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The Thirteen_Years_cover_2009Organic Center recently released Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years by Dr. Charles Benbrook, agricultural economist and “Chief Scientist” of the Organic Center. I can’t help but get the feeling that Dr. Benbrook started with a conclusion and found data to fit rather than starting with a general review then finding significant conclusions. It’s not that I necessarily have any specific problems with the information Dr. Benbrook presents, it’s just that I think he’s leaving some key ideas out of the report that should have been considered. There are also generalizations that just aren’t warranted. There are a lot of problems with this report, but I’m particualrly concerned with the way Dr. Benbrook fails, for the most part, to distinguish between different biotech traits, fails to distinguish and between different pesticides, and fails to consider non-biotech traits that could increase pesticide use.

First, all GMOs are not created equal. The two biotech traits currently on the market are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance (Bt). These traits are obviously very different, but most of the report just lumps them together as “GE crops”, even though the report clearly states multiple times that Bt crops have reduced insecticide use. For example:

Bt corn and cotton have delivered consistent reductions in insecticide use totaling 64.2 million pounds over the 13 years. Bt corn reduced insecticide use by 32.6 million pounds, or by about 0.1 pound per acre. Bt cotton reduced insecticide use by 31.6 million pounds, or about 0.4 pounds per acre planted.

Why, then, does the report fail to distinguish between glyphosate tolerant crops and Bt crops when concluding:

For the foreseeable future, this study confirms that one direct and predictable outcome of the planting of GE corn, soybean, and cotton seed will be steady, annual increases in the pounds of herbicides applied per acre across close to one-half the nation’s cultivated cropland base. Farm production costs and environmental and health risks will rise in step with the total pounds of pesticides applied on GE crops.

What about Bt crops? What about nitrogen efficient crops? What about nutritionally enhanced crops? These don’t require additional pesticides of any kind when compared to non-biotech crops. If anything, the conclusion should read:

…this study confirms that one direct and predictable outcome of the planting of herbicide tolerant corn, soybean, and cotton seed will be steady, annual increases in the pounds of herbicides applied per acre across close to one-half the nation’s cultivated cropland base. Farm production costs and environmental and health risks will rise in step with the total pounds of herbicides applied on herbicide tolerant crops.

Second, all pesticides are not created equal. There are huge differences between pesticides in toxcicity, target organisms, amount required, etc. Use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp herbicide, certainly does increase with glyphosate tolerant crops. The million dollar question is: does the use of glyphosate replace the use of other herbicides? And even more importantly, what is the relative impact of the herbicides used? The Organic Center’s report doesn’t actually address these questions.

The 2008 report GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996- 2006 (pdf) produced by PG Economics did answer these questions*. They used an index called EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) which was first described by Kovach et al in 1992 (to learn exactly how the EIQ is calculated, see the American Farmland Trust’s explanation). The EIQ actually factors in how toxic a pesticide is as well as how much active ingredient is used. This report found (on page 60-61) that, in soybeans, the global impact has been:

In 2006, a 6% decrease in the total volume of herbicide [active ingredient] applied (10.1 million kg) and a 23.7% reduction in the environmental impact (measured in terms of the field EIQ/ha load)

Since 1996, 4.4% less herbicide [active ingredient] has been used (62 million kg) and the environmental impact applied to the soybean crop has fallen by 20.4%.

A similar global impact was seen in maize:

In 2006, total herbicide ai use was 8.3% lower (10.9 million kg) than the level of use if the total crop had been planted to conventional non GM (HT) varieties. The EIQ load was also lower by 10.8%

Cumulatively since 1997, the volume of herbicide ai applied is 3.9% lower than its conventional equivalent (a saving of 46.7 million kg). The EIQ load has been reduced by 4.6%.

It certainly seems strange that two different reports would have such vastly different conclusions.

Third, what about non-biotech herbicide tolerant crops? Breeding for herbicide tolerance doens’t require biotechnology at all – breeders can simply rely on artificial selection (aka “natural” plant breeding). For example, consider the Clearfield trait, resistance to the herbicide imidazoline. Clearfield is available in far more crops than glyphosate resistance, likely because it is not required to undergo any of the additional testing or regualatory hoops that are required for biotech traits. Crops available with Clearfield include sunflower, canola, corn, wheat, and rice. Because this is a non-biotech (non-transgenic, non-GMO) herbicide resistance trait, Clearfield crops aren’t tracked in the same way as Roundup Ready crops.

“This report deals only with GE HT crops” even though “a market research firm recently estimated that non-GE herbicide-resistant crops were planted on roughly 6 million acres in 2007.” The thing is, if biotech herbicide tolerance was never invented, we’d just have many more acres of non-biotech herbicide tolerance. Using herbicide tolerant non-GE crops would result in all of the same effects that we see in GE herbicide tolerant crops. Additionally, improper use of herbicides of any type (in conjunction with herbicide tolerant crops or not) will result in resistant weeds. It is misleading to claim that side effects of herbicide use are due to genetic engineering.

If a person was truly interested in determining how novel traits affect herbicide use, that person would consider all types of herbicide resistance, instead of singling out just the ones created with a certain method.

In sum, these are the three main complaints I have with this report: failure to distinguish between different biotech traits, failure to distinguish between different pesticides, and failure to consider non-biotech traits that could increase pesticide use.

What are your thoughts?

*I already had a copy of the PG Economics report stored in Papers (iTunes for journal articles), but when I went to find the link for this post, I found that PG Economics has actually written their own rebuttal to the Organic Center’s report: Impact of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use: US Organic Center report evaluation by PG Economics (pdf). They cover far more specific issues than I did in this post – I recommend it and the original PG Economics report as a counterpoint to the Organic Center report. No matter our personal beliefs, it’s always good to expose ourselves to many points of view.

Another viewpoint can be found at Truth About Trade and Technology, a non-profit farmer’s advocay group, where Illinois farmer John Reifsteck wrote The Business of Farming in response to the Organic Center’s report.

 

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Good news from Africa – “Scientists and crop researchers at Kenya´s Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) developed the new wheat seeds over the past decade. Through a process called ‘mutation plant breeding’, they applied radiation-based techniques to modify crop characteristics and traits.” In 2001, KARI plant breeders released Njoro-BW1, their first mutant wheat variety. It is drought tolerant, moderately resistant to rust (a fungus), has good yield, and good flour quality. “Kenya´s plant breeders soon will release a second mutant wheat variety, code-named DH4, which shares most of the same good qualities of Njoro-BW1.” [Golden Wheat “Greens” Kenya´s Drylands]

It is indeed good news that Kenyan farmers have these lines of wheat with such improvements over unimproved varieties. However, radiation based so-called mutation plant breeding could have unintended changes in the genome. This technique, widely used in both organic and conventional crops, literally bombards the seeds with radiation. The seeds are allowed to germinate, and interesting mutants are used to create new lines. The problem is that multiple mutations can occur in the same seed, and some of those mutations may go undetected.

A February report entitled “Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion” from the National Institute of Health in Portugal indicates that this plant breeding tool may not be the best idea. The last few sentences of their abstract sums it up: “We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants. We propose that the safety assessment of improved plant varieties should be carried out on a case-by-case basis and not simply restricted to foods obtained through genetic engineering.”

Trying to regulate GM or non-GM as broad categories are impossible, because each resulting plant variety is going to have its own “quirks”. If DH4 and Njoro-BW1 have been extensively tested for unwanted alteration in gene expression and subsequently released for general use, then they are reasonably safe (remember, nothing is definitive in science). Similarly, if transgenic plants such as Sub1A-1 rice have been tested and released, then they too can be used without worry. However, if plant varieties mutated with radiation are not adequately tested before release, then we might all have something to worry about. To my knowledge, only Canada requires testing of these crops.

We can’t even assume that traditional breeding by cross pollination is 100% safe because of natural mutation and new combinations of genes and alleles. Tomatoes, potatoes, and celery all naturally produce some nasty toxins. We’ve mostly bred them out, but there have been cases where the toxins appeared at higher levels through traditional breeding. These plants have much higher probability of danger for consumers than transgenic plants, but don’t have to be tested at all under current regulations in the US or EU.

Intragenic or cisgenic plants are our best opportunity for safe enhancement of food crops (cis- means same). This is a form of genetic engineering that uses the plant’s own genome as a source for new traits instead of other non-related organisms (has also been called GM-lite). To learn more about the idea, please see www.cisgenesis.com. Some people, including myself, believe that cisgenic crops should be regulated differently from transgenic crops that express proteins that don’t normally occur in that species. The applications of cisgenics are more limited than transgenics, but still there is a lot to be done. A great example of cisgenics is gene silencing, which can be used to inactivate unwanted genes, such as those that cause toxins. Examples that are currently being researched are less carcinogenic tobacco and rice that can more easily form hybrids. All of the benefits in KARI’s mutated wheat could have been accomplished with cisgenics.

JR Simplot is a company that is particularly interested in cisgenics, and has produced a lot of literature that essentially says that Monsanto’s way of creating new plant lines is not the right way. I think there’s room for both, but agree that cisgenics are inherently safer. I especially like the idea that cross pollination between cisgenic plants and wild varieties won’t be a problem, since these things could have all happened naturally anyway.

The idea of cisgenics has been around for quite a few years now, but scientists need to talk with the public about it, so the public can talk to their government representatives, so the representatives can go about getting the regulations changed.

Images from “Cisgenic plants are similar to traditionally bred plants: International regulations for genetically modified organisms should be altered to exempt cisgenesis“. Text to accompany images is as follows:

Definitions of key terms in relation to plants

Cisgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with a natural gene from a crossable—sexually compatible—plant. Such a gene includes its introns and is flanked by its native promoter and terminator in the normalsense orientation.Cisgenic plants can harbour one or more cisgenes, but they do not contain any transgenes.

Transgenesis is the genetic modification of a recipient plant with one or more genes from any non-plant organism, or from a donor plant that is sexually incompatible with the recipient plant. This includes gene sequences of any origin in the anti-sense orientation, any artificial combination of a coding sequence and a regulatory sequence, such as a promoter from another gene, or a synthetic gene.

Traditional breeding encompasses all plant breeding methods that do not fall under current GMO regulations.As the European legal framework defines GMOs and specifies various breeding techniques that are excluded from the GMO regulations,we use this framework as a starting point, particularly the European Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment (European Parliament, 2001). Excluded from this GMO Directive are longstanding cross breeding, in vitro fertilization, polyploidy induction, mutagenesis and fusion of protoplasts from sexually compatible plants (European Parliament, 2001).