Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jeopardy Category: "Things that are often blamed on GMOs, but are much broader in scope"

In my discussions about GMOs, I've come to the realization that many of the issues that are raised are not about GMOs at all, rather, are about modern agriculture. Of course, GMOs should be part of the discussion because these crops are an important component of our food, but it's disingenuous to believe that non-GMO and/or organic farming don't cause the same problems and these forms of farming shouldn't be part of the conversation. In the two weeks that I've been working on this while Baby Boy sleeps, two similar articles have been very recently written, supporting the hypothesis of multiple discovery :) One is an excellent piece by @savortooth in Grist, and the second is a thorough analysis of superweeds by @realfoodorg

Before I forget, I just added a subscription to the blog, in case you want to get an email notification when a post gets published.

So here we go: BioChica's List of "Agricultural Issues that are Often Blamed on GMOs". It would be awesome if I could have presented this with a Family Feud animation... Let's do it Jeopardy-style!!

1) Q: This issue is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that farmers shouldn't be forced to buy seeds. A: What are patented seeds/crops?

As discussed previously, many plants are patented, including decorative plants. Plants generated through traditional methods, including mutagenesis, take years of research to produce and breed, and patents are the only way to safeguard those investments. The author of this Huffington Post article interviewed several farmers and asked them about their seed choice, and the overall conclusion is that farmers can select what they'd like and actually have a lot of options before them, many of which are from companies such as Dow, Monsanto, and Syngenta. If farmers are choosing to grow patented crops, perhaps it's because they like the products (see this excellent post from The Farmer's Life on this topic. This article from GLP, written by a farmer from Iowa, walks readers through the decision process of selecting a seed).

2) Q: This issue is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that GMOs should be labeled so that consumers can avoid harmful toxins. A: What is the use of pesticides?

Glyphosate-resistant crops (the active ingredient in Round-Up) are among the more popular genetically modified plants. However, even glyphosate use isn't limited to GMOs; it "is utilized in a wide range of applications including weed control in vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards, grass pastures, forestry, parks, gardens and underwater usage in rivers and lakes". As mentioned in previous posts, organic farming practices do not exclude the use of pesticides, so if consumers are advocating for GMO labeling so that they can avoid pesticides, they've been misled. In fact, none of the so-called "dirty-dozen" fruits/veggies are GMOs (keep in mind that the FDA recommends washing your fruits and veggies under running water as an effective means of removing residual pesticides. In Venezuela, we used to wash and soak our raw vegetables for salad in a vinegar solution, but I think we started that practice during a cholera epidemic...).

3) Q: This practice is often attributed to GMOs, when critics state that growing vast areas of crops without any rotation leading to issues including the depletion of nutrients from the soil and crop-specific pests. A: What are monocultures?

Wikipedia defines monoculture as the "practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years". A legitimate issue is the spread of diseases, which is actually what led to the Great Famine due to the potato blight. The idea is that by rotating crops (i.e., planting different things every year), crop-specific pests will die out. But the issue is very far from being a GMO-specific problem. Our house in Venezuela faced a huge valley where sugar cane was grown and was owned by the local sugar-cane refinery. They had 3-4 sugar cane harvests each year and would burn the fields between harvests. Huge strands of ash would fall from the sky and we used to call it "lluvia negra" or "black rain". Field burning is not only used to make sugar cane harvesting easier, but it is also used for pest control. In the +20 years my family lived there, sugar cane was the only crop ever grown, so that giant swath of land was the embodiment of a monoculture. I've thought about this specific example quite a bit, and I'm not sure what the appropriate solution would be. Why would a sugar refinery grow anything other than sugar cane in South America, so how would they rotate their crops? Leasing the land? Many consider monocultures to be a symptom of corporate farming where are food is owned by large, multinational corporations, but in fact, 96% of farms in the US are family farms. Definitely a complex issue, but reducing it a GMO-specific problem doesn't capture the extent of this global issue.

4) Q: These organisms are touted as examples of how GMO-pesticides are failing. A: What are pesticide-resistant insects? An equally valid answer is: What are superweeds?

Superweeds and pesticide resistant insects are examples of evolution in action, and as discussed in question 3, are often a result of monocultures. If you're an avid fan of X-men, you'll know that the very first line in the movie is "Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It is how we have evolved from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward." Such a great movie... But I digress!

Given the fact that the life cycle of a bug or a weed is much shorter, particularly when we consider them pests and try to squash them, we don't have to wait thousands of years to see them evolve. If a plant or an insect gains a mutation that gives them a selective advantage (in this case, the ability to survive in the presence of a pesticide), then it will survive and spread. We see the same thing happening with antibiotic resistant bacteria, and of course, viruses. Every year, the formulation for the flu vaccine changes because the little suckers evolve to try to beat us. With HIV, patients use drug cocktails, because the odds of the virus becoming resistant to a variety of different drugs is much, much lower than the odds that it will gain resistance against a single drug.

Again, both issues are not specific to GMOs. This article gives plenty of examples of superweeds that evolved from the use of pesticides in non-GM crops and points out that the issue is not specific to GMOs, yet it's a convenient narrative for GMO opponents to exploit. There's a whole database dedicated to tracking pesticide resistant weeds.

Even handweeding can cause superweeds. This article suggests that handweeding in rice fields in Asia has led to a superweed that closely resembles rice, a phenomenon known as "crop mimicry".

A strategy for beating superweeds is to create crops that are resistant to 2 pesticides (BTW, pesticides is the umbrella term for insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. They all eliminate pests). The idea is that the odds that a plant will naturally evolve to become resistant to 2 herbicides is pretty low (same basic strategy as the HIV drug cocktail). Dow Agro has the Enlist Duo product line, which allows for the use of two pesticides (glyphosate and 2,4-D choline). They're currently waiting for the combination-pesticide to get approved by the EPA. However, there are others that argue that this will also be a short-lived strategy (see last section of this great article from NYT - thanks to @wyoweeds for pointing it out).

When it comes to pesticide resistant insects, farmers generally have insect refuges if they're growing insect-resistant crops (such as Bt-crops, which are resistant to worms). This requirement is outlined in their Stewardship agreement (explained here). Basically, a small area next to the field with the GM crop is supposed to be planted with non-GM seeds. The idea is that if an insect develops resistance to the pesticide, then it will mate with a "normal" bug because they'll be found in abundance in close proximity. Their babies will be "normal" babies, not mutants, so they'll eventually die because of the pesticide and the mutation won't spread too broadly. Here's a diagram outlining how the refuge works (it might bring you flashbacks of Mendel's peas :) ). The worms in blue are the mutants that are pesticide resistant. The red ones are "normal". The example on the left is a farm where there's an insect refuge. The one on the right doesn't have a refuge.

However, Bt-resistant bugs have emerged, partially because some farmers do not grow insect refuges. The onus is on the farmer to abide by their contract, but I do think that biotech companies could do a better job enforcing this. If they have the resources to police seed saving, then they could enforce the refuge requirement as well, particularly since it has a bigger impact on their bottom line in the long term. But even with refuges, it's a numbers game: it's only a matter of time before a pesticide-resistant insect emerges.

All of these questions are legitimate issues and I hope to investigate each one. I imagine that they require coordinated efforts to address, including farmers, scientists, and biotech companies at the table. Reducing it to a GMO-specific issue is not only disingenuous and misleading, but it also deters efforts of finding real solutions.