Mary Magnan on the NEJM Fail — the Benbrook & Landrigan Non-Disclosures

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Dear Reader, if you are a subscriber to The New England Journal of Medicine then I hope you will take the time to carefully read the preceding guest post by Dr. Mary Magnan. I anticipate that you will come to the same conclusion I did – that NEJM must, at the very least, publish a correction to the Benbrook & Landrigan article. And on the NEJM website the article should be prepended with a full disclosure of the blatant conflicts of interest that were not disclosed by the authors. I also hope that subscribers to NEJM will take the trouble to explain their strong feelings to the editors.

In the media there is clearly a “double standard” applied to discussions on genetic engineering – particularly in agriculture. The tacit assumption of the reporting journalist or editor is that the person taking the anti-GMO position is the innocent “good guy environmentalist”, who is just trying to inform the public of the dangers of this technology. Conversely, the person who discusses GMO risk v. benefits is presumed to be beholden to corporate interests. The code word “Monsanto” is usually considered sufficient to terminate rational discussion.

This specific case of the NEJM publication is an example of an article carefully crafted to appear to be a scientific reference for contrary-to-fact claims that herbicide-resistant crops are increasing the negative impact of pesticides. The trick the authors use is to tabulate only the time series total mass of the herbicide glyphosate. Not discussed are the important benefits of glyphosate – that in recommended application regimes glyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides, that glyphosate is replacing significantly more toxic chemicals, resulting in much-increased conversion of acreage to environmentally beneficial “no-till farming”.

So the conclusions of the Benbrook & Landrigan article are exactly backwards from the perspective of a scientist objectively evaluating the before-after the introduction of the glyphosate-resistance trait.

What would motivate Benbrook & Landrigan to publish such nonsense? Well, particularly in the case of Benbrook – that is his job – to provide the “scientific references” to counter the conclusions of all the worlds major scientific institutions that GMO crops are as safe as non-GMO alternatives, and good for the environment and good for the farmers.

I appreciate Dr. Magnan’s significant effort invested to carefully document what Benbrook & Landrigan should have disclosed to NEJM. My reading of the evidence is that NEJM would have declined to publish this piece.

For an overview of the evidence on pesticides before/after GMO introduction, please Dr. Steve Savage: When Increased Pesticide Use Is A Good Thing which concludes with this:

To reiterate, pesticide use or its increase are not automatically undesirable things.  It depends on what is the alternative and what is the nature of the particular pesticide in question.  Plant biotechnology is just one important tool in the bigger tool box of agriculture.  Sometimes it allows farmers to use a more attractive pesticide option (Bt Sweet Corn would the be best example of this).  Sometimes it helps them with the adoption of sustainable practices that depend on relatively low risk herbicides.  For farmers, biotechnology and pesticides are not an either/or.  They are often partners.

Dr. Savage has published many articles on the complex subject of agricultural pests, IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and pesticides. Another useful perspective is The Muddled Debate About Pesticide Use And GM Crops:

Bottom line, a biotechnology trait may decrease or increases the need for a pesticide.  There will also be many cases where the biotech trait has nothing to do with pesticide use.  There is no necessary good or bad linkage between these two categories of agricultural technology – both can serve to make crop production better.  Both are options that should be available to those who farm.