficiency disorders. We can and should do the same for vitamin A deficiency by releasing Golden rice seed, which can be self-pollinated, saved and replanted to farmers and their families in poor regions of the world who rely on rice for nutrition.

In considering whether to embrace GE crops as a way to enhance the sustainability of our global agricultural systems, we must not disregard the well-documented impacts of production: reduced insecticide use, a shift from toxic to more benign herbicides, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, reduced soil erosion, increased profit to small- and large-holder farmers, and enhanced farm-worker safety.

These benefits are not restricted to large industrial farms in the west; the majority economic benefits from GE crops have gone to millions of poor farmers in China and India.

These conclusions were reached after 14 years of deliberative research, and the scientific consensus is robust. They are not based on polls of religious or political groups (or magazine readers).

GE seed that are tolerant of stress or resistant to insects can be used in any farming system. Drought tolerance corn will be broadly beneficial across almost any non-irrigated agriculture situation and in any management system. As has been well-documented for Bt cotton in Arizona, the ability to combine innovations in farming practice with the planting of GE seed has had a huge positive benefit/cost ratio, far beyond what could be achieved by innovating farming practices or planting GE crops alone. The benefit/cost ratio of Bt crops is the highest for any agricultural innovations in the last 100 years.

Charles Benbrook and I agree that crops engineered to resist pest and disease can enhance sustainable agriculture when integrated with good management. We have seen that Bt cotton has dramatically reduced global reliance on synthetic insecticides, which are harmful to human health and the environment. For these reasons, GE crops have been adopted at unprecedented rates.

We also agree that each new technological advance must be considered on a case-by-case basis and that the evaluation must be science-based. Finally, we agree that developing-country farmers, scientists and other groups should continue to drive the process of application of GE technology in their own countries–and that priority needs to be a focus on the public good.

Still, Mr Benbrook and I disagree on important points. He argues for additional safety testing that goes beyond the conclusions of the leading scientific agencies and scientists around the world. This vague argument for “more testing”, despite the fact that GE crops are the most highly regulated crops on the market, stokes uncertainty and fear in consumers. As Slate journalist Daniel Engber aptly remarks:

“The ‘manufactured uncertainty‘ strategy has much in common with the approach of denialists of global climate change in their strategies to challenge scientific findings …The success of these programs shows how the public’s understanding of science has devolved into a perverse worship of uncertainty, a fanatical devotion to the god of the gaps. Nowhere is this more apparent than the debate over global warming, where the irresolute terms of responsible research have been a large liability: According to several major polls conducted last year, about 60 percent of Americans believe there’s no scientific consensus on climate change.”

Big tobacco used a similar approach for years, calling for more data in the face of clear evidence that smoking is toxic to humans.

Journalist Michael Specter argues that this tendency among consumers to trust anecdotes over peer-reviewed science, leads to disastrous results. Referring to the anti-vaccine movement, which manufactures uncertainty about the well-documented safety of lifesaving vaccines, he writes, “The US is now the only place in the world where vaccine rates for measles are going down.” If this such denialism continues, the consequence will almost certainly be an outbreak of measles among children in the US, a potentially deadly disease.

Similarly, 6,000 thousand children and young mothers to die every day from vitamin A deficiency-related problems while we continue to test Golden Rice for possible but highly improbable unexpected consequences that even in the worst case scenario are trivial in comparison with this ongoing loss of life.

It is now generally accepted that world food production needs to rise by 50% by 2030. We cannot go back to a time when arable land was abundant and there was little concern for natural ecosystems. Then, if we needed more food, we could simply open up more undeveloped land for cultivation. Such an approach is “flawed“, according to Sir David Baulcombe, regius professor of botany and Royal Society research professor at Cambridge University, and leader of the Royal Society’s study, “Reaping the Benefits“.

He explains, “It ignores issues associated with the suitability of land for agricultural production, like geography and the political importance of local food, particularly to poorer or developing nations that could become entirely dependent on others for their staple foodstuffs.”

The path towards a future sustainable agriculture lies in harnessing the best of biotechnology, including genetically engineered seed, within the framework of ecological farming.

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Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.