Bitter Harvest — How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Robert Zeigler, is head of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), one of the key groups who are carrying forward Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. Yes, the Golden Rice people. His essay for COSMOS makes me both sad and angry at the same time.

As an intellectual direct descendent of the architects of the Green Revolution, like Norman Borlaug (pictured above), it is truly heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor. From Norm Borlaug to Peter Jennings, all these greats had something in common: a fire in the belly to try and make a mockery of the doomsday predictions of Ehrlich and the Paddocks brothers. The role of science was precisely to make the future different from the past. Sadly, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash.

…(snip)…

Our understanding of genetics and the ability to proactively manipulate how plants behaved and responded to the environment was becoming a reality. Many of us saw this as a way to reverse the negatives of the Green Revolution and open the way for, in the words of Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution.”

It was foreseeable that we could engineer into crops resistance to insect pests and pathogens that would eliminate the need for spraying toxic chemicals that sickened every organism they touched. Even better, we could now help the people left behind because they lived on lands plagued by droughts or floods that wouldn’t support modern crop varieties. I have seen this dream validated. India’s untouchable communities often farm on marginal flood-prone land. IRRI’s flood-tolerant rice is most useful to these farmers and promises to transform the lives of millions.

In short we saw modern biology as a driver for transforming agriculture into a tool for protecting the environment, meeting food needs, and reversing millennia of injustices that condemned certain segments of the population to the worst land.

Sadly, while we were working to make our dreams reality, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash. The extreme regulations for GMO crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops. Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals.

As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. The marginal farmers were once again excluded.

This time, though, who is to blame?

Please see also Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”. In the Easterbrook interview Borlaug said

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

A Thirst For Technology To Mitigate California’s Drought

Henry Miller looks at the clash between ideologies and the non-PC technologies that can contribute to solutions:

Reservoir levels are dropping, the snow pack is almost nonexistent, and many communities have already imposed restrictions on water usage. In the city of Santa Cruz, for example, restaurants can no longer serve drinking water unless diners specifically request it; Marin County residents have been asked not to clean their cars or to do so only at “eco-friendly” car washes; and there are limitations on watering lawns in towns in Mendocino County.

But it is the state’s premier industry– farming – that will feel the pinch most. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water used by people and businesses, according to the Department of Water Resources.

During a January 19 press conference at which he declared a water emergency, Governor Jerry Brown said of the drought, “This is not a partisan adversary. This is Mother Nature. We have to get on nature’s side and not abuse the resources that we have.”

Drought may not be partisan, but it does raise critical issues of governance, public policy and how best to use the state’s natural resources. It also offers an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences: Ironically, Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Marin counties — all of which boast politically correct, far-left politics — are among the local jurisdictions that have banned a key technology that could conserve huge amounts of water.

The technology is genetic engineering performed with modern molecular techniques, sometimes referred to as genetic modification (GM) or gene-splicing, which enables plant breeders to make old crop plants do spectacular new things, including conserve water. In the United States and about 30 other countries, farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced impact on the environment.

 

Vandana Shiva and the GMO Suicide Myth

“Every 30 minutes an Indian farmer commits suicide as a result of Monsanto’s GM crops. In the last decade more than 250,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides.”

Shiva lies, lies, lies,...

Keith Kloor wrote a carefully-researched exposé of this zombie-myth. I say zombie-myth because it appears to be unkillable by evidence-based logic. The myth was manufactured from thin air by anti-globalization activist Vandana Shiva, beginning with her 2009 op-ed in the Huffington Post.

I knew the suicide story was an activist fabrication. What I did not know was how successful Shiva has been at establishing the myth as received wisdom. Believers include Prince Charles, Bill Moyers and Stanford’s “Population Bomb” Paul Erlich, and of course  Greenpeace, which favors issues that aid their fund-raising.

It is the perfect story for uncritical media: emotional and truly tragic. If India is to reduce these tragedies they need to work on the real causes – not Shiva’s fiction. As you might expect, the explanation for the suicides is complex:

a 2012 paper in The Lancet that surveyed India’s suicide mortality rate noted: “Studies from south India have shown that the most common contributors to suicide are a combination of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness.”

Researchers such as Cornell’s Ronald Herring are finding at least one factor that helps account for the increases in suicides from the early 1990’s. That is the unanticipated consequence of banking reforms which led to increasing penetration by “foreign and new generation private banks … [that has] led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable”. In other words, where institutional credit became unavailable to small-holder farmers, the void was filled by money-lenders.  This helps explain why suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states:

Banking practices vary across India … states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”

Central to Shiva’s myth is the claim that farmer suicides are caused by the complete failure of “Monsanto’s seeds”. But Shiva is never bothered by evidence that contradicts her preferred narrative:

Bt cotton has been all the rage in India since it was officially approved in 2002. The technology has been adopted by over 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. (Similar findings attest to the same in China, where Bt cotton accounts for 80% of its crop.) India’s agricultural minister said in 2012 that the country “has harvested an average of 5.1 million tons of cotton per year, which is well above the highest production of 3 million tons before the introduction of Bt cotton. ” India is the world’s second-biggest cotton producer, behind China. Apparently, Indian farmers have come to overwhelmingly embrace genetically modified cotton.

Yet there is an enduring belief that Bt cotton has failed in India, with tragic consequences. This failure, the story goes, has resulted in burdensome debt and caused more than a quarter-million Indian farmers to take their own lives. Ronald Herring, a political scientist at Cornell University, has studied the seeming paradox and written on it extensively. As he observed in one paper, “It is hard to imagine farmers spreading a technology that is literally killing them”.

…when India approved Bt cotton (thus far the only GMO crop permitted in the country), it quickly became a surrogate cause in the larger ideological battle. In this battle, the Bt cotton-Indian farmer suicide narrative that Shiva helped to craft proved to be powerfully seductive and immune to contradiction or correction. Not only does there seem to be no evidence that farmers using Bt cotton seed are more likely to commit suicide than others, but farmers that do use the seeds appear on the whole to be benefiting from them. A 2008 meta-review of data between 2002 and 2006 “suggests that Bt cotton has been quite successful in most states and years in India, contributing to an impressive leap in average cotton yields, as well as a decrease in pesticide use and  in farmer revenue. ” The authors of this paper, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, say that their analysis “is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. ”

These conclusions have since been corroborated by additional studies that found that Indian farmers using Bt crops spend less money on pesticides and earn more money from higher yields. In fact, a 2013 study in PLOS ONE found that in India “the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. ”

In 2013, after attending Shiva’s talk at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I asked her about the mounting evidence that contradicted her “suicide seed” claims. She dismissed them breezily and said, “Those are the Monsanto studies. ” But neither Monsanto nor the biotechnology industry funded any of the aforementioned studies. Never mind; that same week, she went on a news program in the United States and said: “Two hundred and seventy thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market. That’s more than a quarter million. It’s a genocide. ”

Keith Kloor’s article puts a bright spotlight on what Shiva is doing.  It is obvious that Vandana Shiva will only stop this sham when it becomes unprofitable. So please help make it unprofitable for her to continue — direct your friends to the true history behind this destructive myth.

Environmentalists’ double standards

…So why has the environmental movement – which professes a deep attachment to science in other areas – refused to acknowledge that the world has moved on from the “Frankenfoods” scare?

….Another reason is the vested interests that have now emerged against GMOs. It is no accident that the millions of dollars of funding for pro-labelling campaigns in California and Washington State came from big organic foods interests and “natural health” internet sales quacks.

It is unlikely, therefore, that this opposition can be addressed with science or indeed rational debate at all. It is a values-level political denialist movement motivated by an implacable opposition to the acquisition and use of human knowledge in an important area of biology.

From a brief Cosmos essay by Mark Lynas. Read the whole thing

 

Kevin Folta: letter to the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology re Seralini retraction

Dr. Folta’s letter has been published. Personally I think the letter makes it obvious that the Seralini paper was designed to deceive.

Dear Prof. Hayes,

I have been withholding comments to the journal for a long time. I regularly participate in biotechnology education. The Séralini et al. paper in your journal frequently is presented as evidence against GM crops. I am one of thousands of independent, public scientists worldwide that see this work as a manipulation of the scientific process to achieve activist gains. I firmly stand behind the journal’s decision to retract the work.

There are many appropriate criticisms, but the most severe is the absence of a control rat presented as part of Figure 3. In Figure 3, panels J, K, and L, we see three grotesque rats, suffering and tumor laden. No data can be obtained from this image. Worse, no control is presented, but Table 2 shows that control animals also developed tumors.

Also, it is important to note that the panels are labeled “GMO” rather than the actual trait.

These points suggest a motivation for the authors was to frighten people with images of tortured animals (linked to the word “GMO”), rather than provide data and appropriate controls. The figure is only frightening if the control is not shown. In my expert opinion it is somewhere between sloppy science and deliberate omission to skew perception.

I fully support retraction. I feel that this paper was about perpetuating fear with soft statistics and conclusions that overstep the data, rather than providing sound science. There are many examples, but Figure 3’s lack of agreement with Table 2, coupled to inhumane treatment of research animals substantiates my case.

Best wishes and I fully support a journal-initiated retraction.

 

We Need The Scientific Juice To Save The Nation’s Citrus Industry

Much of New Age airy-fairy ideation about food invokes buzzwords such as “natural” and “organic.” Seductive as those concepts may be (to some), it is clear that preserving the future of a staple of the American breakfast table will require reliance on the best technologies available. There is no “natural” or “organic” solution to preserving commercial citrus production in the face of citrus greening, any more than there are effective “natural” solutions to treating cancer or multiple sclerosis.

In the long term, genetic engineering will rescue America’s citrus industry, but in the meantime, we will need neonicotinoid pesticides. To those naïfs who would ban them and condemn our citrus industry to extinction, I have a piece of advice: Go suck a lemon.

Don't miss this careful, nuanced analysis of the global citrus industry by Henry I. Miller. The activists have the capability to kill the growers. You can help by educating your friends and relations.

 

The Trouble With ‘Scientific’ Research Today: A Lot That’s Published Is Junk

A number of empirical studies show that 80-90% of the claims coming from supposedly scientific studies in major journals fail to replicate.

Henry I. Miller surveys the wreckage of sloppy medical research.

…Another worrisome trend is the increasing publication of the results of flawed “advocacy research” that is actually designed to give a false result that provides propaganda value for activists and can be cited long after the findings have been discredited.

Dr. Miller is referring to the Gilles-Eric Séralini scandal:

(Séralini has made a specialty of methodologically flawed, irrelevant, uninterpretable — but over-interpreted — experiments intended to demonstrate harm from genetically engineered plants and the herbicide glyphosate in various highly contrived scenarios.)

Re-Examining the FDA Antibiotics Decision: Banning Growth Promoters Won’t Be Enough

Denmark weaner pigs experience

Chart via Hagan Vigre, Danish Technical University, 2009

Further to the Denmark experience, Maryn McKenna has a new essay at Wired

The object lesson in changing antibiotic patterns is Denmark, which in 2000 made farm antibiotics prescription-only, and banned nontherapeutic uses altogether. It’s often pointed out, on the ag side, that Denmark had an increase in deaths among weaner pigs immediately after that ban was rolled out; but within 3 years, weaner pig survival improved and returned to where it had been before the ban.

What reversed the trend was Danish farmers’ understanding that it wasn’t enough just to remove antibiotics from meat production. What was necessary was to change the conditions in which meat animals were raised, so that the welfare threats which the antibiotics had addressed no longer existed.

That seems to me to be the lesson that meat production in America needs to learn, if the FDA’s intention to remove growth promoters is going to be meaningful. Simply reducing antibiotic use (if that does indeed happen) isn’t adequate; by itself, it may even be a threat to welfare. Changing the livestock practices that made antibiotic use necessary will improve animal and human health both.


How to protect effective antibiotics: a conversation with Doc Ricky

MRSA

I believe that the rapid spread of antibiotic resistance should be recognized as an urgent public health priority – possibly the #1 priority. E.g., CRE [1].

After reading Betsy McCaughey [2] “U.S. Lacks Will to Fight Superbugs” [3] I tweeted the citation for her op-ed

CRE the “nightmare bacteria”: U.S. Lacks Will to Fight Superbugs j.mp/1au0EbR

Shortly Doc Ricky replied:

@stevedarden I’m kind of perplexed by the media repetition of “fighting superbugs” – what do ppl expect anyway? Some secret weapon?

What an excellent framing question! I replied with some suggestions:

  1. Transparency of hospital performance on sanitation standards.
  2. No excuses policy on resistance cases e.g. Israel
  3. Strict limitation of agriculture use to disease, no routine NTA dosing
  4. Transparency on physician prescribing by doctor

Shortly Doc Ricky replied:

“@drricky: @stevedarden but problem is most of these are preventative, what is expected when MDR {Multi Drug Resistance} is detected?”

I replied over several tweets: By #2. what I meant is that the CDC publishes “best practice” on procedures to execute upon every identified case of MDR[4]– beginning with effective quarantine and decontamination. The “best practice” level of response is mandated to be the minimum response. It should be the top priority of the hospital to eliminate the detected microbe from the institution. I appreciate that is a statistical goal, as we have no way to validate that “we killed it”.

For examples of such best practices consider the 2011 NIH Clinical Center response to a CRE outbreak [5], and of Israel 2006 (from Betsy McCaughey):

When CRE invaded Israel’s hospitals in 2006, public health authorities launched a military-style campaign requiring reports from all hospitals, which were ordered to test patients and undergo rigorous cleaning efforts. This reduced CRE by 70 percent in one year. Israeli researchers just announced a drug that may protect patients exposed to CRE from becoming infected.

My personal bias is that regulation is a blunt and ineffective tool in complex, fast-changing domains like this one. My question: How to incentivize hospitals to succeed?

Suggestion: first try transparency. E.g., if the Johns Hopkins data, such as MDR cases, hand hygiene and infection-control scores are published on the web every month – that is a powerful incentive to improve – to be ranked among the very best institutions globally.

Meanwhile Doc Ricky tweeted a critique of my first try on agriculture:

@stevedarden The agriculture issue is more nuanced than that, after all, how does one exactly limit the use?

Exactly:

@drricky Legislating detailed Rx rules not practical. How about transparency of farm usage per animal-KG? Is public shame effective?

I am thinking of the Denmark experience beginning 1999 where they succeeded to eliminate NTA use in agriculture. See my 2010 Denmark: results of stopping NTA (non-therapeutic antimicrobials)

Doc Ricky moves the discussion to the next level, biology:

@stevedarden only skirts around the real problem, which is biology. We culture animals with similar physiology to ours

The microbes shared by humans and pigs, chickens, beef are why we are so concerned about agricultural applications of antibiotics. Agriculture uses roughly 80% of the antibiotics effective in the human population – but in vastly larger quantities. If we were all vegetarians that would eliminate the whole worry about agriculture.

Doc Ricky is truly the expert in this topic – I’m looking forward to learning from him. We agreed to shift the conversation from Twitter to a long-form-friendly fora.

@stevedarden clearly a complicated topic, and hope you’ll continue to discuss.

NOTES:


  1. The CDC on CRE Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae.  ↩

  2. Betsy McCaughey founder of Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths  ↩

  3.  (…snip…) CRE was first uncovered in North Carolina in 1999. By 2008, it had spread to 24 states and was “routinely” seen in certain New York and New Jersey hospitals. But hospitals kept quiet. Now it’s in at least 43 states.
    (…snip…) Two months ago at a press conference, CDC Director Thomas Frieden dubbed CRE the “nightmare bacteria,” warning that “without urgent action now,” superbugs like CRE will prevent patients from getting joint replacements, cancer therapy and other treatments. The risk of incurable infections will make these treatments too dangerous. Yet, where’s the urgent action?
    The CDC doesn’t even have accurate data on how many CRE infections are occurring and where, because according to the director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance, Steven Solomon, the government agency has never reached out to state officials to make CRE a reportable disease. Only 12 states require hospitals to report cases. Astoundingly, New York State did not require reports until July 2013, despite CRE menacing some of its hospitals for a decade.  ↩

  4. I am using the shorthand MDR to represent all the emerging multi-drug resistant microbes.  ↩

  5. This is what happened at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Maryland in 2011. A 43-year-old woman known to have CRE was admitted from a New York City hospital. The NIH treated her, using CDC infection-control precautions, but three weeks later, a male cancer patient who had had no contact with her came down with CRE. Week after week, more and more patients contracted the infection introduced by the New York woman. Six of those patients ultimately died, one of whom was a 16-year-old boy. To stop the outbreak, NIH investigators double-cleaned rooms with bleach and misted hydrogen peroxide in measures far beyond what the CDC recommends.  ↩

Climate change will make it increasingly difficult to feed the world. GMOs could help

MIT Technology Review:

(…) One advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to these sudden changes is that new varieties can be created quickly. Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild relatives or from different types of organisms. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield—even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes. But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.

“It’s an overwhelmingly logical thing to do,” says Jonathan Jones, a scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on plant diseases. The upcoming pressures on agricultural production, he says, “[are] real and will affect millions of people in poor countries.” He adds that it would be “perverse to spurn using genetic modification as a tool.”