Bt Cotton in Africa: What Happened in Burkina Faso?

As stories about GM crops in developing countries unfold, I continue to be struck by how very different each case is.  Despite the desire for simple global narratives of success or failure, the crops differ, the transgenic traits differ, the problems to be solved differ, the cultures differ, and the issues differ. Science can publish papers on Bt cotton test plots in India with titles like “Yield effects of genetically modified crops in developing countries”, but those test plots don’t actually tell you anything about “genetically modified crops in developing countries,” they just tell you about Bt cotton test plots in India.  As I have written elsewhere, Indian cotton is a unique situation [1] – very different from Bt cotton in South Africa [2], GM eggplant in India [3], Golden Rice in the Philippines [4], banana in Uganda [5], and so on.

For many years there has been publicity BURKINAabout Bt cotton growers in Burkina Faso, much of it listing the outstanding benefits across the board.  But a few months ago, suddenly the news was “Burkina Faso phasing out GMO cotton, citing poor quality.”   Cotton companies are even suing Monsanto.

I’m an outside observer here – my research on African agriculture was in Nigeria and it was before GM crops came along.  But I know some scholars who follow these events closely.  Brian Dowd-Uribe (International Studies, Univ San Francisco. ) and Matthew Schnurr (International Development Studies, Dalhousie Univ) have written extensively on GM crops in subSaharan Africa and have already published a short piece  on the implications of what’s happening in Burkina. Now they have agreed to provide this guest blog which provides the interesting backstory of what is happening.  Once again, it is a very particular story: it has to do with colonial-era breeding, quality of lint (the fibers that are separated from seeds, from which thread is made), and the particular way they grow cotton in Burkina.

Thanks to Brian and Matthew.


[1] For analyses of the unique situation in India, see Stone 2015 “Biotechnology, Schismogenesis, and the Demise of Uncertainty,” Journal of Law & Policy 47:29-49; Stone et al. 2014 “Rhythms of the herd: Long term dynamics in seed choice by Indian farmers,” Technology in Society 36:26-38; Stone 2012 “Constructing Facts: Bt Cotton Narratives in India,” Economic and Political Weekly 47(38):62-70; Stone 2007 “Agricultural Deskilling and the Spread of Genetically Modified Cotton in Warangal,” Current Anthropology 48:67-103. All are available here.
[2] Witt H, Patel R, Schnurr M. 2006 “Can the Poor Help GM Crops? Technology, Representation & Cotton in the Makhathini Flats, South Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 109:497-513.
[3] Kudlu C, Stone GD. 2013 “The Trials of Genetically Modified Food: Bt Eggplant and Ayurvedic Medicine in India,” Food Culture & Society 16:21-42.  Available here.
[4] Stone GD, Glover D. 2016 “Disembedding Grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and Heirloom Seeds in the Philippines,” Agriculture & Human Values 33(1):online.  Available here.
[5] Schnurr MA. 2013 “Biotechnology and bio-hegemony in Uganda: unraveling the social relations underpinning the promotion of genetically modified crops into new African markets,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 40(4):639-58.

Burkina Faso’s Bt cotton reversal: Why Africa’s largest producer of GM cotton is phasing out production and what this means for GM crops in Africa.

Brian Dowd-Uribe and Matthew A. Schnurr*

In 2003 Burkina Faso, in partnership with Monsanto, began development of Bt cotton. At the urging of Burkinabè cotton sector officials, Monsanto agreed to backcross the Bt gene onto local varietals, which were then released to farmers in 2008.

At first, the introduction was hailed as a westafricasuccess with farmers enthusiastically adopting the technology.  But despite the many published claims of agronomic and economic success for these farmers, if you look at the actual  empirical inquiry into the Burkina Faso situation you find trouble.  The main evidence of Bt cotton outcomes in Burkina Faso comes from a group of Monsanto-funded studies conducted by one research team. Their early studies from 2009 showed that Bt cotton produced yield gains of 18.2 %, which boosted profits despite higher Bt seed cost. However these studies did not report how those yield advantages were calculated. Later studies drawing from the same household surveys reported that an average Bt cotton farming family gaining 50% more profit than from conventional cotton.  Glenn Stone found that the authors of these studies calculated the yield differences by comparing Bt cotton with refugia planted with conventional cotton. Comparing with refugia is problematic, since farmers devote little attention to them; the purpose of refugia is to grow caterpillars that aren’t resistant to Bt. Moreover, farmers do not harvest refugia separately from the rest of the field, so it is a mystery where the numbers for conventional yields came from.

Nonetheless, most farmers were enthusiastic about Bt cotton primarily as a tool to save valuable labor time. Bt cotton requires significantly less pesticides reducing labor needs at critical moments in the growing season. By 2014, more than 140,000 smallholder farmers were cultivating Bt cotton, representing 70% of total cotton production in one of Africa’s largest cotton producing nations.

But recently the success story of Bt cotton’s adoption came to an abrupt end. In 2016, Burkinabè cotton officials claimed that the Bt cotton varietals produced lint of inferior quality resulting in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenues. The Bt cotton lint fetched lower prices on the global market and undermined the global reputation of high quality Burkinabè lint.

Since then, the Burkinabè cotton sector has moved swiftly to reduce Bt cotton sowings. For the current 2016/2017 growing season approximately 10% of total production is from Bt cotton. A complete phase out is planned for next season.

What went wrong with what was supposed to be an example of the potential benefits of GM crops for resource-poor farmers in Africa?

Lint qualitylint

The first part of the explanation concerns lint quality. High lint quality is Burkina Faso’s competitive advantage on the global cotton market. Most cotton in the world is machine picked, which ends up producing shorter fibers of lower quality. Handpicking, which is practiced throughout Africa, keeps the fibers in tact, allowing them to retain their length and sturdiness, setting most African cottons apart from global competitors like the USA and Australia.

Both cotton fiber quality and cotton fiber efficiency (a measure of the amount of lint that can be extracted from each pound of cotton) are products of a decades-long breeding program that began during the French colonial era. Because of this breeding program, Francophone African cotton fibers have earned a reputation for high quality and efficiency. — by the mid-2000s Burkina Faso achieved some of the highest cotton efficiency ratings in the world. It is because of these high quality and efficiency characteristics that Burkinabè officials asked for the Bt gene to be backcrossed into their renowned local cotton varietals.

Unfortunately the quality characteristics of the original Burkinabè varietals were not retained when crossed with the Bt gene. Internal fixes were attempted but didn’t succeed in reversing this problem. In 2016, Burkinabè cotton companies pulled the plug on the entire program after incurring significant economic losses.

But the lower lint quality did not directly hurt cotton farmers. They continued to reap improved yields and incomes with lower labor requirements. Rather, the losses were shouldered entirely by the cotton companies. Why then would cotton farmers, who apparently like the technology and want to continue to cultivate it, stop growing Bt cotton? The answer is that they don’t have a choice.

Farmers’ lack of choice

Unlike other GM crop producing nations, cottonseed is entirely controlled by cotton companies in Burkina Faso. This means that farmers can only grow those seeds that are provided to them by the cotton company. Seeds are not saved in Burkina Faso because farmers are paid by weight, and extracting the seeds would reduce that weight

Under pressure to liberalize its cotton sector in the 1990s, Burkina Faso split its territory into three exclusive zones for three cotton companies, avoiding the rapid and comprehensive privatizations of the cotton sectors of its Anglophone African neighbors. In each of the three exclusive zones, one cotton company provides seed and inputs on credit to farmers at the beginning of the growing season, and then buys back the cotton at a fixed price at the end of the season. These vertically integrated systems, a product of the French colonial era, have been hailed as a major driver of agricultural productivity in large parts of Francophone Africa. Today the largest cotton company, SOFITEX, which is primarily state-owned, controls over 80% of Burkina Faso’s total cotton production.


Burkina Faso’s reversal and the implications for Africa

So what does this reversal mean for the future of transgenics in Burkina Faso and Africa more generally? In the short term transgenic cotton will no longer be an option for Burkinabè farmers since cotton companies will continue to control seed supply. It does not appear, however, that this reversal has reduced Burkina Faso’s interest in GM crops more generally or in GM cotton specifically. Burkina Faso continues to do research on transgenic varieties of cowpea. Cotton sector officials have also indicated their willingness to continue to research transgenic varietals so long as they retain desired quality characteristics, and have recently reached out to Bayer CropScience as a potential partner in developing such varietals. Nonetheless any re-introduction of transgenic cotton in Burkina Faso is likely to receive far more scrutiny, potentially delaying introductions.

One outcome of Burkina Faso’s reversal is the tarnishing of the image of GM crops as precise and universally beneficial. GM crop breeding, like other forms of breeding, can still result in unintended consequences that must be carefully analyzed and mitigated. In this case the introduction of transgenics transformed Burkina Faso’s cotton breeding program in two significant ways. It shifted the focus of breeding efforts from producing varietals that exhibited a diversity of quality and local adaptation characteristics, to a more narrow focus on pest resistance. Although pest resistance is a welcomed trait, neither cotton companies nor farmers are likely to consider it the most desired trait for breeding efforts. It also shifted breeding efforts from being exclusively public in nature to a more privately driven endeavor. The private nature of transgenic research resulted in varietals that were rushed to market. Instead of spending the money and time to ensure that desired quality characteristics were maintained, Monsanto and their cotton company partners released the Bt cotton varietals to farmers. This dynamic of desiring a quick return on investment is likely to accompany other GM crop introductions in Africa.

The lint quality controversy exposes the different interests for Burkinabè farmers and cotton companies. The reversal on Bt cotton shows the continued power of the state-run cotton company, something the World Bank has long attempted to curtail. It also opens a rift between the cotton companies and the very types of more mechanized and ‘professional’ farmers they have spent decades grooming who desire to continue growing Bt cotton. It is unclear how this apparent rift will be resolved. Larger, former Bt cotton farmers are likely to continue growing conventional cotton. However, according to interviews with farmers, they are likely to reduce the size of their plantations given the additional labor demands of conventional cotton. This may result in reduced cotton production in Burkina Faso, not simply due to the lower overall yields of conventional varietals, but also due to reduced sowings.

GM crop advocates would like to minimize Burkina Faso’s reversal on Bt cotton as simply a one-off problem that isn’t likely to reproduce itself elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Burkina Faso reversal may give pause to other large cotton producing African nations – countries like Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Benin, Zambia and Zimbabwe – where high quality cotton is a significant market advantage. However, Nigeria’s recent approval of Bt cotton may signal that African countries are still willing to go ahead with this technology despite problems in Burkina Faso. It remains to be seen how this controversy will affect adoption of GM cotton in other nations slated to adopt this technology in the coming years such as Uganda, Ghana and Kenya.

*Brian Dowd-Uribe is Assistant Professor in the International Studies Department at the University of San Francisco. His current research explores the social, agro-ecological and economic dimensions of food, agriculture and water policy in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. Dr. Dowd-Uribe’s primary geographic area of expertise is Burkina Faso, where he has conducted field-based research on questions of agricultural development since 2005.
Matthew A.  Schnurr is Associate Professor in the Department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  His current research investigates the potential for GM crops to improve yields and livelihoods for smallholder farmers across Africa.  He has undertaken field-based research in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Posted in Africa, Agriculture, Biotechnology | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

CRISPR and the Monsanto Problem (GMO, be some other name!)

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a GMO.
What’s GMO? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

If gene editing isn’t on your radar yet, it will be. Tools for gene editing (genome editing) have been around for over a decade, but the new one – “CRISPR-Cas9” — is so much more quick, cheap and powerful that it is sending shock waves throughout the scientific community.  It was the “scientific breakthrough of the year” according to Science, and in recent months it has been featured in mainstream media like the New Yorker, NY Times magazine,, and in a TED Talk by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna.


With gene editing, science could create self-fertilizing crops! But actually science spent the last 60 years creating increasingly fertilizer-intensive crops. Insecticide- and herbicide-intensive too. And the main use of GMO technology has been to create even more herbicide-intensive crops.

Gene editing, especially with CRISPR, is much more precise and controllable than the comparatively clunky process that have been used to make GMO’s (genetically modified organisms), and it obviously has enormous potential.

We are already seeing headlines (sounding a lot like corporate press releases) promising that gene editing could banish hunger, cure disease, even make self-fertilizing crops —  if only the public keeps its busybody luddite nose out of it and leaves biotech companies free to alter whatever DNA they feel needs altering.

Whether that happens will depend partly on what controversies arise over the next few years.  With GMO’s the first controversies were confined to the scientific community and they were mainly concerned with the possibility of diseases.  Then a series of hot button issues emerged in the late 1990s after GM crops appeared in the market, including:

  • GM crops were claimed to endanger butterflies
  • Monsanto sued the Canadian farmer whose field their GM seeds had blown into
  • transgenes were found in farmer varieties of corn in Mexico
  • Monsanto developed the “terminator” technology[1]
  • child-eyesight-saving “Golden Rice” made the cover of Time (although it still wasn’t working 16 years later)
  • legislative fights erupted over GMO food labels.

All these issues have impacted public opinion and we are still bickering over them.

We don’t know what direction the gene-editing debates will take.[2]  But one crucial battle is already being quietly waged over a question that grows directly out of the GMO battles: do we call gene-edited organisms GMO’s?  This is key not just for the obvious reason that we need some agreement on terms in order to talk with each other; more importantly, it will shape how the public reacts to the new technology.

Is Gene Editing Genetic Modification?

Whether gene editing is genetic modification obviously depends on how you define your terms, and the terms for this stuff have an interesting history.  In 1958, just 5 years after the discovery of the structure of DNA, Nobel laureate Edward Tatum predicted “processes which we might call biological engineering.” ngram-gm When this came along in the early 1970s, it was called “genetic engineering” or “recombinant DNA,” although these terms were mainly used in scientific circles.  Public awareness of the technology rose in the mid-1990s when it appeared in crops and foods; “genetically modified” then came into common use and  “recombinant DNA” declined.

Here’s a short explanation of the science.  Of the technologies involved in genetic engineering, nothing is as important as a group of enzymes called nucleases.  Nucleases exist mainly because a war has been raging between viruses and bacteria for billions of years, and bacteria long ago developed these enzymes to chop up viral DNA.[3]   Biotechnologists learned to manipulate these “molecular scissors” to chop DNA so it could be reassembled and inserted it into target organisms.


Jennifer Doudna’s figure of DNA sliced by Cas9 and given a piece of donor DNA.  See her Ted talk from 2.55-6.35 for more.

But most nucleases are hard-wired to chop DNA only at specific sequences.  Genome editing uses soft-wired  (programmable) nucleases to cut virtually any DNA in any organism at any specific spot.  (The beauty of CRISPR-Cas9 is that it is easy to program.)  Biotechnologists can then manipulate DNA’s natural repair mechanisms, for instance by adding “donor DNA” that will be patched into the DNA molecule as it self-repairs.

So the older recombinant DNA and the newer gene editing both manipulate bacterial nucleases to change the DNA in target organisms.  But recombinant DNA introduces significant amounts of foreign DNA (1 or more whole genes) while gene editing introduces small amounts of concocted DNA or none at all.

So do you call them by the same name or not?

I said it all depends on how you define your terms, which in turn depends on what you are up to.  And it looks like a priority of gene editors is, to quote New Yorker’s Michael Specter, to “Avoid the Monsanto Problem”.


Ah, the Old “Monsanto Problem”

Just exactly what is the Monsanto problem?  To Specter, it is GMO’s having “failed to engage people,” so people became suspicious and even hostile even “after the technology has been proven both safe and useful.”

An alternative view is that GMO’s have engaged people, but people failed to find them useful. After all, the most common GM crop in the world by far is the Roundup-Ready soybean, which yields a little less and takes a lot more Roundup. And safe? Many of us believed that at least Roundup was safer than many other herbicides, until the FAO concluded that it was likely carcinogenic all along.

But whatever caused the problem, it is a problem, and gene editors understandably want to put as much distance as they can between their new technology and GMO’s.  Which is precisely why a campaign is on over a name.

Examples abound.  Here is a scientist at Cibus Corp (which already has a gene-edited crop on the market) on his company’s own (non-CRISPR) type of gene editing:

A huge technological pivot is going on in crop breeding. If the end of the 20th century was the era of transgenic breeding or GMO technologies, the 21st century is silently turning to non-transgenic breeding or non-GMO technologies.

And we read in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News that

The older forms of transgenic genetic modification carry the status of …GMO, a politically controversial label that has hobbled the commercial development of agbio markets…

In contrast, gene editing enables stable and heritable genomic changes quickly and easily without introducing foreign DNA…[whereas] gene editing will enable researchers to modify genetic information in a natural way to bring out of the existing genome entirely new traits. And best of all, regulators have given it the green light to position its products as the non-GMO alternative.

And here’s this from the BioFortified website (reposted on the kennel-barking Genetic Literacy Project website)

GMOs…are transgenic crops, meaning that a gene from a different species has been added to their genome. But in the case of crops modified using CRISPR-Cas9, what’s edited was there to begin with. Technically, nothing has been added from a different species


This European Biotech site answers their own question with a resounding NO on the grounds that edited crops lack a transgene.  Why this should be illustrated by a head of broccoli and a bike is opaque to your humble narrator.

(Technically true but it does often have synthesized donor DNA.  But anyway…) let’s continue to the Technology Review where we read that “The appeal is that it offers control over genes without modifying a plant’s genome—that is, without creating a GMO.”

And the European Biotech website answers its own question “Crops Successfully Edited with CRISPR have no Transgenes! Is this Still GMO?” with a resounding NO because gene-edited crops lack transgenes.[4]

Got it?  Gene editing is not genetic modification because it doesn’t introduce foreign DNA.  OK actually it does, but not as much.  And that’s what makes all the difference.  In fact, unlike GMO’s with the transgenes, this is a natural way to introduce traits. Gene edited crops are not GMO’s. Any questions?

I have one. Haven’t biotechnologists been insisting for years that all our food plants are GMO’s?  In fact, that any organism affected by humans is genetically engineered?  That it makes no difference if foreign DNA is involved or not?

I Thought Everything was a GMO, Even with No Foreign DNA

You must have run across the meme that “all our food is genetically modified.”  Biotechnologists seized on this repackaging of the term to counter GMO opponents who were gaining traction with FrankenFood imagery. It has become nearly ubiquitous.

This rather contrived repackaging of the term pushed its way into the pages of Science in a commentary by biotech booster Nina Fedoroff entitled “Prehistoric GM Corn.”  AllCropsAreGMFedoroff was commenting on research on corn domestication that had nothing to do with genetic modification or with her, GMO-splaining that natural mutations were “genetic modifications” and that ancient Mexicans selectively replanting seeds were doing “genetic engineering.”  No foreign DNA or bacterial nucleases were involved and in fact no DNA had been altered — domestication doesn’t alter DNA, just frequencies of naturally occurring genes.  But her point was that if there are any human-induced changes, even just in gene frequencies, then you’ve got yourself a GMO.

If you follow GMO media you see the claim almost every day.  From Fedoroff again and again. From Peter Raven.  In National Geographic.  In the New York Times.  In AgBioWorld. In Business Insider.  In plant science courses.  Journalists have been persuaded that this is a story: “Sorry hipsters, organic kale is genetically modified” explains a Smithsonian headline, taunting a purely imaginary bloc of bearded morons.

And as long as you’re claiming that all our food is twitter-gmogenetically modified, why not claim that we are too, since we’re eating it? This is exactly what the GMO Journal tweeted today.

Got it? All our food, our own bodies, indeed almost everything in life is genetically modified.

Everything, that is, except for gene-edited organisms, whose DNA has been cleaved by engineered nucleases and has incorporated donated DNA to alter gene function.  That’s just natural.  Don’t call them GMO’s or they will not smell as sweet.

[1]. That’s how this controversy was widely understood anyway, although it’s inaccurate.  This famous sterile-seed technology was developed by the USDA and patented with the cotton seed company Delta Pine & Land.  It caught the attention of activists when Monsanto started to buy Delta in 1998, which is when it acquired the nickname “Terminator.”  While the 1998 deal was blocked, Monsanto did later buy Delta although they never commercialized the technology.
[2] Well, we know there will be controversy over the issue of editing human germlines (i.e. making heritable changes).  Chinese scientists have already done this, albeit with non-viable embryos. In her TED talk, Doudna shows a baby edited to prevent disease but also to be a sprinter with perfect pitch and a head of hair. Her only note of caution is that we should “use it wisely” (that’s helpful!). Biologist Robert Pollack points out that “rational eugenics is still eugenics.”
[3] This is obviously a simple explanation omitting much detail.  For instance, these nucleases occur not only in bacteria but in prokaryotes in general, including archaea.
[4]  Does the US government think gene editing is genetic modification? It’s mum on the question; it doesn’t actually regulate GMO’s as GMO’s, instead regulating GM crops as plant pests if they are made with Agrobacterium and regulating then as pesticides if they contain Bt genes. (If they contain neither, they are totally unregulated even if they are genetically modified.)  But countries with GMO-specific regulations are starting to weigh in on the side of NOT calling gene editing a GMO technology.
Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, CRISPR | 17 Comments

Golden Rice: Bringing a Superfood Down to Earth

 May 2016: The article “Disembedding grain: Golden Rice, the Green Revolution, and heirloom seeds in the Philippines,” by Dominic Glover and me, has been published in the journal Agriculture & Human Values and is available here. This blog post is based on that article.
February 2016: Also check out the interview on Golden Rice done with Tom Philpott and Raj Patel on their “Secret Ingredient” podcast series.

Few GM crops are discussed as much — and misunderstood as much — as “Golden Rice.”

time-goldenriceGolden Rice is modified to produce beta carotene in the endosperm, rather than only in the bran as in most rice. Beta carotene is a vitamin A precursor, and the hope was that this invention would mitigate Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), which in extreme cases can cause blindness or death in malnourished children. After appearing on the cover as Time in 2000 as a rice that “could save a million kids a year,” Golden Rice has been a nearly ubiquitous talking point in GMO arguments. As a high-flying GM superfood, it is without peer.

But the battles over Golden Rice have been particularly heated even by the usual standards of GMO bombast. Critics see it as an unproven, expensive, and misguided bandaid—a Trojan Horse to open the floodgates of GM crops into the global south (Brooks 2010:76-83; RAFI 2000). Industry spokesmen, impassioned molecular biologists, and partisan journalists charge that children are being left blind by GMO critics having slowed the rice; hired activist Patrick Moore tirelessly (and cartoonishly) blames Greenpeace — which he claims to have founded — for “murdering” children ( 2015).

Confusingly, other biotechnologists claim that Golden Rice is already in use and that it has “helped save many, many lives and improved the quality of life of those who eat it” (Krock 2009; also see Thomson 2002:1). These claims cause considerable discomfort to the scientists who are actually doing the Golden Rice breeding (Dubock 2014:73).

All the shouting tends to cover up a crucial issue with Golden Rice: who is it for, exactly?  Proponents usually discuss it as a vitamin tablet headed for generic underfed children in “poor countries” (Beachy 2003), or “developing countries” (Enserink 2008), or occasionally “Asia” (Dawe and Unnevehr 2007).

But here’s the problem.  Golden Rice is not just a vitamin tablet headed for malnourished kids wherever they may be.  It’s not a tablet at all; it’s rice, the most widely consumed and arguably the most culturally freighted crop in the world (e.g., Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). And it is headed specifically for the Philippines.  Golden Rice got its start in the Philippines (Enserink 2008), and it’s being bred and tested in a research institution in the Philippines, to be approved by the Philippine Bureau of Plant Industry, to be sold in Philippine markets to Philippine growers and potentially fed to Filipino children.   (Breeders and researchers in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh are also working with Golden Rice, but release is unlikely to occur any time soon in those countries.)  Most discussions of Golden Rice ignore this Philippine context. Even economic analyses purporting to calculate “The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice” (Wesseler, et al. 2014) make no mention of the Philippines.

The neglect of this Philippine context is remarkable because the Philippines is hardly just a country with vitamin A-deficient children (in fact, such children are increasingly scarce there). The country is unique with respect to rice, with a storied history, complicated present, and contested future for the crop. This is the country that brought us the rice half of the Green Revolution (the wheat half was developed in Mexico); the country with famous Picture1rice terraces; the country with a resurgent trade in “heirloom” landrace rice; the country with the famous International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

And Golden Rice simply doesn’t grow well in the Philippines — not yet anyway, after years of trying.  The actual rice grains on the cover of Time were not adapted to grow where underfed kids live; they were more like the plant equivalent of lab rats.  For the high-flying rice to actually be farmed, it had to be brought down to the ground—literally. It had to be re-bred to grow in a country where it might have an impact.  The Philippines—with the world’s premier rice research station, with a full-fledged biosafety regulatory apparatus, and a high incidence of childhood VAD at the time—was the obvious choice.

Golden Rice seeds arrived at IRRI in 2001 and began the long process of being crossed into locally-adapted varieties. By 2008, IRRI (along with the Philippine Rice Inst.) was running confined field trials of two different versions of Golden Rice bred into four rice varieties. During 2011-2013, they focused on field trials of Golden Rice bred into the Green Revolution workhorse rice called IR64 and also a popular variety called “Peñaranda” (A. Alfonso, pers comm). But as of this writing, over 14 years after IRRI began trying to bring Golden Rice down to earth in the Philippines, the best varieties still exhibit a “yield drag”—i.e., lower productivity than seeds that are identical except for the Golden Rice trait (Dubock 2014; Eisenstein 2014; IRRI 2014).

That’s right: contrary to claims that millions of children are dying because of Greenpeace’s opposition, Untitled-1Golden Rice is simply not ready, and hasn’t even been submitted to regulatory authorities for approval. IRRI is quite clear about this, as a visit to their website will show. I was at IRRI last month and the word was that 3-5 more years of breeding would probably be needed.

November 2015 addition: The IRRI post cited above (“What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI?”) was changed after this blog was posted.  Here is the IRRI post from before my blog, and here is the IRRI post as of 10 Nov 2015.

Even if Golden Rice is brought up to speed agronomically, and even if it is approved, released, and adopted by farmers, its goal of saving millions of lives—or even having any significant public health impact—is probably unlikely. Nutrition programs have brought the incidence of childhood VAD from a peak of 40% in 2003 to 15% in 2008 (Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd), and the incidence has almost certainly fallen more since then. Again, IRRI itself has been transparent, acknowledging on their website that VAD is being effectively reduced without Golden Rice (IRRI nd).

IRRI is also quite explicit that it will release Golden Rice only IF “it is found to be safe” and IF it is “shown to improve vitamin A status” (see their website).  It is not yet known if it will be effective in raising Vitamin A levels in underfed children.  Filipino children who still suffer from VAD have poor diets lacking in the fats that are needed to absorb Vitamin A (Dawe, et al. 2002; Haskell 2012; Nestle 2001). To date, the human feeding trials have only been conducted with well-nourished individuals. In the heavily cited (and since retracted) study by Tang, et al. (2012), children were fed balanced meals with 20% energy from fat; this  demonstrated only that Golden Rice worked in children who did not need it.

Golden Rice has soared as a high-flying superfood on magazine covers, the New York Times, industry front group websites and speeches by paid activists; the problem comes from bringing it down to earth.

Sources Cited

  • 2015 About.
  • Beachy, Roger N. 2003 Editorial: IP Policies and Serving the Public. Science 299(5606):473.
  • Brooks, Sally 2010 Rice Biofortification: Lessons for Global Science and Development. London: Earthscan.
  • Dawe, D., R. Robertson, and L. Unnevehr 2002 Golden rice: what role could it play in alleviation of vitamin A deficiency? Food Policy 27(5–6):541-560.
  • Dawe, David, and Laurian Unnevehr 2007 Crop case study: GMO Golden Rice in Asia with enhanced Vitamin A benefits for consumers. AgBioForum 10(3):154-160.
  • Dubock, Adrian 2014 The present status of Golden Rice. Journal of Huazhong Agricultural University 33(6):69-84.
  • Eisenstein, Michael 2014 Biotechnology: Against the grain. Nature 514(7524):S55-S57.
  • Enserink, Martin 2008 Tough lessons from golden rice. Science 320(5875):468-471.
  • Food & Nutrition Research Inst. nd Seventh National Nutrition Survey 2008-2009: Department of Science and Technology (Philippines).
  • Haskell, Marjorie J 2012 The challenge to reach nutritional adequacy for vitamin A: β-carotene bioavailability and conversion—evidence in humans. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(5):1193S-1203S.
  • IRRI 2014 What is the status of the Golden Rice project coordinated by IRRI?  Downloaded 24 Feb 2015.
  • IRRI nd Why is Golden Rice needed in the Philippines since vitamin A deficiency is already decreasing? In IRRI website,
  • Krock, Becca 2009 Researchers look to enriched crops to solve childhood malnutrition. Student Life, 28 Sept.
  • Nestle, Marion 2001 Genetically Engineered “Golden” Rice Unlikely to Overcome Vitamin A Deficiency. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101(3):289-290.
  • Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 1993 Rice as self: Japanese identities through time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Press.
  • RAFI 2000 Golden Rice and Trojan Trade Reps: A Case Study in the Public Sector’s Mismanagement of Intellectual Property. RAFI Communique 66.
  • Tang, Guangwen, et al. 2012 b-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as b-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96:658–64 [Retracted, August 2015].
  • Thomson, Jennifer A. 2002 Genes for Africa: genetically modified crops in the developing world. Landsdowne: UCT Press.
  • Wesseler, Justus, Scott Kaplan, and David Zilberman 2014 The Cost of Delaying Approval of Golden Rice. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol. 17, No. 3, Jan/Feb, 2014 17(3):1-3.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Philippines | 39 Comments

Unload DDT

What a bloodbath on Wall St — XOM down 5%, UNH down 5%, DIS down 4%.  But the biggest loser this week was DDT.

DDT featured prominently in the recent blog highlighting the ongoing studies by Berkeley’s Barbara Cohn.  Despite “wild rhetoric of the environmentalists” (as Norman “Green Revolution” Borlaug put it in 1971), study after study exonerated DDT, culminating in the famous large-scale Long Island Study.  In many publications in the scientific literature and the popular press, the Long Island Study repeatedly gave DDT a clean bill of health.

At least until epidemiologists found a way to compare breast cancer rates to childhood exposure.

I got email from indignant DDT defenders.  But my point was not so much about DDT (or GMO’s) per se as it was about how hard it is for science to discern long-delayed, distant, and indirect effects on ecosystems and human health.  The Long Island Study’s exoneration of DDT didn’t mean much because it was looking at the wrong questions.

But in a study just out in the International Journal of Cancer, we now learn that the Long Island Study didn’t exonerate DDT anyway.  ParadaEnough time has now passed to allow researchers to now find that levels of blood DDT (or its metabolite DDE) at time of diagnosis partly predicts survival.  High levels are correlated with mortality rates, low levels are inversely correlated.

As Parada et al. point out,

This is the first population-based study in the United States to show that DDT may adversely impact survival following breast cancer diagnosis.

And then this dry academic sentence that is actually quite alarming:

Further studies are warranted given the high breast cancer burden and the ubiquity of these chemicals.

DDT.  Just a few years ago it was a martyr to ignorant anti-chemical luddites perpetrating a “deadly fantasy” about a modern agricultural technology proven safe by science.  Now it not only causes breast cancer in women decades after childhood exposure, but the amount of it in their blood as adults is linked to how long they survive.  And this last finding comes from the same study that previously was “very very conclusive” in showing DDT to be safe.


Posted in Agriculture, Industrial Agriculture, Public Health | 7 Comments

GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty

As the latest controversy over GMO’s unfolds – this time it’s about a House Bill that would ban labeling laws – it’s time for a moment of honesty about science and safety. Of course safety is hardly the only bone of contention in GMO debates, but safety is the issue that’s most hotly contested and that’s most central to the labeling bill.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, the sponsor of the bill, writes that activists are misleading consumers with false claims about unsafe food.  Actually, “more than 100 research projects over 25 years” have “affirmed and reaffirmed the safety” of GM foods.

I must point out to my GMO-doubting friends that Pompeo’s statement about the research is accurate. A lot of studies have failed to find any health risk for any GM food. Bizillions of meals with ingredients from GM crops have been eaten with no direct linkage to health problems.  So for those of us who study GM crops professionally, there eventually comes a point to set aside allegiances and emotions and take a frank and careful look at the science.

I have reached that point, but I know of someone else who reached a similar point, someone who was ideally positioned to speak on issues of technology and food and safety. The late Dr. Norman Borlaug, “Father of the Green Revolution” and Nobel laureate, was a passionate proponent of GM crops. This humanitarian scientist captured something important about modern agriculture and how to deal with its critics. Borlaug realized that when lives were at stake, it is appropriate to be impatient, even downright irate, with anti-science critics of valuable technologies.

How to Deal with Anti-Science Fear Mongers

Borlaug made the case against anti-science fear mongers most memorably in a blunt speech to the Food and Agriculture Organization that was later reprinted in the New York Times.[1] From the start it was clear that the time for kid gloves was over. The “vicious, hysterical propaganda campaign,” he began, “by fear provoking, irresponsible environmentalists,” was a detriment to world society. “Vitriolic” attacks against the technology were “distorted” and “one-sided”, making no mention of the technology’s importance in “protecting our food and fiber production.”

These critics are actually few in number, but “extremely effective force in lobbying for legislation” and “brainwashing the general public” with “scare tactics…based on bits of unsubstantiated scientific data, questionable ethics, emotion and oratory.”

Then he came to safety. Despite claims that the technology is dangerous, the Surgeon General is clear that no available information supports this. The safety record of the technology is “truly remarkable,” given the “prolonged exposure by hundreds of millions of people.

Despite the wild rhetoric of the environmentalists about…damage to both human and wild life,” he continued, “as more and more scientific evidence accumulates, the charges … become less and less convincing.” The technology is not “causing any discernable injury to man.”

OK let me come clean.  While it is true that late in life Borlaug was a combative defender of GM crops, this speech was actually delivered in 1971. The agricultural technology he was defending was not genetic modification of crops, which would not appear for over a decade. It was DDT. And as rash as Borlaug’s claims may sound today, they were accurate: hundreds of millions of people had been exposed to DDT, and no injury to human health had been discerned — and wouldn’t be for 36 more years.  The real lesson here is not how to be irate with science’s critics, but how to be humble about science’s weaknesses.

A Long Record of Safety

DDT came into civilian use in 1945. In the 1950s it was used heavily for mosquito control and heavier still in agriculture – particularly in the US, where increasingly fertilized and irrigated grain fields led to a boom in agricultural insect pests.


Snorting a few lines of nice safe DDT.

Many scientists were sure it was safe from the beginning. Entomologist Kenneth Mellanby reported that when lecturing about DDT in the years after World War II, he “frequently consumed a substantial pinch of DDT, to the consternation of the audience, but with no apparent harm to myself, either then or during the next 40 years.” Entomology professor Gordon Edwards would eat a teaspoon of DDT each week, supposedly “proving” it safe.[2] Early evidence indicated it was harmful to birds but not humans. By 1962, even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring could cite no solid evidence of impacts on human health.

Still, the US banned DDT in 1972, to Borlaug’s dismay. It remained in the environment, but as more scientific evidence accumulated in the following years, claims of human health impacts continued to be “less and less convincing.” In 1979, the World Health Organization reported that “the safety record of DDT is phenomenally good.” In 1991, agricultural ecologist Gordon Conway and sustainable agriculture expert Jules Pretty published Unwelcome Harvest, an exhaustively-research book on agriculture and pollution.[3] Their conclusion: DDT can severely affect birds, “Yet in humans there is little evidence of a hazard to health, except at very high dosages.”  But DDT proponents even dismissed claims that birds were being affected.

Many became convinced that environmental DDT was contributing to the rising rates of breast cancer, but over 30 separate studies failed to find a link between breast cancer and bodily levels of DDT (or its metabolite DDE).[4] Breast cancer activists and environmentalists lobbied congress to fund research on cancer hotspot areas in the 1990s. This led to the large-scale Long Island Study, focused on breast cancer where pesticides had been used heavily in the past. But in 2002 when results began to appear, the findings again seemed to exonerate DDT.

Many saw this as the end of the road for DDT critics. New York Times reporter Gina Kolata pointed out the lack of conclusive evidence of environmental causes of cancer.[5] She quoted the Long Island Study leader who said the data were “very, very conclusive”: the chemicals they studied “are not associated with breast cancer.”conclusive A large-scale meta-analysis of DDT (and PCB) studies around the same time also failed to find a link with breast cancer. “I think we have the answers” said the head of the meta-study. Anyway, if “the risks are very small and exposures took place in the distant past,” then “it may be beyond the capacity of science to find it.” Although breast cancer activists rejected the Long Island findings, Kolata wrote that “others said it may be time to close the books.”

Looking in All the Wrong Places

The problem with all this is that if you’re looking in the wrong place, it doesn’t really matter how many times or how carefully you look. Environmental factors in breast cancer risk turn out to be strongly age-related. Studies of radiation exposure show that the breast is most likely to develop cancer if exposed in utero, before menarche, and before first pregnancy – but not later. None of the studies of DDT and breast cancer – including the Long Island study that supposedly “closed the book” – measured exposure during these critical windows of breast development.

Come to think of it, how could you even do such research? DDT has been banned for decades. How could you compare incidence of breast cancer – which usually strikes women in adulthood – with DDT exposure early in life? Sounds like something “beyond the capacity of science.”

It isn’t. In a path-breaking study published in 2007,[6] epidemiologist Barbara Cohn of UC-Berkeley’s Public Health Institute used a remarkable dataset on over 20,000 pregnant women and children in Oakland collected in 1959-1967. These were peak years for DDT use in the US. For each individual they knew the age when the spraying started, and they also measured the levels of DDT and DDE in the blood. Then they tracked down the women’s medical records nearly 40 years later. If you are a woman, or if you know any women, you need to know the results.


In the US, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer. More stats here. (Men get breast cancer too, but on a much smaller scale.)  There is no single cause; DDT is only one contributing factor.

It turned out that women born before 1931, who were almost all past puberty when the spraying started, were no more likely to develop breast cancer than the control cases. That was generally consistent with the dozens of earlier studies. But women who had the highest exposure to DDT before the age of 14 were five times as likely to develop breast cancer later in life. All the other studies had missed this critical period.[7]

This was only the beginning. Cohn’s team has now completed a 54-year follow-up on daughters born to women in the Oakland study: daughters whose mothers had high levels of DDT while pregnant were more likely to develop breast cancer.[8] Another study found that boys whose pregnant mothers had high levels of DDT were also more likely to develop testicular cancer.[9] Ongoing research is investigating a range of other health impacts.

Even now, no one understands the mechanisms behind the carcinogenic effects. DDT is known to disrupt endocrine systems; the cancer-causing mechanism may specifically have to do with estrogen. Hopefully this research will stimulate experiments to isolate the mechanisms involved.

But what we do know is that it took us 62 years to even begin to “discern the injury” to humans caused by DDT. With one in eight American women today developing breast cancer, Dr. Borlaug’s scathing denunciation of anti-science fear mongers now seems particularly reckless and scientifically naïve.


There are lots of wonderful images and videos of gleeful kids being directly sprayed with DDT. But the vast majority of DDT was used for overproducing grains, not controlling mosquitoes. Much of it ended up in the water or in the food chain.

But Aren’t GM Crops Different?

Are there lessons here for debates on genetic modification? GM crops are not DDT. But frankly, most of the differences between GM crops and DDT should only heighten our concern. Consider these three differences:

1. DDT is one chemical; GM crops are all different. Crop plants are different and the gene constructs biotechnologists paste together are different; moreover each “transformation event” (meaning when the gene construct is inserted into one of the target plant’s chromosomes) is unique. Each transformation event raises a host of questions, only some of which have to be answered before a plant is released (more on this...). This is why the World Health Organization says

Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.

It’s also why one of the corporate scientists in charge of the safety assessment of the world’s first GM food (Calgene’s Flavr-Savr tomato) writes about the “absurdity of claiming that all GMO’s are safe.”

2. Health impacts for GM crops will be even harder – actually much harder – to detect than for DDT. DDT is measurable in the blood; some effects of highly processed ingredients made from GM plants may be “beyond the capacity of science to find.”

3. Many more “non-industry” scientists have a professional and personal (and sometimes financial) stake in GMO’s than they did in DDT. Borlaug was not financially dependent on the pesticide industry (although he did appear at press conferences organized by DDT manufacturers[10]); however academic research on GM plants is routinely funded by the biotech industry, and researchers are beholden to biotech corporations for access to patented genes. Academic biotechnologists (along with a small pack of journalistic attack dogs, mostly funded by the industry) swarm on anyone – including scientists – who point to uncertainties about GM crops. They often evince the same scorn that Borlaug showed towards the “hysterical propaganda” on DDT. In fact the words are almost identical.

Billions of people have eaten genetically modified food over the past two decades. Not one problem has been found…

And the “The Debate About GMO Safety Is Over“…

A frank look at the science points us in the opposite direction.  The billions of meals with traces of one or another GM ingredient means even less than the exposure of hundreds of millions to DDT.  The claim that any GM crop is known to be safe … let alone all GM cropslet alone all future GM crops — is reckless, foolish, and scientifically silly. And if Congress actually uses this as a justification for a bill prohibiting state labeling laws, then it has reached a new low.


1. Delivered as the McDougall Memorial Lecture at the FAO Conference, 8 Nov 1971.  Later excerpted in Borlaug, N.E., Mankind and Civilization at Another Crossroad: In Balance with Nature – A Biological Myth. BioScience, 1972. 22(1): p. 41-44.   Borlaug, N.E., DDT, the First Domino, in New York Times. 1971. p. 13.
2. Wurster, C. 2015 DDT Wars: Rescuing Our National Bird, Preventing Cancer, and Creating the Environmental Defense Fund. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, p. 154.
3. Conway, G. and J. Pretty, Unwelcome harvest: agriculture and pollution. 1991, London: Earthscan.
4. Cohn, B.A., Developmental and Environmental Origins of Breast Cancer DDT as a Case Study. Reproductive Toxicology (Elmsford, N.y.), 2011. 31(3): p. 302-311.
5. Kolata, G., What Causes Cancer: Can Science Find the Missing Link?, in New York Times. 2002: New York, N.Y. p. 2-c1.
6. Cohn, B.A., et al., DDT and Breast Cancer in Young Women: New Data on the Significance of Age at Exposure. Environ Health Perspectives, 2007. 15(10): p. 1406–1414.
7. Eskenazi, B., et al., The Pine River Statement: Human Health Consequences of DDT Use. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2009. 117(9): p. 1359-1367.
8. Cohn, B.A., et al., DDT Exposure in Utero and Breast Cancer. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2015.  Online (in press) jc.2015-1841.
9. Cohn, B.A., P.M. Cirillo, and R.E. Christianson, Prenatal DDT Exposure and Testicular Cancer: A Nested Case-Control Study. Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, 2010. 65(3): p. 127-134.
10. Cullather, N., The hungry world: America’s cold war battle against poverty in Asia. 2010, Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, p. 247.
Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Public Health, Regulation | Tagged , , , | 56 Comments

Three stories on the factory farm

Three items crossed my desk this week concerning the factory farm scene, i.e. CAFO’s or Confined Animal Feeding Operations.  Two were scientific studies with troubling implications for our health, and one was a dumb piece of clickbait concerning bestiality. Guess which got the press attention.

First the two important ones, both pertaining to, well, shit.


“It’s like it’s raining!” Except for one difference: it’s shit.

We all know that “shit happens,” but what many people don’t know is how much shit happens to come from factory farms. Some is picked up by the wind; some is sprayed out of giant nozzles.  “It’s like it’s raining!” says a neighbor in this video… if you’re in a hurry, go to 2.30.  (And sometimes it happens to explode but that’s another story.)

All the particulate matter emanating from CAFO’s is clearly a problem.  But now scientists have started looking into just what’s in all this migratory manure.  And it’s starting to look like the shit itself is not the biggest worry; it’s what IN the shit.

Like genes for antibiotic resistance.

The rise of antibiotic resistant bacterial diseases is one of our most frightening public health problems.  This is a medical nightmare with multiple causes, but nontherapeuric antibiotics used just promote growth is emerging as a leading cause.  It is also poorly understood: as the authors of a recent review in the microbiology literature put it, efforts to model the impact of nontherapeutic antimicrobials “are thwarted by deficits in key knowledge of microbial and antibiotic loads at each stage of the transmission chain.”

This recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives reports on a study designed to fill in one of those key knowledge gaps: Factory Cow.jpg-550x0could CAFO manure in the wind be spreading antibiotic resistance?  Environmental toxicologists analyzed particulate matter downwind from 10 cattle CAFO’s in Texas.  They found what they were afraid they’d find: the airborne manure was laced with not only antibiotics, but genes for antibiotic resistance.

Their samples were collected very close to the CAFO’s, and they did not study how far these contaminants could travel.  But they do cheerfully point out that clouds of dust have been known to travel over 6000 miles, and to carry diseases very long distances.

And like endocrine disrupting chemicals.

endocrine-systemWe have been busy pumping our environment full of endocrine disruptors, mainly through our food & agriculture systems. They turn boy frogs into girls; they make girls menstruate earlier and boys have smaller testicles; they cause a range of diseases including cancers; they help make us obese (see my earlier post on this).   We urgently need to figure out how endocrine disruptors work in the body and how they get into the body.

It turns out that cattle in Texas CAFO’s are not only fed nontherapeutic antibiotics to make them grow faster, but also endocrine-disrupting steroids.  How does this practice affect public health?  This second study of particulate matter blowing from cattle factory farms gives us part of the answer.  The same group of environmental toxicology trouble-makers looked at samples of airborne particulate matter from around Texas CAFO’s, finding evidence of synthetic androgen and estradiol.  This indicates that “steroids affiliated with feedyard PM have the potential to elicit endocrine-modulating effects.”

The press has shown scant interest in these findings, although it wouldn’t take much journalistic ingenuity to create an attention-grabbing story about the cloud of fecal dust laced with antibiotic resistant genes and endocrine disrupting chemicals wafting from factory farms.  They are reserving their attention for more important things…

Which brings us to the third factory farm story for the week, in which a group called Mercy for Animals ran to the press with some reports that factory farm “workers were fondling the genitals of animals” and “making crude sexual remarks” – presumably where the animals could overhear.

Needless to say, this was the story that caught the press’s attention. HuffPostLiveIt was the one that got the HuffPostLive treatment, complete with a sultry news wench interviewing representatives of the Humane Society and Mercy For Animals.

Factory farms are a disgrace, not just for their long list of environmental and public health impacts but for their inexcusable treatment of animals on a massive scale. Life in a CAFO is depicted luridly online and described vividly by Michael Pollan and others.  Life is a contaminated hell, and animals have much bigger things to worry about than the occasional handjob from a worker — if this is even happening at all, which I doubt.

The “crude sexual remarks” – (“crude” being superfluous here, unless you know of some sophisticated sexual comments to be made about confined beasts) – have to be even lower on the worry scale.  Yes, farm animals can learn some vocabulary. Leadbelly was speaking mule when he wrote “Whoa back buck and gee by the lamb.”  Where I work in Andhra Pradesh, the bullocks understand simple Telugu commands like right, left, and stop. But CAFO animals do not understand any of our many terms for genitals. I’m not sure I understand them all myself.

If anyone thinks this is missing the point — that CAFO’s offer a degraded existence for meat animals — then I would say that point is obvious, and is made much more strongly by the many writers and surreptitious videographers who have documented that existence.

We have more serious things to be concerned about than inappropriate touching and talking in the CAFO.  Like the bona fide torture of CAFO animals and the public health debacle in the cloud of their shit.

Posted in Agriculture, Industrial Agriculture, Public Health | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

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 | 14 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 | 5 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