Do Farmers Want GM Crops?

Do small farmers in developing countries want GM crops?  That is a truly divisive question, and it seems like anyone with a dog in the hunt gets to speak for the farmers.  I want to consider what’s wrong with the many claims to represent the “farmer’s voice.”

But first, a word about the idea of just using farmer adoption as indicative of what they want.  In India, land of a hundred million farmers, we are told by GM enthusiasts that the country’s only GM crop — Bt cotton — has been the “fastest adopted agricultural technology in history.”  The implication is that Bt cotton must be the most wanted technology (e.g., Herring 2008).

And we are just as regularly told to never second guess the farmer.  As one Monsanto-backed pundit puts it,  “farmers are excellent businessmen who aren’t persuaded by anything or anybody that doesn’t make their job easier or more profitable” (Fumento 2003:277).  nobelTherefore, according to another industry cheerleader, “We should leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers” (Pinstrup-Anderson & Schioler 2001:108).

But it’s interesting that the same biotechnology interests that now marvel at farmer wisdom and astuteness in dealing with agricultural technologies until recently saw the farmer as an incorrigible slack-jawed nitwit.  Here is Monsanto a few years before Bt cotton was adopted:

Weeds, for instance, are responsible for 30- 60% of the damage to our agriculture yields. But there is very little awareness of this among Indian farmers, while those who are aware, lack knowledge of the appropriate solutions (Monsanto India 2000)

Did you get that?  They not only didn’t know how to get rid of weeds, they didn’t know weeds were lowering their yields.

Here’s more:

ASSYou don’t have to teach these farmers new culture practices…you just give them a seed, and that increases productivity in that seed itself… for years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn’t worked… you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed (McGlouthlin 2001).

(Give them the seed? I love it.)  So if I’m picking up what they’re putting down, the farmer’s desires are something to be tut-tutted and hopefully corrected… unless he is buying your technology, in which case he is a rocket surgeon, not to be questioned.

Actually technology adoption is much more complicated than farmers simply wanting or not wanting something (for instance, see our recent work on herd dynamics in seed choice).  But still there is a lively trade in constructing claims about what farmers hanker for.  The claims are in peer-reviewed journals, in the media, and in reports and propaganda from pro- and anti-GMO parties.  Like so much in the world of GMO’s, they disagree sharply.  In fact most are somewhere between meaningless and misleading.  If you’re interested in why these claims are generally so flawed, part of our answer appears in “The Problem with the Farmer’s Voice,” an article just published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values.  You can read it here if you want; it’s pretty short.  But then again so is life so let me just give you a summary.WhatYouWant

Claims to represent the “farmer’s voice” generally have two built-in biases.  (The recent article also covers a third bias which I’m leaving out for brevity’s sake.)

First is information bias.   If farmers have never seen or used a technology, then their opinion is basically a result of how you characterize it to them. The people doing the interviews know this, and they’re hoping you don’t think about it.

For instance, in 2001, with possible approval of India’s first GM crop looming, a consortium of anti-GM groups convened a ‘‘citizens jury’’ in Andhra Pradesh.  Aiming to give voice to ‘‘those people most affected’’ by visions of agricultural development, organizers selected a jury with heavy representation of poor farmers (although they are rarely early adopters of technology) and showed videos they themselves had made depicting three visions of the agricultural future.  THE TRUTHAnd guess what: the farmer jurors largely agreed with a statement expressing opposition to GM crops, including vitamin A rice and Bt cotton (Pimbert and Wakeford 2002). A similar farmers jury in Mali in 2006, as that country was considering Bt cotton, had a similar result (Bryant 2007), generating headlines in London ‘‘Mali farmers reject GM crops as attack on their way of life’’ (Selva 2006).

On the other end of the spectrum we have a study by the biotech-booster outfit ISAAA.  They constructed a voice for Philippino ‘‘farmer leaders’’ on Golden Rice by asking if they wanted to grow “a new ‘yellow rice’ that is fortified with vitamin A and that will be given free by the IRRI” to most farmers.  (Actually Golden Rice doesn’t contain vitamin A but a precursor, and IRRI itself has said that it hasn’t yet been established that Golden Rice raises vitamin A levels.)   But readers will be unsurprised that when it was put this way, most respondents answered this characterization of Golden Rice in the affirmative (Chong 2003).

I’m reminded of how Steve Jobs scoffed at focus group testing of the ipad, on the grounds that consumers couldn’t judge a new product with which they were unfamiliar.  But imagine for a minute that there was a focus group and you were running it.  How do you describe the device to the focus group?  An in-between device that’s too big for your pocket but not nearly as powerful as a notebook?  Consumers will say they don’t want it.  A device that has many of the most useful features of both notebooks and smartphones, that fits into a purse or small briefcase but lets you watch movies? They’ll demand it.

The second problem with “farmers’ voice” claims is short term bias.  Adoption of agricultural technologies often leads to unforeseeable latent effects.  They may be indirect, they may be much delayed, and they are sometimes disastrous.  Most farmers voice claims are oddly oblivious to this fact, focusing instead on the present moment.

Here’s an example.  A few years ago, as concern was rising about the spread of Roundup-resistant weeds, science journalist Dan Charles rang up Monsanto to ask why they didn’t know this would happen.  They said they “had just spent more than a decade, and many millions of dollars, trying to create the Roundup-resistant plants that they desperately wanted — soybeans and cotton and corn.”


This Palmer Amaranth’s parent is bursting with pride.

I’m trying to imagine the farmers voicing this desperate want.  “Oh please, give us a seed-herbicide combo that will make weed management easier at first but within a few years will leave us with herbicide-resistant weeds so big we have to use a chainsaw.

India is another example of how the impacts of technology can change dramatically after they are adopted by farmers.  We’ve already noted that widespread adoption of Bt cotton (mainly between 2005-8).  This was interpreted as the clear sound of the farmers voice, sounding like the most resounding yes since the last page of Ulysses. Then for icing on the cake was a swarm of studies claiming to have isolated significant yield advantages in the first year or two or even before adoption, validating the dogma of never questioning farmer wisdom.  (A summary of these studies is here, including mentions of the rare exceptions to the obsession with short-term results.)

Bt cotton enthusiasts may see this as an open and shut case of giving the farmers what they want but it’s also a case of fetishizing of short-term yield boosts and ignoring the bigger picture and longer term. Here’s why: the whole reason the farmers said yes to Bt cotton in the 2000s was the catastrophic agroecological fallout from their yes to the last round of farm technologies. Pesticide-intensive proprietary hybrid cotton seeds spread in the 1990s (details here).  But quick profits (due mostly to favorable markets and initial effectiveness of pesticides) rapidly gave way to pesticide treadmills, spiraling input costs, debt and despair. It was this package that formed the technological component of the tragic problem of farmer suicide

The hybrid seeds would also have problematic long-term effects. They led to farmers being inundated with hundreds of often deceptively labeled brands which helped to undermine the skilling process (details here).

What farmers said yes to was what was before their eyes, not to what lay down the road. All of this fell outside of the decision-making window of farmers and of the analysis window of researchers. If you ask a farmer whether he would buy a certain technology, or if you assume that a purchase is a straightforward indicator of farmer desire, then you will convince yourself that the farmer’s voice is calling out for that technology.  But in this case, a better question to ask would have been if the farmers wanted a seed/pesticide technological regime that would lead them into an unsustainable, suicidal, agro-entomological hell.¹

1.  Does all this mean there is no value in any research on farmer wants regarding GM crops?  No, in fact there is a study in the same issue of Agriculture and Human Values that tackles the topic more thoughtfully.  Even its title –“No one asks for a meal they’ve never eaten, or do African farmers want genetically modified crops?” — recognizes the limitations of such studies.   This study by Schnurr and Mujabi-Mujuzi draws on some other work by Cleveland, Soleri and others that approaches the question in a more fruitful way; see references below.
Bryant, P. (2007). Mali’s Farmers’ Jury: an attempt to democratise policy-making on biotechnology. Biotechnology Policy in Africa. N. G. Clark, J. Mugabe and J. Smith. Nairobi, African Centre of Technology Studies.
Charles, D. (2012). “Why Monsanto Thought Weeds Would Never Defeat Roundup.” The Salt.
 Chong, M. (2003). ” Acceptance of golden rice in the Philippine ‘rice bowl’.” Nature Biotechnology 21(9): 1.
 Cleveland, D. A. and D. Soleri (2005). “Rethinking the risk management process for genetically engineered crop varieties in small-scale, traditionally based agriculture. Ecology and Society 10 (1): 9. [online]
 Fumento, M. (2003). BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World. San Francisco, Encounter Books.
 Herring, R J. 2008. Bt cotton: Why do so many smart people get it so wrong? The Hindu, 28 Aug. Hyderabad.
 McGlouthlin, M. (2000). “Interview.” Harvest of Fear. PBS Nova.
Monsanto India (2000). Investors Annual Report.
Pimbert, M. P. and T. Wakeford (2002). Prajateerpu: A Citizens Jury / Scenario Workshop on Food and Farming Futures for Andhra Pradesh, India. London and Sussex, IIED and IDS.
Pinstrup-Andersen, P. and E. Schioler (2001). Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press for the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Schnurr, M. and S. Mujabi-Mujuzi (2014). ““No one asks for a meal they’ve never eaten.” Or, do African farmers want genetically modified crops?” Agriculture and Human Values 31(4): 643-648.
Selva, M. (2006). Mali farmers reject GM crops as attack on their way of life. The Independent 31 Jan. London.
Soleri, D., et al. (2008). “Testing assumptions underlying economic research on transgenic food crops for Third World farmers: Evidence from Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico.” Ecological Economics 67: 667–682.
Stone, G. D. and A. Flachs (2014). “The problem with the farmer’s voice.” Agriculture and Human Values 31(4): 649-653. (pdf)
Stone, G. D., et al. (2014). “Rhythms of the herd: Long term dynamics in seed choice by Indian farmers.” Technology in Society 36: 26-38. (pdf)
Stone, G. D. (2012). “Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 47(38): 62-70. (pdf)
Stone, G. D. (2011). “Field versus Farm in Warangal: Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and Larger Questions.” World Development 39(3): 387-398. (pdf)
Stone, G. D. (2007). “Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal.” Current Anthropology 48: 67-103. (pdf)
Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, India | 13 Comments

A century later, we find out…

These two items appeared in separate sections of the NY Times yesterday:

  • There was an obituary for Elizabeth Whelan, who started theacsh American Council on Science and Health back in 1978. This was an industry-supported initiative claiming to represent “Science, not hype.” Its initial (and continuing) focus was on regulation of foods and chemicals, and it relentlessly attacked what it claimed to be unscientific health fears and regulations on substances ranging from artificial sweeteners to growth hormones for cattle to PCB’s. If you peruse their website you will see consistently scornful and dismissive accounts of scientific studies indicating health risks for products such as saccharin and “scary warning labels” for it.
  • There was also an article about a study in today’s issue of Nature, reporting on multiple

    Gut microbiota

    lines of evidence that show artificial sweeteners (including saccharin, sucralose and aspartame) to all cause rapid changes in the gut microbiota that lead to glucose intolerance.  Saccharine has been around since the 19th Century, and widely used since WW1.  But no one even knew to ask these questions in 1978; in fact the term “microbiome” wasn’t even coined until 2001.

Just two unrelated news items.

Posted in Biotechnology, Food, Public Health, Regulation | 4 Comments

The Right to Farm Right

I’ve got an idea: why don’t we Missourians follow up on passing our ALEC-supported ag-gag law with a full-blown amendment to the state constitution to shield industrial agriculture?  That way, even if someone risks being officially listed as a terrorist and exposes factory farm conditions, it might be unconstitutional to force them to clean up their act.

Damn, they beat me to it: we’re already voting on an amendment that would guarantee the right of “farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices.”

First, wherever you stand on factory farming, agribusiness, or ALEC, this is the most idiotically vague wording I have ever seen in a law (again, I’m not making it up — here is the text).  It manporkyages to say literally nothing, because anything a farmer does in the operation of a farm is a farming practice.  Until farming itself is outlawed, farmers by definition have the right to engage in farming practices.  This says nothing about what practices may be regulated; we could pass a law requiring farmers to dress up all their pigs like Porky the Pig and it would be a protected “farming practice” (and a rather festive one at that).  Clearly there’s something else going on.

Reporter Julie Bosman went interviewing about it in rural Missouri and encountered some real anti-outsider attitude.  “I personally don’t know anybody that’s against this,” said an obviously annoyed farmer Richard Le Jeune of Halfway, Mo. in the NY Times.  “Some of these city people don’t have a clue what goes on in the country and how food is produced. We need this to keep the outsiders from trying to run things.”

But Dick wasn’t so hostile when the “outsiders” were US taxpayers, licking their thumb and peeling off 27 crisp thousand dollar bills to subsidize his 573-acre cattle ranch:


No, the outsiders that seem to have motivated this amendment are the Humane Society, who alarmed agribusiness by their successful fight in 2010 to clamp down on inhumane puppy-mills in Missouri.  (I guess welfare for animals doesn’t do down as well as welfare for farmers.)  Amendment backers hope this will promote more pro-agribusiness anti-regulatory legislation and court decisions;   Missouri’s ag-gag law wasn’t a very strong one, and they are paranoid about public pressure on them to give up their worst practices.  It’s a Right to Farm Wrong law.

Fortunately, we in Missouri have an Attorney General, a Democrat at that; surely he will oppose this amendment, on legal if not philosophical grounds?  Well, unfortunately, the AG is journeyman politician Chris Koster.  Missouri pols have traditionally rolled over and pissed on their own bellies when patted by Big Ag, but few have stepped and fetched it with Chris Koster’s zeal (as Shelley Powers shows nicely).

Meanwhile, in Virginia (where I have been studying the incredibly feisty small-farm resurgence), there is also a move afoot to amend the state constitution to protect farmers.  But it couldn’t be more different.  It is being pushed by the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which has for years promoted small and local farming, inspired in part by revulsion against just the sort of practices Missouri is trying to enshrine.

It is as concrete as the Missouri bill is vague: “That the people shall have a right to acquire, for their own consumption, farm-produced food, directly at the farm from the farmer who produced it.”  They have a long road ahead of them, but they have had some legislative successes of late, and they are in it for the long haul.

The difference couldn’t be more stark.  Missouri big ag (and its goverment poodles) is promoting distant, industrial agriculture behind closed doors, with criminal penalties for opening the doors and amendments to resist changes behind the doors.  Virginia small farmers are fighting for the right to throw the doors open wide, and to sell you clean, humanely-produced produce directly.

They are on the right track in Virginia.  It’s Right to Farm Right.




Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture, Regulation | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Theme Park Farming in Japan

[A different version of this post appeared as the inaugural “Notes From The Field” on the website for Culture and Agriculture.]

Those of us interested in farming talk about “indigenous knowledge” a lot, but several years ago Paul Richards suggested that the focus on knowledge misses the point of smallholder farming; it’s more a matter of improvisational abilities.  Agriculture is a performance.

Good point but Paul left the audience out of the discussion.  Agriculture in some situations is actually performed for an audience. For some time now I have been thinking about the concept of the show farmer.

Actually show farmer is not a discrete category of individual, but a role played by farmers. It refers to any farmer whose activities are held up as exemplary. Frequently (but not always) their behavior has been shaped, subsidized, or encouraged by the entity holding them up.

For example, some years ago I interviewed at an NGO in Andhra Pradesh about their organic cotton scheme. When I wanted to see some of their farms, they brought me to the farm of one Yaku, who was prospering by using their suite of non-pesticide management methods.

With Yaku and family. Yaku had us stand where viewers could see three elememnts of organic farming: a bird perch, pheromone trap, and marigolds. Andhra Pradesh, 2005.

With Yaku and family. Yaku had us stand where viewers could see three elememnts of organic farming: a bird perch, pheromone trap, and marigolds. Andhra Pradesh, 2005.

Yaku, of course, was a show farmer, and every researcher knows he is a tainted case. We use sampling methods to control even subtle bias, and NGO-selected cases are brazenly biased. But he is still interesting to consider for the questions he raises.  Just what was he performing, for whom, and with what impact? On what qualities was he selected? In what ways is he coached and compensated? How does his performance compare to others in the community?

With Yaku and family, the primary aim of the performance was to showcase the success of the NGO’s organic methods and to appear as clean, prosperous and grateful peasants. They were enacting “sustainable” agriculture, although it was not actually sustained – my student and collaborator Andrew Flachs revisited the farm eight years later and found the farmer was no longer using organic methods. It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.

Which brings us to what this is really about — Japan, and Akita Prefecture, and the Hachirogata Polder, and a whole show farm landscape.

Hachirogata used to a 22k ha. lake, second largest lake in Japan, and home to a thriving fishing industry. But beginning in 1952, plans were drawn to reclaim most of the land beneath the lake and convert it to a polder. A dyke was built (with technical advice from the dyke-building Dutch) enclosing 17k ha. of the lake. In 1963 they started pumping the water out, planning to erect a model farming community on the reclaimed (but still very muddy) plain.

The Hachirotaga Polder today. Red arrows mark the dyke. Click image to enlarge.

The Hachirogata Polder today. Red arrows mark the dyke. Click image to enlarge.

A model village called Ogata-mura was commenced in 1964, and just under 12k ha. were given over to rational efficient modern rice agriculture. Instead of the average 1.3 ha. Japanese farmers work on a part-time basis, Hachirogata farms were all 15 ha. and designed for full-time farming. Mechanization was pushed – sometimes to the point of absurdity, such as use of helicopters to sow seeds. Farmers were recruited to take up “rational, efficient” modernist farming from 1967-74.

It’s not hard to see why crowded, waterlogged Netherlands would condone such a landscape transformation, but the ironic truth is that Japan was (and is) short on seafood and long on rice. Opening of the model rice farms coincided with a voluntary rice reduction scheme whereby Japanese farmers were paid to not plant rice (such payments are called set-asides in the US, where farmers wryly talk about “growing a good crop of set-asides”). In 1970 rice reductions became mandatory, and they continue to this day in various forms. For instance, farmers are subsidized to grow soy, or at least to sell rice as feed for factory farms rather than as human food. (Richard Moore gives a fascinating account of ways farmers resisted government control of their rice production, including strategies for making their fields less “legible.”)

Rice farming at Hachirogata today is almost completely mechanized, but so is most rice agriculture in Japan today. Take the transplanting operation, which was in full swing during my trip. In much of the world, intensive rice farmers start their plants in a nursery and then transplant the seedlings. This is a laborious process, done mostly by women’s work groups in sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, and elsewhere in the developing world.

Manual rice transplanting by women’s work group (and 1 Wash U student). Andhra Pradesh, 2008.

Manual rice transplanting by women’s work group (and 1 Wash U student). Andhra Pradesh, 2008.

But in industrialized Japan, with its underpopulation woes, high labor costs, and preponderance of part-time farmers, transplanting is done by a slick little $25k machine (that’s right, $25,000).

transpBonus:  short video of your humble narrator riding the transplanter, feeling a bit like Michael Dukakis in the tank:

videoThe man behind the wheel, to whom the local extension office had brought me, was great to talk with, no stranger to being photographed, and an able representative of Hachirogata agriculture. He was, of course a show farmer, and last year was even on show for a large delegation of Africans, brought to Japan by the Coalition of African Rice Development working with the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

africans1africans2What the Africans concluded by this demonstration of the benefits of industrial might, fossil fuels, and lavish government support in a country where farm labor is scarce and expensive, I cannot say. Nor can I say what they concluded about the whole rationalized landscape — the engineering feat of reclaiming land, the large consolidated farms optimized for mechanization and full-time farming, the efficiently concentrated central functions. That is the real question I left with, as this is not just a story of individual show farmers, but show landscapes. But the whole project seems to have more to do with preening by the agricultural establishment than with practical advice for African farmers — or Japanese farmers, for that matter. (Donald Wood reports the local opinion that the landscape had been designed by “somebody who knew nothing about farming.”)

Hachirogata clearly is a scheme designed to be legibile and administratable, as James Scott (in Seeing Like a State) stresses, but it does not fit his other criteria for failure. Now celebrating its 50th birthday, it lives on as a show, subsidized as an icon and an exhibit of odd vision of agricultural modernity.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Moore, Richard 1993 Resistance to Japanese rice policy: A case-study of the Hachirōgata model farm project. Political Geography 12(3): 278-296.

Richards, Paul 1993 Cultivation: Knowledge or performance? In An anthropological critique of development: The growth of ignorance. H. Mark, ed. Pp. 61-78. London: Routledge.

Scott, James 1998 Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Stone, Glenn Davis, Andrew Flachs, and Christine Diepenbrock 2014 Rhythms of the herd: Long term dynamics in seed choice by Indian farmers. Technology in Society 36:26-38. [pdf]

Wood, Donald C. 2012 Ogata-Mura: Sowing Dissent and Reclaiming Identity in a Japanese Farming Village. New York: Berghahn.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture, Japan | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Dutch Treat

We now know the “best and worst places in the world to eat,” courtesy of Oxfam.  The best is the Netherlands; the worst is Chad.  (Here is an explanation of their analysis, and here is where you can explore their country-specific data if you’re so inclined.)

 eatsThe rating is based on 4 measures:

  • enough to eat is based on rates of malnutrition;
  • food affordability is based on food cost compared to other costs;
  • food quality (whoa, talk about a can of worms) — Oxfam simply looked at diet diversity and availability of safe water;
  • food health is based on rates of obesity and diabetes.

How did the Netherlands wind up on top?  On average it was in the middle of the European pack on the first 3 measures: good on affordability, poor on enough to eat, in the middle on quality.  But it squeeked out the win by being on top in food health.

I enjoy the Netherlands and I have eaten well there, but I’m pretty skeptical of any measure that puts the Dutch food scene in first place globally.  But instead of me pretending to have insights into the Dutch food scene, here are some interesting comments from Dominic Glover — Netherlands resident and food/agriculture anthropologist (also my co-author in a brilliant recent article on GM crops and the recent food crisis):

Seeing the Netherlands at the top of the table surprises me.  After six years living in Utrecht, my observation is that the Dutch diet is not especially healthy, being quite high in saturated fats (dairy, meat, and deep fried junk), salt, sugar, and carbohydrates (including beer, bread and potatoes).

 I suspect that the reason the Dutch score better than most European countries for diabetes and obesity is not diet-related but exercise-related.  The Dutch cycle a lot and sports facilities and clubs are everywhere.  But those who choose not to cycle or otherwise take exercise seem to expand like balloons.

I’m also surprised by the good scores for affordability and quality, because Dutch supermarket food and ‘pub grub’ seem to me rather expensive by comparison with my home country (the UK).  As for quality, the fruit and vegetables available in Dutch supermarkets tend to be exceedingly bland, having been selected for industrial processing and appearance rather than flavour or texture.  The selection available at my local Albert Heijn is certainly no better than, say, Sainsbury, and interestingly there is no Dutch equivalent of upscale UK supermarket chains like Waitrose and M&S, or Wholefoods in the USA.

I wonder what Oxfam is trying to do with this report.  By highlighting the Netherlands’ top score, Oxfam implies that the Dutch have got all the answers when it comes to food.  But if Oxfam had taken food production systems into account, a different picture might have emerged.  They would have had to reckon with the very high levels of energy consumption involved in Dutch horticultural production, for example, as well as the ugly animal welfare implications of the country’s extremely intensive livestock sector (which also depends on vast quantities of soybeans imported from South America).

What’s more interesting about the Oxfam report is the middle- and low-income countries that manage to score rather well on indicators such as child nutrition or food price stability.  Instead of trying to emulate the Dutch, we might learn more from studying those countries.

Well put.

Posted in Food, Public Health | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

GM Grass Goes Yard

The grass seed company Scotts Miracle-Gro scottsannounced at its shareholder meeting this past week that they would be having employees testing genetically modified grass seed in their yards.

Is that legal? Yes.  Because it’s been approved as environmentally safe?  Nope; because it falls through the cracks of a rattletrap regulatory system.

When GM (genetically modified) plants arrived, most countries drafted legislation for dealing with the new technology.  The US didn’t, choosing instead to cobble together a system using old agencies and laws, awkwardly dividing oversight among 3 separate agencies depending on what genes were used.  The FDA (Food & Drug Admin) is responsible for GM plants if they are food.  The EPA (Env Protection Agency) is in charge if the plant contains a pesticide like a Bt gene.  The USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture) oversees GM crops made with plant pests — like Agrobacterium (a bacterium that causes a plant disease, used to insert the genes into the target) or the 35S promoter (from a plant virus).

But what if your plant isn’t a food, and you don’t use Agrobacterium (you use the gene gun instead), and you don’t use a pesticidal or disease gene (you use an herbicide-tolerance gene instead), and you don’t use a promoter from a plant virus?  Scotts realized that your plant would slip through the cracks and be totally unregulated.

I wrote a blog on this in Fall 2011, connecting two disturbing dots: the complete evasion of regulatory oversight and the use of gene patents that are used to prevent scientists from even studying GM organisms. (Since I wrote that, an interesting analysis of such regulatory loopholes  appeared in the Vermont Law Review.)

But shouldn’t this GM grass undergo regulatory scrutiny? That’s a touchy question.  Many people are deeply troubled by our slow-pitch regulatory framework, while at the same time a favorite talking point among GMO boosters  is the overabundance of regulation.  But why don’t we just consider Scott’s own past ecological misadventures with GM grass:

In 2002bentgrass, Scotts planted 162 ha. of Roundup-Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) bentgrass in their seed production facility in central Oregon.  Bentgrass, Agrostis stolonifera, is the stuff on golf greens, but away from the golf course it’s often a weed.  Pollen from the GM grass got into the Oregon wind and crossed with Agrostis plants up to 21 km away (as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

After being fined by the USDA (the maximum possible, $500,000), Scotts scrambled to eradicate all the feral glyphosate-resistant plants in the area, trying to enlist help from local landowners via newspaper ads.  They failed; ecologists found that even 3 years after the seed production was stopped, 62% of bentgrass plants tested in the area were transgenic.

Then in 2012, the plot thickened: in a study in Molecular Ecology entitled “Crossing the divide”, ecologists Zapiola and Mallory-Smith reported that feral GM bentgrass was hybridizing with plants from a different genus, rabbitfoot grass (Polypogon monspeliensis).  This is a big deal, notes ecologist Alison Snow: it’s the first transgenic intergeneric hybrid, it represents a new herbicide-tolerant weed, and it raises questions about the efficacy of the procedures for preventing unintended gene flow of GM plants.

(The Oregon bentgrass joins a long list of transgene escapes.)

The GM grass that Scotts employees are going to be testing in their yards is different than the bentgrass; it’s Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and the hope is that it will be easier to contain because its pollen is heavier.

Let’s hope, because there is no control over it.


Academic References
Montgomery, Emily  2012 Genetically Modified Plants and Regulatory  Loopholes and Weaknesses Under the Plant  Protection Act Vermont Law Review 37:351-379.
Snow, Allison 2012  Illegal gene flow from transgenic creeping bentgrass: the saga continues. Molecular Ecology 21(19):4663-4664.
Zapiola, M. L., C. K. Campbell, M. D. Butler and C. A. Mallory-Smith  2008 Escape and establishment of transgenic glyphosate-resistant creeping bentgrass Agrostis stolonifera in Oregon, USA: a 4-year study. Journal of Applied Ecology 45(2):486-494.
Zapiola, MarÍA L. and Carol A. Mallory-Smith  2012 Crossing the divide: gene flow produces intergeneric hybrid in feral transgenic creeping bentgrass population. Molecular Ecology 21(19):4672-4680.
Posted in Biotechnology, Regulation | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Overpopulation and the Small Farmers of Oakwood

Speaking of overpopulation: I found Oakwood chapel.  I was in England in May and I spent a day tracking down this little chapel that played such a fateful role in Western ideas on population and food.

Oakwood Chapel

Oakwood Chapel, May 2013.

Oakwood (or Okewood) it is absolutely beautiful, in a fairy tale sort of way, sitting on a small hill surrounded by dense woods in the rolling hills of Surrey.

Apart from a few minor modifications, it looks much as it did in 1789 when young Robert Malthus came here for his first job as a priest.  It has dark yellow walls, a pointy bell tower, and a sandstone slab roof.  The front door is very heavy, very old, and very small.

To understand the importance of the old chapel with the small door we have to back up a bit. Thomas Robert Malthus – he went by Robert or Bob — was born into a wealthy family in Surrey county in 1766.  He later went to Cambridge and majored in math, graduating in 1788.  With no job on the horizon, he moved back in with his parents in the village of Albury, where he spent his time “socializing, walking, riding, and shooting” (Stapleton 1986:22).   He also did some traveling – fortunate for historians, since several letters from his father during this time exist.  Bob had a warm relationship with his father, but the letters show they were having the same arguments young people today often have in this situation: Dad was pushing him to get a job, and he was bristling.

But career was not the only source of argument in the Malthus house.  Then, as now, college graduates moving back home had to put up with their parents’ opinions, just as they are trying to establish their own voice.  Daniel was an avid reader of the writers of the day, especially Enlightenment philosophers like William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — optimistic proponents of the perfectibility of society.  Young Bob’s convictions began to take shape that year after college, as he was sitting around getting an earful of his father’s opinions and starting to rebel against them.

Bob thought he wanted to be a clergyman, and after a year at home his father pulled strings to get him a job in the church.  He would be the priest at the “woodman’s little chapel” at Oakwood, in the hills nine miles from Albury.  He would baptize, bury, and give the occasional sermon.   Daniel wrote him that “you would find your first beginning extreamly quiet, with very little duty that could be irksome to you” (Pullen 1986:151).

Oakwood may have been only a short ride from his parents’ home in Albury, but it was a very different parish and a surprisingly different world.  This was a backwoods, and the congregation was poor.  The young Cambridge graduate was taken aback by their dirt-floored hovels and by the people themselves: where Robert was tall, these peasants were small.  He described them a few years later in the booklet that would make him famous,  Population:

The sons and daughters of peasants will not be found such rosy cherubs in real life as they are described to be in romances. It cannot fail to be remarked by those who live much in the country that the sons of labourers are very apt to be stunted in their growth, and are a long while arriving at maturity. Boys that you would guess to be fourteen or fifteen are, upon inquiry, frequently found to be eighteen or nineteen. And the lads who drive plough, which must certainly be a healthy exercise, are very rarely seen with any appearance of calves to their legs: a circumstance which can only be attributed to a want either of proper or of sufficient nourishment. (Malthus 1798).

Oakwood door

The chapel door is so small I had to stoop to go through it. But Malthus’s parishioners would have had no trouble.

And he was right about the nourishment: taking “a long while arriving at maturity” is an excellent indicator of chronic malnourishment.  They must have seemed “like a different race from the lads who played cricket at Cambridge,” wrote Malthus’s biographer (James 1979:43).

What Malthus didn’t know was that he was looking at one of the biggest diet gaps in history.  Economist John Komlos (2005) had done a comparison of heights in history, finding the height gap between the rich and poor in late 18th Century England to be a remarkable 22 cm (8.7”) – the biggest gap on record.  When Malthus was at Oakwood, poor English children were shorter for their age than any other European or North American group Komlos could find data on.  Meanwhile, English elites were strikingly tall — only 2.5 cm shorter than today’s US standards. In his first time rubbing shoulders with the poor, it is no surprise that he was struck by how small they seemed: he was on the winning side of one of the world’s biggest food inequalities.

Life at Oakwood seems to have been every bit as jarring as Paul Ehrlich’s wild ride in a Delhi taxi, described in an earlier blog.  And just as Ehrlich’s interpretation of the crowded Delhi streets would spark a lifelong obsession with overpopulation, Malthus would draw life-changing conclusions from these people.

Bit players in history can sometimes affect everything that comes after.  Think of Isaac Newton’s apple or the finches that caught Charles Darwin’s attention.  So it was with this small congregation of short and skinny-legged English peasants, entrusted to this well-fed novice preacher coming off of a year of post-college idleness and arguing with his father about human perfectibility.  To him they seemed to prove the opposite.


Graves of small farmers, Oakwood church yard.

For starters, young Bob eyed their diet and his reaction was harsh.  He saw in the undernourished farmers a sense of entitlement.  The population lived almost entirely on bread and Malthus saw this as lavish, later writing that

“The labourers of the South of England are so accustomed to eat fine wheaten bread that they will suffer themselves to be half starved before they will submit to live like the Scotch peasants”.1

He also seemed less worried about his parishoners’ grinding poverty than about the danger that someone might try to help them escape it.  As far as he could see, increased earnings would be the worst thing for these people; it would only make them lazy, and impoverish the nation.  He wrote:

The receipt of five shillings a day, instead of eighteen pence, would make every man fancy himself comparatively rich and able to indulge himself in many hours or days of leisure. This would give a strong and immediate check to productive industry, and, in a short time, not only the nation would be poorer, but the lower classes themselves would be much more distressed than when they received only eighteen pence a day.

1789 baptisms burials

The parish register from Spring 1789, when Malthus took up his position at Oakwood.  Some of the entries are in Malthus’s hand.

But Malthus’s enormous impact on thinking and policy came from his analysis of why the Oakwood peasants were so poor and underfed.  He was not interested in ministering to needs of the poor, but in analyzing the thin calves and dirt floors as evidence of general processes.  But what processes?

It turned out that Oakwood was in the midst of a tiny population boom during the 1790s.  The chapel register for the years 1789-1798 record a yearly rate of 16 baptisms but only 5 burials (Stapleton 1986:27; Surrey Record Society 1927).  The Cambridge math major may have computed that at the current rate, local population would quickly explode.

Oakwood births deaths

Baptisms and burials at Oakwood Chapel for the 10 years following Malthus’s arrival. Source: Surrey Record Society.

Malthus was clearly thinking of his flock a few years later in Population, even if he does not mention Oakwood by name.  They had inspired what Malthus saw as a scientific truth.  They are so small because they are underfed; they are underfed because there are too many of them; there are so many of them because they lacked “moral restraint” (a term he introduced in the 2nd edition of Population).

Today demographers can tell you the 16 births a year were a meaningless blip in the curve, and those of us who study food production can tell you that undernourishment almost never coincides with actual food shortages (as dramatized by the situation in India today).  But to the well-nourished elites of the early Industrial Revolution, this theory was irresistible, and its various permutations have proved enormously useful to a wide range of interests in the years since (Ross 1998).

The farmers of Oakwood were well aware that they were small, both physically and economically.  But they could have never imagined, as they trudged up the hill every Sunday to sit in the chapel with their hats in their laps, that they would inspire a famous theory that linked their poor diet to their moral failings.  We will never know what they thought of the young pastor who towered over them — physically, economically, and — at least in his own mind — morally.  Did they have their own theories as to how he had grown so tall, and how he had avoided the hard work that characterized their lives?  We don’t know.  History is written by the winners, and these people were just small farmers.

[1] However other British observers of agriculture were on the side of the peasants.  In a famous address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1898, Sir William Crookes asked “If bread fails us…what are we to do?  We are born wheat eaters.  Other races, vastly superior to us in numbers, but differing widely in material and intellectual progress, are eaters of Indian corn, rice, millet, and other grains…[but] the accumulated experience of civilized mankind has set wheat apart as the fit and proper food” (Leigh 2004:16).
James, Patricia  1979  Population Malthus: His Life and Times. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Komlos, John  2005  On English Pygmies and Giants: the Physical Stature of English Youth in the late-18th and early-19th Centuries. Research in Economic History 25:149-168.
Leigh, G. J. 2004  The world’s greatest fix: a history of nitrogen and agriculture. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Malthus, Thomas Robert  1798  An Essay on the Principle of Population As it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers  London: J. Johnson.
Pullen, John M.  1986  Correspondence Between Malthus and his Parents. History of Political Economy 18(1):133-154.
Ross, Eric B.  1998  The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalist Development. London: Zed Books.
Stapleton, B.  1986  Malthus: the origins of the principle of population? In Malthus and His Time. M. Turner, ed. Pp. 19-39. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Surrey Record Society 1927  The Parish Registers of Abinger, Wotton, and Oakwood Chapel, Co. Surrey. London: Mitchell, Hughes & Clarke.
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