Friday, November 20, 2015

Dear Christie Brinkley: We Aren’t Guinea Pigs

This letter is co-written by Mommy, PhD and BioChica (Dr Alison Bernstein and Dr Layla Katiraee. For more information about the authors, please see the end of the letter). Dear Christie,

We read this week about your new book and watched your interview on FOX Business. As scientists and science communicators, we are concerned that, while your motivations to help people eat healthy diets is honorable, your knowledge of genetic engineering, pesticide toxicity and the agricultural industry is not accurate. We are part of a group of moms (#Moms4GMOs) who also want to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families. We have previously reached out to other celebrities who are using their public platforms to spread misinformation and fear about the food supply in the US.

In our original letter, we addressed many of the concerns that you and others have raised about genetically engineered crops and pesticides. We hope that you will take the time to read the letter and the references we provided. There are a couple of points that were highlighted in your interview that we would like to discuss briefly here.

Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by many things, but GMOs are not one of them.

As you may know, much of our food relies on pollination by bees, so the health of these insects impacts all of us. Colony collapse disorder affecting honey bees is a topic of much controversy. This phenomenon is defined by the USDA as “a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present”. There are many theories on what may be causing CCD; the primary culprits seem to be parasites like the Varroa mite and flowerless landscapes, together with other factors, including exposure to pesticides and stress due to transportation. However, exposure to GMOs does not rank among the possible reasons underlying CCD.

Attempts to link GMOs to CCD have commonly focused on two factors: glyphosate and worm-resistant traits. Glyphosate, which is an herbicide used with some varieties of GMOs and is commonly used in gardens and parks around the country, has been examined to determine if it impacts honeybee health. A recent study examined the impact of the commercial formulations of 42 common pesticides on honeybees at concentrations actually used in the field. Due to the popularity of glyphosate, this herbicide was also included in the study. The study concluded that, while some pesticides are extremely toxic to bees, glyphosate was not harmful to their health.

Worm-resistant corn (commonly referred to as Bt-corn) is designed to kill the larval stage of many damaging insects, such as caterpillars, as they chew on the corn leaves. These crops have also been studied to determine if they impact honeybee health: a meta-analysis published several years ago concluded that their research “support[s] safety assessments that have not detected any direct negative effects” of the trait on the honeybee.

For more information on the science of CCD, we recommend these articles:

GMOs are the most tested and regulated food items: we are not guinea pigs.

The term “GMO” is commonly used to denote a crop or ingredient that is made using a laboratory technique known as “transgenesis”. But there are many different types of GMOs: non-browning apples, nutrient fortified rice, virus-resistant papayas, herbicide-tolerant soy, and pest-resistant corn. These cannot all be lumped into a single category. To underscore that the process is irrelevant and it is the trait that is important, herbicide-tolerant sunflowers have also been developed using traditional methods by the German chemical producer BASF and Dupont. By current rules, herbicide-resistant crops developed with targeted genetic engineering undergo extensive testing prior to being sold, while herbicide resistant crops developed by traditional breeding require no testing. In fact, genetically engineered food items are the most tested and regulated food in the market. No other foods undergo premarket approval by the EPA, FDA and USDA.

The sheer volume of data and number of studies on different traits used in biotech crops may surprise you. As a simple exercise, searching the NIH’s database of scientific studies for “MON810”, which is the trait that gives corn resistance to worms, identifies over 170 studies that have examined this trait. These range from multi-generational feeding studies to molecular analyses of the protein that makes the corn resist worms. Thousands of scientists around the world are dedicating their efforts to the development and testing of these crops, which defies notions implying that these crops are released into the market without being thoroughly tested.

For information about studies on GMOs and worldwide approvals of genetically engineered crops, check out these two databases.

The US food supply is safe, regardless of the breeding or farming method used.

We read about your adoption of an organic diet over concerns about possible links between GMOs and pesticides to sterility and breast cancer. Pesticides are important tools in agriculture, which farmers use judiciously depending on many factors including the type of pest and the type of crop, among many others. It is important to know that organic food production uses pesticides as well, and that pesticide residues in the US on non-organic produce are far below safety limits, but we have no data to compare it to for residues on organic produce. Furthermore, there’s no conclusive evidence suggesting that adopting an organic diet is significantly healthier (see meta-analyses here and here, and here and here for discussion of this research). Each pesticide has its pros and cons, and not using any pesticide at all can have significant consequences, including lower crop yields.

Despite searching for information, we found little to no credible evidence linking sterility or breast cancer to GMOs. It is a basic concept of scientific research that, when examining a cause-effect relationship between two items, the null hypothesis is what you start with - that there is no connection between the two items. This means that until someone comes up with a study showing that A causes B, then the null hypothesis stands: A does not cause B. Without this important principle, you could propose any hypothesis and people would have to “prove you wrong”. Instead, the burden of proof falls on those proposing a relationship between two items; they must provide evidence for that hypothesis.

Additionally, hypotheses are not invented out of whole cloth; they are based on previous knowledge. In considering how seriously to take a hypothesis, scientists consider plausibility, possible mechanisms, and what we already know about the subject. When a hypothesis has no plausible biological mechanism by which A can cause B, based on everything that we already know about biology, the burden of proof is even higher on those proposing the relationship between A and B and these hypotheses are often dismissed. This requirement for proof underlies the popular phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. In the case of GMOs, breast cancer, and sterility: despite many studies of the health effects of GMOs, there is no evidence for a link to breast cancer or sterility and no plausible mechanism to explain such a link. At a minimum, scientists would need to have seen an increase in these things since the introduction of the first GMO in 1996. However, neither breast cancer rates nor infertility have increased since 1996. Thus, scientists have no evidence that GMOs are in any way associated with breast cancer or sterility and no plausible reason to hypothesize that they are. All the current evidence shows that GMO food is as safe as non-GMO food.

In North America, we have the luxury of having an abundant food supply with many options and choices. This includes the choice of being able to avoid GMOs entirely by adopting an organic diet, which excludes  genetically engineered crops and ingredients derived from them. However, in areas of the world where such abundance does not exist, GMOs can be extremely beneficial. GMOs may not solve world hunger, eliminate global warming, or ward off pests, but these crops will help us as we face these challenges. Disregarding an entire set of tools, based on the fears and privilege of those of us fortunate enough to have these choices, restricts the ability of farmers and scientists around the world to find solutions to real problems in agriculture.

Farmers have written about how they make their choices regarding pesticide use, and we encourage you to check out these resources:

To learn about the benefits of GMOs, see:

Talk to farmers and scientists about genetic engineering

From our original letter:

“Please, don’t co-opt motherhood and wield your fame to oppose beneficial technologies like genetic engineering. Certain celebrities have misled thousands of parents into thinking that vaccines are harmful, and we see the same pattern of misinformation repeating itself here. When GMOs are stigmatized, farmers and consumers aren’t able to benefit from much-needed advancements like plants with increased nutrients, or plants that can adapt to changing environmental stresses.

We, like millions of other Americans, line up to see your movies, and respect your occupation. Though our jobs differ, we share a common goal: to raise healthy, happy, successful kids. As moms we feel it is our responsibility to use the best available information to protect our children’s health, and to let the best science inform the choices we make for our families. We ask you to take the time to learn about how genetic engineering is being used by farmers, and the potential it has to help other moms raise healthy, happy, successful kids.

You have the opportunity to influence millions of people, so please use that influence responsibly, and ensure that your advocacy is supported by facts, not fear.”

We would like to extend the same invitation to you: talk to scientists, talk to farmers, talk to the experts in these fields. Arm yourself with knowledge, not fear, to help you make informed, healthy choices.

Alison and Layla

About the letter writers:


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Better Know a Farmer: No-Till Guru Bill Crabtree

In this issue of “Better Know a Farmer”, I contacted Bill Crabtree to learn about “no-till farming”. If you’re saying to yourself, “No-till? What are you waiting for? Till when? It doesn’t make sense” then you’re not alone. Bill has an awesome website which highlights his expertise in this field (get it?? Field? Because he’s also a farmer? Amazing pun!!). He lives in Western Australia (WA), but he provides consulting services worldwide helping farmers adopt no-till farming. He’s actively engaged in social media using the very apt twitter handle @NoTillBill, so we “met” through Twitter. I learned a lot in this interview and the spouse added a few questions, too. I read it with Bill's Australian accent in my head :)

Q: What’s your background and training? What do you grow on your farm?

A: I grew up on the land, I was doing night shift ploughing our very sandy fragile soils to 3 AM with no cab, no lights, and a modest jacket at the age of 14 on the south coast of WA. I went to University of Western Australia twice - B.Ag.Sci and M.Sci and now enrolled in a PhD in No-Till at same university. Eight years ago after energising the no-till movement for most of my life and helping farmers make lots of money at 47 years old, I realised I needed a retirement plan as $200,000 in assets was not going to go far.  So, with the help of Rabobank, I borrowed very heavily, bought a farm in the driest region of the globe, and have been 100% cropping on the desert’s edge not far from Yalgoo - East of Geraldton in Western Australia.  It was risky but it has paid off. The only profitable crop in this heat and dry is just wheat.  So, in contrast to my agronomic training, I have been growing continuous wheat for 8 years and it has been a huge success with no-till and full stubble retention. I grow a little of canola, triticale and lupins, but 95% wheat [BioChica's Note: if you don't know what triticale and lupins are, you're not alone :) I had to look those up!]

Q: What’s no-till farming? Why is it important?

A: It is seeding with less than 20% topsoil disturbance with narrow metal openers (sharp 12 mm narrow points or discs) and with no soil cultivation after the last crop. [BioChica’s note: I wanted to add a picture of tilling equipment for farming but couldn’t find a freely available image, so you can see one here on the John Deere website]. Tillage, or cultivation, used to be needed to soften the soil enough to be able to evenly place seeds at the right depth in the soil and for mechanical weed control. Neither of these factors are now required due to better mechanical tools and herbicides. Within a few years of no-till the soil softens through organic residue retention that feeds the bugs in the soil which make the soil spongy and ready to rapidly soak up heavy downpours of rain.  This softer/spongy soil can then store more water at depth and mitigate against droughts. Symbiotic plant root relations also form that are otherwise destroyed by tillage, fungi are increased as the decomposition of the organic matter becomes more of a steady release of energy into the soil food web that is very complex and not well understood but well appreciated by farmers. [BioChica’s Note: Bill has a YouTube video on this topic which you can view here.]

No-till has many other immediate farm benefits also, including less fuel use, better timing, higher whole-farm yields and greater economic efficiencies.
Field of wildflowers on Bill's farm

Q: So basically, you harvest the crop from the previous season, you leave all the stems and roots behind, and the next season you plant right on top of that? Does no-till work with only some types of crops? I imagine that it wouldn’t work in regions of the world where they don’t have a winter/rainy season?

A: No-Till works for all crops really, but some horticultural crops, like potatoes, onions, carrots etc, need tillage to harvest these crops. But, perhaps greater than 99% of global cropland could be no-tilled.  Some soils and environments do not necessarily give yield increases to no-tillage, however, all soil in all environments are protected and conserved by no-tillage practices.  In some places it takes longer for no-tillage to give a yield benefit. In most places the whole farm yield benefit can be immediate and significant - like in my state!  One region where no-till struggles to reward farmers is the wet Red River Valley in Manitoba, Canada (and this likely extends into Minnesota as well). The heat units are limited, the season is short, the valley floods to some degree in April/May most years and the minute the snow melts the race is on to get a crop out of cold wet soil before the season is over again in cold September. The land is fertile and the residue that no-till helps to maintain can keep the soil cool and damp when the race is on to get the crop ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

No-till actually works best in regions globally where the rainy seasons are unreliable and spasmodic. The ability of the long-term no-till soil-biology complex to suck up rainfall quickly helps to drought-proof the crops. Additionally, arbuscular mycorrhizae and similar symbiotic bug activity in the rhizosphere (root zone), enable the crops to partner with soil-biology to extract more water than is normally available to crops from the soil. While not miraculous it is not what happens when farmers do tillage and it can result in some very nice and increased water use efficiency by crops over tillage based farming systems.

Q: What do GMOs have to do with no-till farming?

A: GMO’s can have nothing to do with no-till farming, as in South Australia where they are illegal and no-till adoption is about 90% adoption. However, these farmers would love to have GMO crops as they allow them to use less herbicides and manage herbicide resistance better.  In Canada both RoundUp Ready canola and Liberty Link (glufosinate ammonium tolerant) GMO types has ensured their herbicide resistance issues have been better managed than in most countries who have abused them agronomically by over-relying on one type. [BioChica’s note: I’ve written about the RoundUp Ready trait here].

Q: Then why do GMO advocates claim that GM Round-Up Ready crops allow for no-till farming?

A: Because it is technically true. GM Round-Up Ready means that farmers can seed straight into undisturbed soil and control their weeds in-crop with Round-Up, which is no-till.  But ‘easy come, easy go’. It is my experience that when farmers, by default, have no-till happening for them and they do not adopt it thinking about the technique and understanding the benefits that it offers that they can then easily jump back into the tillage habit. Some of these farmers do not learn the long-term benefits of the no-till system. While Round-Up Ready crops sure are of valuable assistance in helping farmers adopt no-till as it can give excellent weed control, but it does not necessarily guarantee high quality no-till.

A clear example of this is in Argentina where, due to government policies, farmers grow soybean continuously season after season. Being a legume the soy fixes lots of nitrogen and effectively this ‘lights a fire’ in the soil of fast microbial activity and this burns up the soil carbon quickly and leaves the soil with very little soil cover. The soil is then readily exposed to soil erosion and there are more nitrates for loss to the environment. The microbes effectively cultivate the soil. So, you could easily argue that a common Argentinian no-till practice is only a small step up from tillage based farming.

Q: Are there any aspects or practices from no-till farming that people could adopt in their backyard gardens or planter-boxes?

A: Sure, just like the mulch on the surface of the soil is magic, it stops evaporation and feeds the soils bugs! No-tillage, and the mulch that it maintains, makes earthworm numbers explode. Earthworms are reported to be on top of the soil food chain and this gives us great comfort that no-till, even with herbicide use, is good for the soil microbial hierarchy. Similarly for no-till farmers, backyard gardeners also need to keep an eye out for crop nutrient deficiency symptoms! Particularly for NPKS - the big four nutrients in soil science. [BioChica’s note: NPKS stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur, and is an abbreviation used for labeling fertilizers]
Field of Wheat on Bill's farm. Or is it a field of dreams?

Q: The  International Agency for Research on Cancer’s recent assessment of glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) classified the compound as a probable carcinogen? Why are you trying to kill us all by forcing farmers to adopt this compound and how much is Monsanto paying you to do this?

A: The idea that glyphosate is a probable cancer causing agent is fanciful in the context of its registered use pattern.  But, it could probably be right if you are going to inject glyphosate into our cells nucleus or vacuole.  In this context it probably does cause DNA damage - similarly to injecting sodium chloride, detergent or dozens of commonly used household products, into the same place.  So the idea of suggesting that using glyphosate over a crop is the same as injecting glyphosate into our cells is quite misleading and points to activism by those who suggest it.  For the Cancer branch within WHO to come to this conclusion is almost disillusioning.  It suggests to me that someone is being quite mischievous and unscientific and has an agenda and it equates to fearmongering. I have emailed them for clarification and they responded!  I asked them for the specific information lead them to conclude this. They then said I should read the whole 92 page document. I could find nothing that supported the idea that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. But most concerning is that they have referenced the discredited research by Seralini and indeed they have used 7 of his papers in their study. Seralini is a known anti-GM and and glyphosate activist.

No farmer on the globe is forced to use Monsanto’s technology, they have the choice, if the technology does not benefit the farmer then he walks away from it - well that’s true for most of the farming world anyway! :)  Although in Russia they are banned from using the technology.  Some other countries have followed their lead.

I have not received any funding from Monsanto, ever!  I have visited their facilities, as any person interested or working in agriculture should.  But I have visited John Deere many more times.
Field of Wheat on Bill's farm

Q: As we all know, nothing on the internet is false. I’ve read many times that Round-Up used on wheat is leading to leaky-guts, is increasing gluten allergies, and is killing us all. If there’s no GMO wheat on the market, why is Round-Up used on it?

A: There is no GMO wheat on the market! Although it looks like drought tolerant genetically engineered wheat will be released in 2016 in Argentina. Round-Up is not killing us, despite a concerted campaign to convince people otherwise!  Over-eating and smoking definitely kill people, in contrast glyphosate use in no-tillage has greatly increased food production, lowering the price of food, allowing people to eat more and therefore killing them with obesity - haha :).  But seriously, Round-Up has been safely used on wheat pre-harvest in Canada since the late 1980’s. It is used to control weeds in a 100 day crop growing window and for more information on why and how farmers do it see;

Q: It sounds like no-till farming is amazing: builds the topsoil, reduces erosion, environmentally friendlier, etc. It even seems to me like there’s less work involved, because you don’t have to till the land. Why wouldn’t a farmer adopt the method? Are there any drawbacks to no-till farming? Or is no-till farming like puppies, i.e. everyone thinks they’re awesome?

A: No-till was demonised 30 years ago in my state by experts saying that “it did not work before and it will not work now” and “all your nice new no-till machines in two years time will be parked under a big tree, behind a big shed and going rusty”. Indeed, it took a huge effort and a lot of courage by a few to remove those philosophical obstacles. Most of the technical obstacles have been removed and no-till works all over the globe but it is challenging in wet and cold areas that lack heat units. In these areas the soil can get real cold and wet and stay wet and cold for a long time and no-till, with residue retention, slows evaporation and helps to keep the soil wet and cold for longer. This makes it a bit harder for crops to get growing fast. Soil disturbance, or tillage, can blacken the soil and help it absorb heat and get the crop growing faster sooner. For different reasons there are times when tillage is also needed in my hot and dry state on a small portion of the land, and I have blogged on this here:

Q: My spouse is from West Texas, where they famously had the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. Some people think it might come back with Texas’ drought. Do you think no-till farming can help?

A: Sure, and it does, I have farmer friends on Twitter in that region and I have also visited there several times. There are some very good farmers doing a great job of no-till there. Each year no-till farmers congregate at Salina, Kansas and share their knowledge together, indeed I have spoken at this event in the past