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.
Posted in Food, Population | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Overpopulation? Don’t Bet On It.

If you are concerned with overpopulation, you may have noticed that The Bet is back in the news.  The Bet involved Paul Ehrlich who, for those of you too young to remember, was the Stanford biologist who scared the bejeezus out of us on TV in the late 1960s (and in his best-seller, The Population Bomb).  Channeling Robert Malthus, Ehrlich insisted that out-of-control population growth had already sealed the fate of tens of millions who would soon starve, no matter what we did.  (His moment of Malthusian inspiration came from an uncomfortable taxi ride in Delhi — which he completely misinterpreted).  Ehrlich’s most vocal critic was free-market economist Julian Simon, who claimed population growth to be a driver of economic expansion which overall benefited the masses instead of dooming them.

Thbumperstickerseir debate was very public and entertaining, and they managed to take a multi-faceted issue and dumb it down to the intellectual level of bumper stickers: population BAD, population GOOD.

They bet on whether the value of a set of minerals would drop or rise over a 10-year period; they dropped (even though population soared) and Ehrlich lost.  Opinions were divided on how to interpret this.  Did it destroy Ehrlich’s credibility on population and resources (if it wasn’t already destroyed after blowing the prediction that millions would run out of food)?  Or did Simon just get lucky?  Much has been written about The Bet (for instance, in Wired), but suddenly it is back in the news in a big way.  Last week I got an advertiement for a whole book on it — The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, by historian Paul Sabin.  And Sabin also got an opinion piece in the 9/8/13 New York Times on it.

Since this attention is new, a lot of people are trying to figure out what to make of The Bet.  The book blurb and the NY Times opinion piece make a clear recommendation on how to make sense of it — it is all about “the clash between environmentalists and their conservative critics.”  Seems like a great way to get people’s attention and maybe even get their blood up: it’s all about conservatives and liberals, it’s a battle in the war between free-market and environmentalism, Hummer vs. Prius, fracking vs. solar, wingtips vs. Birkenstocks.

The problem is this is completely misleading.  The most important critiques of Malthus, and his modern acolytes like Ehrlich, come from the left.  The Bet, and the whole issue of “over”-population, makes no sense as a 2-sided debate.

popIn fact it has been a 3-way debate all along.  It’s right there in Malthus’s original booklet, entitled “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.”  Whereas Condorcet argued that farming could keep up with population, and Malthus argued that it couldn’t, Godwin argued that population wasn’t really the problem – social institutions were.  In his wonderful book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, Joel Cohen put the 3 perspectives this way: we can have fewer diners at the table, we can bake a bigger pie for the diners we have, or we can teach better table manners. It is these Table Manners advocates that are being erased when the overpopulation debate is reduced to environmentalist vs. conservative, which is a particular shame because today they have most of the facts in their corner.

Table Manners theorists have different political viewpoints but most would be considered to be to the left of Malthus.  Godwin himself was an anarchist.  Karl Marx was not an anarchist at all, but he was a fierce critic of Malthus’s book, calling it a “schoolboyish, superficial plagiary” that caused a sensation only because it appealed to factory owners (who liked the idea that their workers’ poverty and hunger were natural — there were just too many people at the table).  In the 1890s, with grain prices plummeting due to gluts, Friedrich Engels asked how anyone could take seriously Malthus’s theory that population pressed against the means of subsistence, when “the means of subsistence are pressing against the population, which is not large enough to consume them.”  There are plenty of Better Manners theorists around today, including economist Amartya Sen, a 1996 Nobel laureate for works such as Poverty and Famines.

Bigger Pie and Fewer Diners theorists alike have a history of backing up their claims with deceptive facts.  Simon (and other Pie enthusiasts like Bjørn Lomborg and Dennis Avery) cite indicators showing life getting better as population goes up.  But their indicators are almost always averages or totals that ignore how unequally the quality of life is distributed.  If you leave it up to the free market, the bakers are going to bake the biggest and most profitable pie they can, not the one that’s going to be the best for your body or the environment.  They will make plenty of food alright, but everywhere you look you’ll see externalized costs and profound inequalities.  (For instance, in the US pork and apples will be cheap and plentiful, but the pigs will be raised on so many antibiotics that MRSA will spread, and the apples will be slathered in insecticides unless you can afford the extra cost of organic.)

Ehrlich (and other Fewer-Diner theorists) cite figures on hunger and malnourishment and let people assume there must be food shortages, but there almost never is; instead there is poverty and there are societal decisions that food is not an entitlement (as Sen shows).  My favorite example is India, which has the most hungry people of any country and also a perennial problem with oversupply of rice and wheat.  They also point to environmental problems from our food production and let people think it all results from rising population, which is misleading.  Like Malthus, the original Fewer Diners theorist, they blame population for all manner of social maladies that have nothing to do with population.

I have always thought The Bet was a good story, but does it really teach us anything? Simon was betting that prices of commodities would drop because population made everything better; Ehrlich bet they would rise because population made everything worse.  If you are are trying to decide whether the answer to the question of who was right is a)Simon or b)Ehrlich, you may want to consider c)neither.  How could there be too many diners at the table when we have so many leftovers?  And how can the bakers get credit for solving our problem when they have served us pie as an entree and trashed the kitchen?

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Population | 12 Comments

The Myriad Case on Gene Patents: 3 Things to Know

15 Apr 2013: The Myriad case on “human gene patents” was argued at the Supreme Court this morning and it’s a big day for Intellectual Property. Here are 3 things you should know:

1. It’s not really about human genes. It is often pitched that way to get people’s attention, and it is certainly an attention-getter. It involves breast cancer (the genes at issue, called BRCA1 and BRCA2, predispose one to get breast cancer — hence their names). It also involves health care costs (Myriad’s patent allows them to charge a mint to test for these genes — over $3000…which they point out is covered by insurance…but remind me again who pays for insurance?)

But the legal arguments have to do with gene patents in general. There isn’t much that’s special about human genes; we share 98% of them with chimps. Here is what is special about human genes: a genetically engineered human cannot be patented because of the 13th Amendment, although you can patent any other kind of genetically engineered organism.

But the human-ness of the genes in the case may be significant in the end because federal courts have had a consistent aversion to human gene patents (although without addressing why human genes should be different).


Listen to this. Trying to figure out how to devise policy that balances economic incentives with concepts of invention and property rights. The problem is, that isn’t his job. That’s what happens when you have a case that turns on a non-existent legal principle.

2. The argument that funding for genetic research will dry up without DNA patents is deceptive and overstated. The vast majority of new genetic inventions — including medical and agricultural — are based on publicly funded research. Yes, private companies do research too, sometimes spending a lot, plus they put out some long green for “regulatory science” (safety/efficacy studies). But more often than not they are capitalizing on basic research done by academics and paid for by the government.

In this “human gene” case, a private corporation was spun off from an academic lab doing basic research supported by the government. Specifically, Myriad Genetics was spun off from the Univ. of Utah in 1991 after receiving $5 million from the National Inst. of Health. Their work, in turn, was based on a lot of other public-funded academic work, most notably pioneering research on the BRCA genes by Mary-Claire King at the Univ. of Washington with funding from the National Cancer Inst.

3. The fate of gene patents rests on one of the biggest unanswered questions in law. Products of nature are not patentable; inventions are. What is dividing line? A tree isn’t patentable but a baseball bat carved out of it is*; but why? What is the rubicon you have to cross to turn a product of nature into an invention? What is the deciding criterion?

The more you look at the history of court cases confronting this question, the more different answers you find. I pointed out in an earlier blog that courts have for many years just plunged ahead and made decisions in patent cases without a clear legal basis for telling nature from invention. They go with their gut.

In fact, the last time the Supreme Court saw the Myriad case is a case in point. This case was appealed to them back in 2010. They sat on it a while and then sent it back to lower court and told them to consult another case in which they gave an example of one “invention” that was still a product of nature and one “invention” that crossed the line. But they still never clarified what the dividing line was.

So we end up with a profoundly important case hinging on an unstated legal principle:

  • Myriad (joined by the biotech industry and the court of appeals) says their gene patent is valid because in the process of using the gene in a test they changed it from a product of nature into an invention. And they did change it too — chemically.
  • Another company called Molecular Pathology (joined by the ACLU, the US Dept. of Justice, and the District Court) says the gene patent is invalid because the only value of DNA is to encode information, and it still encodes exactly the same information after the chemical change. In fact, if it didn’t encode the same information, it would be worthless.

* Actually the baseball bat was never patented because it had long been part of the “prior art” of sports, but it would have been eligible back when baseball was first starting up, and there have been many patents on improvements on the bat.

Posted in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property | 5 Comments

Bt Cotton is Failing; Blame the Farmers

Of all the GMO controversies around the world, the saga of Bt cotton in India continues to be one of the most interesting and important. In the latest chapter, reported by the Business Standard, cotton yields have dropped to a 5-year low, setting off a fascinating round of finger pointing.


Data from the India Ministry of Textiles.

India approved Bt cotton in 2002 and within a few years yields were up dramatically. There are different sets of data out there, but let’s use the India Ministry of Textiles data since it’s this weeks news story. This chart shows the national trends in cotton yield (kg per hectare).

If you follow GMO debates you will have heard several years of kennel barking about how these figures show a “remarkable success.” But as I have pointed out (in my blog and in EPW), most of the rise in productivity had nothing to do with Bt cotton; in fact it happened before Bt cotton became popular.

Check it out: the biggest rises were from 2002/3 to 2004/5, when yields rose 56% from 302 to 470 kg. But by 2004/5, only 5.6% of India’s cotton farmers had adopted Bt. Do the math: if those 5.6% of planters were really responsible for a 56% rise in yields, then they must have been harvesting 3,288 kg/ha.

So Bt didn’t explain the big rise in yields, and since Bt has taken over, yields have been steadily worsening. What are we to make of this? Well, two things, according to the Business Standard and the Monsanto spokesperson who was their main informant. One has to do with what has gone wrong, the other with what we need to get out of this mess.

1. What Went Wrong? (the farmers screwed up?)

It seems the bollworms — the voracious pests that that Bt cotton is designed to kill — are developing resistance. But resistance, according to Monsanto, is “natural and expected.”

Whoa — that’s not what the farmers were told to expect. I was there when Bt cotton was being rolled out and they were told repeatedly and confidently that they wouldn’t have to spray any more. In fact we were all being told that “genetic farming is the easiest way to cultivate crops. All that farmers have to do is to plant the seeds and water them regularly. The genetically modified seeds are insect resistant, so there is no need to use huge amounts of pesticides.”

All the farmer has to do is plant and water the seeds… and then wait around for resistance, which is natural and expected. But wait there’s more: when it does appear, it’s the Indian farmers’ fault. Monsanto’s spokesman explains:

Among the factors that may have contributed to pink bollworm resistance to the Cry1Ac protein in Gujarat are limited refuge planting and early use of unapproved Bt cotton seed, planted prior to GEAC approval of Cry1Ac cotton, which may have had lower Bt protein expression levels, he added.

A “refuge” is a strip of non-Bt seeds farmers are asked to plant around their Bt fields, basically to raise bollworms that aren’t resistant to Bt, so they can hopefully breed with any resistant bollworms.[1] Very few Indian farmers actually do this, because it’s a lot of extra work for no return. Here’s an insight from 30 years of research on farming: if you’re pushing a technology that is only sustainable if farmers follow practices that require extra work for no return, you are pushing an unsustainable technology.

The other Monsanto suggestion is that the farmers are to blame for planting unapproved seeds. Sorry, that dog don’t hunt. Those unapproved seeds were Navbharat-151 and they have been much written about; they were better than the approved seeds, and their Bt levels were apparently sky high. Gujarat, where they were planted, has had India’s biggest rises in yields.

But while we’re blaming Indian farmers, why stop there? Monsanto also explains that

farmers have been constantly educated to adopt measures such as need-based application of insecticide sprays during the crop season and adoption of cultural practices like keeping the field clean of cotton stubble and crop-leftovers, ploughing of land after harvest so that the resting stages of the insects in the soil could be destroyed.

I have yet to bump into the educators who are giving farmers constant remediation on spraying, plowing, and field clearing. But I do bump into a lot of biotechnology people who pontificate on the wisdom of the Indian farmer. The farmer has long been seen as backward, tradition-bound, and inept. “We need to teach proper tillage,” a Monsanto executive explained to me years ago. But farmers are obstinate, and in fact this was one of the arguments for GM seeds:


It’s his fault.

for years people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn’t worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, 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. (-biotechnologist Martina McGloughlin)

But as soon as Indian farmers adopted GM seeds, we were told that “we should leave the choice of selecting modern agricultural technologies to the wisdom of Indian farmers” and that “farmers are excellent businessmen who aren’t persuaded by anything or anybody that doesn’t make their job easier or more profitable.” [2]

So don’t question the wisdom of the farmer! He is a genius — at least when he is buying GM seeds. But otherwise, he has to be told how to plant, spray, plow, and clear fields!

2. Now What? (More innovation?)

So despite all the GM seeds, India’s cotton yields keep on dropping. (In some states, they are now lower than they were before Bt seeds became popular.) So what’s the way forward?

To me this is a very hard question, but not to the Business Standard, which simply reports the news that

continuous R&D and innovation to develop new value-added technologies is imperative to stay ahead of insect resistance. To support such innovation, Monsanto demanded government policies’ support to encourage investment in R&D which will result in Indian farmers having a wider choice of better and advanced technologies translating thereby, higher yield.

No kidding — innovation from Monsanto is going to keep us ahead of the insects and guarantee higher yields. But lets take a look at the facts, at least as reported by the industry-friendly ISAAA. Yields started dropping after 2007/8. But that was just after new genetic constructs started appearing: a new 2-gene technology in 2006/7, and by 2009, six different constructs were approved. And these rapidly proliferating technologies were appearing in dizzying numbers of seed products. After 2006/7, the number of Bt hybrid seeds being offered to farmers jumped from 62 to 131 to 274; by 2009/10 there were 522.

There you have it: Indian cotton farmers today are being pelted with a hailstorm of new gene technologies and seed products, their yields steadily dropping, and the way forward is clear to the Business Standard: invest in Monsanto innovation.


[1]Further explanation: A field full of Bt plants puts selective pressure on bollworm populations favoring worms with natural resistance to Bt. The resistant bollworms would thrive and spread the resistance trait, while the Bt-vulnerable bollworms die off. The plants in the refuge are non-Bt, so Bt-sensitive worms are supposed to thrive there; they are supposed to mate with the Bt-resistant worms and water down the resistance trait.
[2] Pinstrup-Andersen, P., and E. Schioler 2000 Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press; Fumento, M. 2003 BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing Our World. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, India | Tagged , , , , , , , | 46 Comments

This is Your Brain on GMO’s

Last week British anti-GMO activist Mark Lynas took to the podium at a conference to apologize (or apologise) for having spent years “ripping up GMO’s.” Now he has decided that Genetically Modified Organisms are “an important technological option” and that critics have been anti-scientific.


Text and video are available here.

Actually Lynas had explained before that he had been reprogrammed; his 2011 book The God Species announced his new enthusiasm for GMOs.  But this mea culpa on vimeo made for an irresistible internet nugget and it lit up the blogosphere.  It was forwarded to me by several people who I’m sure had never heard of Mark Lynas before.

Much of the online reaction to this story goes along with the basic premise in Lynas’s own statement, which is that there are two ways to think about GM crops, and he has switched from one to the other.

I agree that there are two ways to think about GM crops, but Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  Let me explain.

GMO’s are one of the most far-reaching developments of the last century.  They have major impacts on biological research, international trade, ecosystems, industry-university relations, patent law, agriculture, and on and on.  We all need to know something about these different facets, especially since we make decisions about them every time we go to the grocery store.

But what we are mostly bombarded with are dumbed-down, deceptive narratives of GMO bad bad bad or GMO good good good.  Most of what is written is explicitly designed to get to that part of your brain that picks a side in a fight.

There are reasons the GMO debate became so polarized.  There is a lot at stake here, including lots of money and political power; there are also clashes of different visions of how the world should work.   Most voices on GM issues are coming from people with vested interests, either direct or indirect.

And polarized debates build on themselves.  Now when someone tries to look into GM issues they mainly encounter invective and polemic.  With GM crops, farmers are killing themselves and losing control over their seeds.  Without GM crops kids will go blind and we will have to cut down the rainforests.  Most people are attracted by one side, or repulsed by one side, or both.  Whether it’s coming from Greenpeace or Monsanto, the message is the same: get emotionally involved, pick a side, then start believing all the claims from that side and scorning all the claims from the other.

footballIt’s as if genetic modification were like a football game, and you could sit in the stands basking in the psychic glow of pure affiliation, cheering your team and booing the other.  You can almost feel your brain shifting into partisan mode.

Actually your brain is shifting into a special mode, and you can even see it.  During the 2004 presidential campaign, Emory psychologist Drew Westen and colleagues recruited a group of students who were committed political partisans.  It didn’t matter if they favored Bush or Kerry, just that they were strongly committed, like football fans.  The students were asked to read statements from the candidates, in which they contradicted themselves and looked like liars.  Meanwhile the researchers used MRI machines to watch the students’ brains.  For a control, the students read contradictory statements by “neutral” people — Tom Hanks, Hank Aaron, and William Styron.

The students processed their candidates’ statements completely differently from the controls’ statements.  This image from their article shows areas that were more active when students were processing the lies from their candidates than from the controls.  So what you’re looking at is the part of the brain that swings into action when you already know your conclusion, and now you’re making the facts fit it.  That area that’s all lit up is called the posterior cingulate.

Brain on GMOs

Source: Westen, Drew, et al. 2006 Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18(11):1947-1958.

This kind of thinking is called “motivated reasoning.”  This means that “partisan goals trump accuracy goals so that individuals act as biased information processors who will vigorously defend their prior values, identities, and attitudes at the expense of factual accuracy.”

So when the motivated partisans confronted information about their candidate that should lead them to an “emotionally aversive conclusion,” they got busy reworking the information to fit the conclusion they wanted.

Scientists still have a lot to learn about different forms of reasoning, and the role of emotion in rationality, and so on, but the basic idea of motivated reasoning is key in putting Mark Lynas in context.  Sometimes people let factual information shape their conclusions, and sometimes they start with a conclusion and shape their view of factual information to fit it.  Those are the two ways to think about GM crops, and that’s why I say Mark Lynas hasn’t changed one bit.  He used to have simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops were bad bad bad ; now he has switched to simplistic, inaccurate and emotional “cherished beliefs” about how GM crops are good good good.

Listen to two examples of his motivated reasoning:

1) I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

2) I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

Are you kidding?  On 1) and 2), consider:

1) It s widely known that changes in chemical use have been mixed.  Insecticide use has indeed gone down (I have documented this myself among some of the world’s heaviest insecticide users) but herbicide use has risen sharply.

Then again, the main herbicide being used more heavily is Roundup, which is much more benign than many herbicides. But then again, the next generation of GM crops will be resistant to less benign sprays like 2,4-D.  Herbicide-resistant weeds are a terrible and growing problem due to GM crops.  But then again cotton pests have been slower than we expected to develop resistance.

It takes a lot of reworking by the posterior cingulate to boil this down to a simple, emotionally satisfying, conclusion that we shouldn’t be concerned about GMO impacts on chemical use.

2) Whoa, this lad was a player in international debates on seed saving without knowing about hybrid crops?  The role of hybrids in allowing corporations to capture value from public research and seize control over farmers’ seeds had been well known and widely discussed for decades.  But if Mark Lynas reads up on the topic, he will find that corporations can gain control over seeds not just through biological means (like hybrids) but through legal means (like patents)… and GM technologies, based largely on publicly-funded research, have allowed corporations to do just that.  (And Terminator Technology was never anything more than a side show.)

As to why Mark would swap one motivated reasoning package for another, I’m not sure.  Motivated reasoning is emotionally addictive, and addicts do sometimes switch drugs.  It has brought him more attention on this side of the pond than he ever had before. As the head of the Nature Conservancy blogged, Lynas may now become a household name.

And the road ahead for him is clear: cherry-pick facts favorable to GM crops, and distort unfavorable facts until they fit.  Expect long hours for the posterior cingulate.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology | Tagged , , | 8 Comments


Multiple choice question:  What does the “Obesity Epidemic” have to do with agriculture?

  1. What epidemic?  Obesity is an age old problem, and this “epidemic” is an invention of the press and the diet industry.
  2. There’s an epidemic alright, caused by a flood of cheap calories.
  3. There’s an epidemic alright, and agriculture is to blame — but it’s not the calories, it’s the toxins.

Source: based on figures in [1].

We can deal with answer #1 first.  BMI (body mass index, the standard measure of weight adjusted for height) has been climbing rapidly; 1980 is often specified as the start of the climb.  BMI has been going up gradually in the world, steeply  in the US.  The average American is 28 lb. heavier than in 1980.  This is not an invention.

But there is still a grain of truth in answer #1.  The only thing that is going up faster than BMI’s is the obsession with bringing them back down.  “Epidemic” is a poor word for the trend.  I’m not arguing for being overweight, but fat people are not as unhealthy as some would have you believe, and they are not completely responsible for being fat (as we’ll see in a minute).


Energy Balance Model

The Energy Balance Model explains weight as a simply function of calories in and calories out.  Source: US Dept. of Health & Human Services website.

How about door #2?  Well we all know it’s at least partly true at the level of the individual: when you eat more calories and when you exercise less, you put on weight. This is the “Energy Balance” dogma: obesity results entirely from more calories going in than being burned off.

Energy Balance seems to be dietary gospel.  It’s central to Michael Pollan’s must-read books Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, where he argues that our industrial agricultural system is making us obese because it subsidizes hyperproduction of cheap carbohydrates.  It seems hard to refute: just compare the cost of the calories in fresh fruit to those in Fruit Loops.

There are even specific links between agricultural overproduction and post-1980 obesity.  The ballooning corn harvest gave us the High Fructose Corn Syrup that started invading our cuisine around 1980. 7-11’s Big Gulp appeared in 1980, soon followed by jumbo popcorn and supersized fries.  Industrial agriculture and increasingly devious food marketers met our innate reluctance to push back from the table.

But here’s the problem: calorie consumption hasn’t actually been going up since 1980. In The Obesity Epidemic: Science Morality and Ideology, Gard & Wright’s careful review of research finds no clear evidence of calorie consumption rising in industrialized countries.  Exercise hasn’t been dropping either.  However intuitive it seems, the energy balance model whiffs as a explanation of the rising BMI.


Which brings us to answer #3: it’s not the cheap calories that are to blame, it’s toxins  spewed into our food supply and environment by agriculture and other industries.

This case has been made recently by Univ. of California geographer Julie Guthman in her 2011 book Weighing In and various academic publications [2].  Guthman argues that by stressing calories, Pollan and others miss this more sinister mechanism by which industrial agriculture produces obesity.  The disagreement is one of the most important debates in the world of food and farm.

At the center of the debate are the chemicals called endocrine disruptors that we are just beginning to understand. “If there were ever a contest for the Most Easily Duped biological system,” writes Sandra Steingraber in Living Downstream, “I would nominate our endocrine system — the hormonal messaging service that guides our development, runs our metabolism, and allows us to reproduce.”  Our bodies have great protective mechanisms, but they have not kept up with modern environmental toxins. The results are deeply troubling.

Two of the worst examples of endocrine disruption were around long before people recognized endocrine disruption as a problem.  DES was a synthetic estrogen prescribed to tens of thousands of women who were pregnant during the baby boom of the 1940s-60s.  It was supposed to reduce miscarriages but it had ghastly health effects, many of them appearing only in their adult daughters.  DDT, of course, was the organochlorine pesticide that Rachel Carson  went after in Silent Spring.  DDT became notorious for being a “persistent organic pollutant” that gets into the food chain and stays there, but it’s also a serious endocrine disruptor.

Endocrine disruption didn’t emerge as a field of research until the late 1980s.  By the mid-1990s it was finding its way onto the public radar, with books like Living Downstream and Our Stolen Future.  It attracted some popular attention but it seemed a bit like conspiracy theory, with rising cancer rates and dropping age of puberty somehow tied together by speculative science.  In 2002, Paula Baillie-Hamilton explicitly linked endocrine disruptors with the obesity epidemic in an article entitled “Chemical Toxins: A Hypothesis to Explain the Global Obesity Epidemic.”  This generated some interest but also skepticism; it was published in the non-mainstream Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Baillie-Hamilton seemed to be hawking a diet book.

There has since been an explosion of solid research on endocrine disruptors.  It’s for real, and not just the diseases — the obesity too.  Bruce Blumberg, a professor of biology and pharmacology at the Univ. California at Irvine, coined the term obesogen for environmental chemicals that corrupt our metabolism and promote obesity.  Today there are around 20 known obesogens (sugar is not one, by the way — these are environmental pollutants).  They are not all from agriculture; nonagricultural industries pump out some of the worst ones, and even some medicines are obesogenic.  Bisphenol A, one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide and a common component in the waxy surface of food and beverage containers, is an endocrine disruptor.

Blumberg and others have provided some important recent summaries of what we know about endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) and obesity [3]. Highlights:

  • Prenatal and early postnatal exposure to EDC’s can have effects decades later.  Chemicals may be programming kids to be obese adults.
  • EDC’s have multiple modes of action:
    • they promote multiplication of adipose (fatty) cells
    • they affect epigenetic regulation
    • they can affect the hypothalamus — the  crucial little part of the brain that plays a key role in controlling both metabolism and hunger

Obesogens can be inhaled, absorbed, or consumed.  We spray dieldrin and atrazine on our crops; we feed cattle DES.

All of this makes it incredibly hard to isolate the effects of obesogens.  Since they may have greatly delayed epigenetic effects, you can’t just check fat people for evidence of obesogens.  (By the same token, a major 1997 study [4] found women with breast cancer did not have elevated levels of DDT, which seemed to let the infamous pesticide off the hook.  But more recently, researchers analyzed of a collection of blood samples from the 1960s.  They found that girls who were exposed to DDT under age 14 were 5x more likely to develop breast cancer.  Those who weren’t exposed to DDT until after 14 were not more cancer prone. [5])

babyBut circumstantial evidence is mounting that obesity results as much from environmental obesogens as from calories.  One of the most provocative findings came from a 2006 study of Massachusetts kids.  It showed that between 1980-2001, the obesity rates for all ages climbed, including a 74% rise in babies under 6 months.  This raised eyebrows since neonates couldn’t be accused of not pushing back from the table or being couch potatoes.

I strongly recommend Guthman’s provocative book, even if I don’t agree with all of it.  She is not the only one writing from this perspective, but she does a particularly good job of challenging much of the prevailing wisdom about how to think about obesity.

At the end of the day, obesity really is rising, especially in the US.  And at the end of the day, there is no doubt that our agricultural system is subsidizing the production of the wrong kind of calories.  But those cheap calories being a major cause of obesity trends is just a hypothesis, and plausible as it seems, it’s not well supported.

The role of environmental obesogens is not totally clear either, but now there is a wave of research making the case stronger and stronger.  Industrial agriculture is hardly the only producer of environmental obesogens, but it is a (and perhaps the) leading contributor.  We thought industrial agriculture was contributing to obesity, and now it seems it was — just not in the way we thought.

1. Finucane, M. et al. 2011 “National, Regional, and Global Trends in Body-Mass Index since 1980: Systematic Analysis of Health Examination Surveys and Epidemiological Studies with 960 Country-Years and 9·1 Million Participants.” The Lancet 377: 557-67.
2. Guthman, J.  2011.  Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.  Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Guthman, J.  2012.  “Opening up the Black Box of the Body in Geographical Obesity Research: Toward a Critical Political Ecology of Fat.”  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102: in press.
3. Grün, F. and Blumberg, B.  2009.  “Minireview: The Case for Obesogens.”  Molecular Endocrinology 23: 1127-34.
Decherf, S. and Demeneix, B.  2011  The Obesogen Hypothesis: A Shift of Focus from the Periphery to the Hypothalamus.  Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14: 423-48.
Trudeau, V., et al.  2011  Neuroendocrine Disruption: The Emerging Concept. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B 14(5-7):267-269.
4. Hunter, DJ, et al.  1997.  “Plasma Organochlorine Levels and the Risk of Breast Cancer.”  New Engl J Med 337: 1253-8.
5. Cohn, B., et al.   2007.  “DDT and Breast Cancer in Young Women: New Data on the Significance of Age at Exposure.”  Environ Health Perspectives 15: 1406–14.
Posted in Agriculture, Food, Industrial Agriculture | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments