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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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Colony Collapse Disorder has been in and out of the media since 2006. With conspiracy theories and non-science abounding, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction.

Last semester, Dr. Diana Cox Foster of Penn State spoke at Iowa State about her work with CCD. She has been studying bees for 20 years and heads a diverse team of researchers working to solve the mystery. She said that there there are quite a few “theories” that her team disagrees with. In particular, she said that CCD is not caused by the rapture or the Russians. She puts cell phones and genetically engineered crops in the same category, choosing instead to focus on legitimate leads. She says that there are many reasons why their group is not looking into these as possible causes, but one reason sticks out: some Amish and organic beekeepers whose hives are isolated from genetically engineered crops, many pesticides, and cell phones in the case of the Amish have experienced CCD, while some conventional beekeepers have not. In other words, there isn’t a common thread connecting colonies that have collapsed.

Despite the fact that scientists like Dr. Cox Foster have spoken on the lack of legitimacy of these theories, people continue to write about them, such as this example from the always creative Global Research. I won’t pick the article apart due to time constraints, but wanted to show the range of views. A lot of mainstream articles have less extreme views, but few if any make an effort to debunk the incorrect theories. Instead, they reinforce them! Karl over at Inoculated Mind has a nice post summarizing some issues with the cell phone and GMO theories that’s over a year old. If only the reporters would research as he did.

There is abundant evidence that the Bt protein Cry1Ab doesn’t affect non-target insects. A meta-analysis from Jan 2008 of 25 independent studies found “that Bt Cry proteins used in genetically modified crops commercialized for control of lepidopteran and coleopteran pests do not negatively affect the survival of either honey bee larvae or adults in laboratory settings.” A meta-analysis from May 2008 of a public database found no significant effect on type or number of arthropods in Bt and non-Bt crops. They did find, as have many others, that various types of insecticides decreases the type and number of arthropods.

A quick lit search did come up with a June 2008 study that showed decreased learning ability in bees that were force fed syrup containing very high concentrations of Bt that are not found in nature. This data might indicate the need for more research on bee physiology, but doesn’t mean that Bt isn’t safe for bees in the field.

Now that we know what it’s not, I’ll share with you what Dr. Cox Foster thinks are the most likely causes and solutions…

First is simple stress. This image of an almond grove from Klausesbees (which incidentally may be the same one that Dr. Foster used in her presentation) shows that bees don’t have many dining options. Instead of having wildflowers or even another crop such as strawberries under the almond trees, the grove is a virtual pollen desert when the trees aren’t in bloom. Other crops used to be grown with hedgerows separating smaller farms, but these have been all but eliminated as farms are consolidated. This type of agriculture is what led to bees being trucked across the country to keep up with crop flowering. Bees did not evolve in the conditions of being moved from state to state, feeding on one type of plant one day to something entirely different the next. A related problem could be the sugar and corn syrups that bees are fed before the crops bloom, just because bees haven’t evolved with this as a food source. The stress of the move and of the ever changing food sources might be too much to bear. The solution to this would be to have areas set aside for wildflowers that would both encourage natural bee hives and serve as a food source to local cultivated bee colonies when the local crops are out of season.

Second is a combination of mites, viruses, and other diseases. Dr. Cox Foster and her associates have sequenced DNA samples from bee hives and found a variety of surprising things, including Aspergillis fungus and the parasite Leishmania. Israeli virus (IAPV) correctly predicted collapsed hives more than any other factor. The virus is transmitted by Verroa mites (shown here in a photo from the USDA ARS). When bees are stressed, they are especially susceptible to mites which in turn makes them susceptible to disease. Royal jelly from China, used to feed prospective queen bees, was also found to contain IAPV. Also contributing to susceptibility is the decrease in genetic diversity among bee hives. One possible solution to the problem is breeding or engineering resistant bees. For example, Arizona beekeepers who have Africanized bees haven’t experienced CCD. Another solution is to develop “biocides” which would be like a medicine to help the bees fight off mites and disease. Vaccines aren’t an option because bees don’t have an adaptive immune system. Beekeepers who irradiate box components before placing a hive inside have had some success, because irradiation kills mites and bacteria.

Third is pesticides, less likely, but still under consideration. Researchers found copious residues of miticides (which some beekeepers apply to bees or to boxes) and other pesticides in the bee wax that beekeepers buy and place in new hives. Use of formic acid, considered a natural substance because it is produced by some species of ants, is widespread and may play a role in increasing bee stress and susceptibility to disease. Bees are affected by a wide range of insecticides, which obviously could play a role. However, there is no common pesticide reside in colonies that experience CCD.

Another hive related possibility is a little more difficult to understand and quantify. Some commercial beekeepers try to get a lot out of their hives. One practice that Dr. Cox Foster questions is too-frequent hive “splitting” because it leads to bee stress. I was also able to find some ruminations on the net that the large cell size used by commercial beekeepers to encourage bee growth may also encourage mite infestations, but couldn’t find any actual data on the subject (anyone need a summer project?).

After her presentation, Dr. Cox Foster shared these links that include more information and info on how individuals can help: The Pollinator Partnership, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, and The Status of Pollinators in North America. Another source is the USDA Agricultural Research Service, who has multiple fact sheets, including Colony Collapse Disorder: A Complex Buzz.

One last thing I’d like to share before I end this post – bees are not the only pollinators out there. Of course some aspects of agriculture would have to change if we were no longer able to cart bees across the country, but it wouldn’t be the end of agriculture as some people have said. A Slate article from 2007 called Bee Not Afraid explains. Much of the information in the article matches things that Dr. Cox Foster said in the course of her lecture and in the Q&A session that followed./