US Biotech Crop Plantings Surge Again

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"The acreage of biotech corn plantings are up 9.7 percent to 46 percent of all corn planted in the U.S.; biotech soybean acreage increased 9.2 percent to 86 percent of all plantings; and biotech cotton acreage increased 9.1 percent to 76 percent of all plantings," according to a press release from the Biotechnology Industry Organization summarizing the results from the USDA's Prospective Plantings survey.

And still no scientific evidence that anyone has gotten so much as a sniffle or a bellyache from eating foods made with ingredients derived from genetically enhanced crops. Nevertheless, more Africans are at risk of starvation because of anti-biotech fears fanned by ideological environmentalists and European Union politicians.

BTW, I wonder how many European tourists pack their own GMO-free food before daring to visit the United States?

NEXT: Germ Welfare

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  1. joe – Yes and no. I used to work for Pioneer Hi-Bred. One of the big arguments against biotech is the supposed potential for wacky viruses to develop, for increased allergenicity and other supposed health risks. Potential health risks to consumers were the main argument in the “We won’t sell GM products” promotions Marks and Spencer, and other British supermarkets flirted with five years ago or so.

    With the pervasiveness of GM ingredients in foodstuffs over the past ten years or so, particularly in the U.S, and no reported ill effects, there is some substance to the idea that this track record is, in effect, a counterclaim to these objections.

    It IS, however, a straw man argument from the anti-GM point of view, in that there is risk to health in everything you ingest. Conventional crop breeding mingles hundreds, even thousands of genes simultaneously at random, while GM techniques pretty much focus on inputting a single, narrowly targeted gene trait into the makeup of a well known plant specie. Simple math would indicate that the higher statistical risk of coming up with something novel and dangerous would occur in nature, rather than in the lab. Plus, these techniques would make it more likely that common plant allergens such as those badly-digestible proteins found in peanuts which some people have problems with, could be done away with.

    In short, there is a straw man lurking around back there, but it is the anti-GM types who set him up, not the biotech industry and its supporters.

  2. “And still no scientific evidence that anyone has gotten so much as a sniffle or a bellyache from eating foods made with ingredients derived from genetically enhanced crops.”

    Nor is there any evidence that we NEED to plant GM corn in the US. In fact, we probably grow ten times the corn we need and could afford to lose half of it to pests. Pepsi is made from corn syrup not because it tastes better, but because we grow too much corn.

    Eliminate agricultural subsidies and most of the need for GM food in the US would evaporate. And the third world will become what it should have been for the last half a century: farmers.

  3. I have no doubt that companies like the supermarkets you describe are willing to make bogus safety charges about their competitions’ products.

    But virtually all of the anti-GM literature I’ve seen focuses on environmental and socio-economic impacts, not the health effects of eating the stuff.

  4. Mike,
    Pepsi is made from corn syrup because of the price supports on sugar in the US, not because we grow too much corn.

  5. joe – You’re right. The health issue has pretty much been negated precisely by the excellent track record of the products, so that critics have to focus on potential environmental risks out in the sweet by and by.

    Mike – I agree with you about ag subsidies, but you may not know that farmers in India and other third world ag economies, by and large, want to be able to plant GE crops because their pest problems are far worse than ours and they truly need the higher yield potential. But local politics and airheaded activists such as Vandana Shiva have been very successful at promoting the self-refuting “Precautionary Principle” and resultant government bans. These people raise legitimate concerns about seed saving and the high cost of biotech seed, but deliberately screw up the science to make them sound like Bhopal all over again.

  6. joe,

    All the anti-GM stuff I’ve seen is based on precautionary principle fear and not scientific evidence.

  7. If people who fear GM crops actually knew how pre-genetic engineering “breeding” worked it would terrify them. It has been standard for nearly a century to zap plants and even animals with radiation or to use powerful mutagens like mustard gas to increase the random diversity of genes.

    Breeders only look for a tiny handful of positive traits in the resulting new genes. They would have no idea if they accidentally created a gene that produced a protein that some fraction of the population might be allergic to.

    From a quality control and safety perspective GM crops are definitely better. At least with GM crops you know exactly what got changed. If there is a problem you know where to look. Sterile GM crops prevent the unintentional spread any problematic genes.

  8. MP, I don’t follow the debate enough to offer an opinion about the vailidity of the arguments. I just know fertilizer when I smell it.

    Shannon, the pre-GM techniques you refer to produced altered offspring at a much slower rate than can be done with GM. If a certain mutation caused consumers to have an allergic reaction or transferred crop-stunting genes to other crops (for example), the problem would manifest itself before it became very widespread, when there was only one animal or a single field’s worth of corn. Today, millions of acres across the country could be planted with a GM seed, or Mutant X chickens stocking the freezers of supermarkets across the country, before the problem became known.

    Oh, and not all GM crops are sterile. And genetic drift can occur even when a “sterile” plant can’t reproduce a whole new plant – including the genes that make the plant sterile.

  9. joe,
    The thing is you can still make genetic monstrosities without GM or even the awesome power of radiation. A few months ago I read a Canadien botnast/Simpsons fan made tomacco using a simple graft. So if RJ Reynolds or Philip Mo become big Kerry contributors and you see bottles of Heinz Camels, we can blame good ol fashioned nature, not GM. Granted it is still slower than GM, but nature doesn’t limit you from doing f-ed up stuff.

  10. Ronald Bailey,

    “…because of anti-biotech fears fanned by ideological environmentalists and European Union politicians.”

    So your point is that Africans lack “free will?” Does this mean that you also believe that violent TV makes people into murderers? Or are you just a paternalist (one could use a stronger word here of course) who thinks that Africans can’t make decisions without the support of white people? BTW, you repeat the canard that most economists in the area of agricultural economics reject – that food production by itself is the cause of famine. This is the typical fantasy of technological determinists. I would suspect that even if African countries imported tonnes of GM crops you would still have starvation in African countries because its the human institutions there that create famine, not the lack of food itself.

  11. Mo, and for the reasons I explained above, the speed at which the changes can work their way into the environment matters.

    JB, very well done. Pehaps Bailey, John McCain and Russ Feingold can work out a “Big Ag Finance Reform” program to protect Africans from seeing advertisements about the GM debate in the media.

  12. First, no strawmen–see Greenpeace URL: http://www.greenpeace.ca/e/resource/publications/gmo/safetoeat.pdf and URL: http://www.all-creatures.org/cb/a-gefood-ingred.html

    If you troll the internet you’ll find plenty more where that came from.

    Second, regarding starving Africans–the starving people aren’t rejecting it, it’s their authoritarian governments that are forbidding them access to the food. Why? For example, when I was in Johannesburg covering the World Summit on Sustainable Development, I heard European activists telling Africans many times that GMOs were unhealthy. One story: A youth delegate from Kenya (age 16 or so) said at public conference that he opposed GMOs because he believed that they were designed to destroy Africans’ immune systems so that they would die of HIV faster. I wonder where he heard that one?

  13. Mr. Bailey,

    If I may suck up to you for just a moment – I have followed and appreciated your writing on this issue for years. There is so much anti-science, anti-biotech propaganda floating around out there, if it weren’t for you, Norman Borlaug, my fellow Iowan and Luther College alumnus, and C.S. Prakash from Tuskegee, I doubt the popular press would get anything on the pro-GM side.

    My compliments.

  14. The anti-GM arguments about cross pollinating the surrounding plants is pathetic. Let’s do a quick run down of the area surrounding a farm. How much “natural vegetation” is there? Next to none. After all, they have been spraying fertilizer and bringing in seed for a century plus in almost every farming community in the country. The vegetation in and around the farm has been affected by all the planting that has been done for a century. What, we’ve had untouched meadows sitting next to a farmers field for years? Not likely.

    Secondly, genetic engineering is a relatively new field, maybe only 2-3000 years.

  15. “The anti-GM arguments about cross pollinating the surrounding plants is pathetic. Let’s do a quick run down of the area surrounding a farm. How much “natural vegetation” is there?”

    The argument is not necessarily (or not only) that only the “natural vegetation” right around the farm will be harmed, but that introduced genes in engineered crops could escape through hybridization to far beyond adjacent land. This happens all the time with crops if their undomesticated relatives are nearby, and the consequences could potentially be severe depending on the nature of the introduced gene.

    “Secondly, genetic engineering is a relatively new field, maybe only 2-3000 years.”

    As joe pointed out above, this equating of breeding with modern genetic engineering is pretty bogus. With genetic engineering, changes are possible in a single lab generation that would been almost if not completely impossible to do with breeding. Breeding depends on selecting for the desired genes from already available genetic variation, and in genetic engineering the variation itself is added – that can be a big difference.

    I don’t want to make it sound like there’s nothing positive about GM; the benefits are huge and self-evident. But I think the concerns some people have about some applications are more justified than Shane’s comments suggest.

  16. J – “Breeding depends on selecting for the desired genes from already available genetic variation, and in genetic engineering the variation itself is added – that can be a big difference.”

    Yes, the difference is that, as I pointed out before, with traditional breeding, the results are scattershot and involve thousands more genes simultaneously in addition to the gene actually being selected for. GM normally targets one trait, and aims for a single site along the DNA strand. Do the math. In which scenario are more unpredictable results likely to be found?

  17. Ron Bailey,

    “Second, regarding starving Africans–the starving people aren’t rejecting it, it’s their authoritarian governments that are forbidding them access to the food.”

    Which fully demonstrates my point.

    “Why? For example, when I was in Johannesburg covering the World Summit on Sustainable Development, I heard European activists telling Africans many times that GMOs were unhealthy.”

    Which is beside the point; European governments are not forcing them to make a choice; if African governments make stupid choices, its their fault for making said choice. Laying blame for the poor decisions of African governments (or the people in African nations) at the feet of European governments is not only demeaning, it shifts the locus of responsibility in rather unproductive and ultimately self-defeating ways.

    Or let’s put it another way; as far as I know Nigeria does not reject GM-foods; yet starvation (as well as human rights abuses by the Nigerian government) – especially amongst the oppressed Ogoni – is still common. Nigerians – their government and individual actors – are to be blame for this, and literally no one else (even though Shell Oil has not been the most gracious factor in these issues).

    Anyway, I find it strange Ron that you have allied yourself with those on the left who talk about “neo-imperialism,” and about how the desperate poverty in Africa is really the former “metropole’s” fault.

  18. Jeff Clothier:

    The difference is not as simple as the “simple math” you talked about in your 1:23 or 7:51 posts. That logic completely ignores the different sources of the genetic variation in each case.
    To frame the question another way – under which scenario are more unpredictable results likely to be found? When you’re selecting for a subset of the genetic variation present in natural populations which has evolved in concert with the rest of the genetic variation in those populations; or when you’re introducing completely foreign DNA onto a new genetic background?

  19. There has been no mention of the “no till” versions of wheat and such. There seems to have to be a trade off for those that oppose GMs as to which is the more urgent, GM worries or agricultural run off containing fertilizers, sometimes it is a difficult choice but there has to be compromise at some point.

  20. “And still no scientific evidence that anyone has gotten so much as a sniffle or a bellyache from eating foods made with ingredients derived from genetically enhanced crops.”

    Nor is there evidence of GM corn causing UFOs to invade, dogs to chase their tails, or grass stains to set faster in cotton/poly blends.

    Then again, like Bailey’s “sniffle/bellyache” strawman, these are not the arguments raised by GM opponents.

  21. This is hardly surprising. The only thing stopping most commercial crop farmers from planting genetically value-added crops, for example, is the fear that they can’t be exported. For all the foment over them, most biotech crops in commercial production are fully saleable in the E.U., Japan, and to our other major trading partners.

  22. OK, J. I guess I read that sidewise. What I understood from those posts was that you thought biotech products were not properly tested.

    BUT, given your agreement that they are, from where do your concerns about them come, exactly?

  23. OK, J. I guess I read that sidewise. What I understood from those posts was that you thought biotech products were not properly tested.

    BUT, given your agreement that they are, from where do your concerns about them come, exactly?

  24. “the products of GM processes are rigorously tested by the companies who market them both for safety and effectiveness”

    They do health and safety testing, yes (in accordance with federal regulations, it’s worth noting). But there is no regimin for testing for the types of environmental impacts I mentioned above. Please note that my very first post on this thread was to dismiss the consumer safety issue – the government’s got that one pretty well covered already.

    “Truly, it is the biotech companies, who stand to lose bajillions of dollars if their products hurt people, who truly practice the precautionary principle.” They don’t stand to lose a dime if they make it impossible for farmers to grow other varieties of corn; in fact, they stand to profit quite a bit by selling to the newly-captive customers. And Reason has posted articles arguing that farmers whose crops are contaminated by adjacent GMOs should have no legal recourse against the GMO-using farmers, or the companies that manufactured the seeds.

    As far as “those who would never” accept GMOs in any form, I’d drink a dryish cabernet with that red herring. We don’t base our regulations on donated blood on the opinions of Jehovah’s Witnesses (who believe transfusions are cannibalism, and forbidden). So why would even bring such an irrational minority faction into the discussion, except as a way of avoiding the issues raised by open minded people?

    fyodor, the salmon are engineered to be fat, docile, and slow. Need I explain why it would be bad for these traits to be heightened among an already endangered fish population?

  25. OK, J. I guess I read that sidewise. What I understood from those posts was that you thought biotech products were not properly tested.

    BUT, given your agreement that they are, from where do your concerns about them come, exactly?

  26. OK, J. I guess I read that sidewise. What I understood from those posts was that you thought biotech products were not properly tested.

    BUT, given your agreement that they are, from where do your concerns about them come, exactly?

  27. Thanks for info on the salmon, Joe.

    So, would anyone like to tackle (heh) the question of whether this presents a serious environmental problem or not? Sure seems like it may.

  28. Sorry about the multiple posts. The gremlins are back.

    joe – “As far as “those who would never” accept GMOs in any form, I’d drink a dryish cabernet with that red herring. We don’t base our regulations on donated blood on the opinions of Jehovah’s Witnesses (who believe transfusions are cannibalism, and forbidden). So why would even bring such an irrational minority faction into the discussion, except as a way of avoiding the issues raised by open minded people?”

    But it isn’t a red herring, because that minority is very, very vocal, and there are basically no constraints on their fomenting disinformation. And for years, they have managed to frame the debate such that reason and science can’t even get a fair hearing, particularly in the U.K., India and Asia.

    As to your other points – By what precise mechanism would farmers be prevented from growing other types of corn? I don’t get that. The only way that would happen is if the GM products were so effective that they knocked traditional varieties off the market. If that happened, C’est la vie.

    The truth is that, taking Pioneer as an example, the majority of their products contain no altered genes whatsoever. Pioneer’s main asset is its library of germplasm arrived at by traditional breeding and hybridization techniques since its founding by Henry Wallace about 80 years ago.

    Another truth is that there are MORE, not fewer, mom and pop seed companies now than there were five years ago, which would be obvious to you if you lived where I do. A lot of their genetic stock comes from “Foundation” seed much of which is in the public domain.

    In short, there is nothing out there to coerce farmers to plant GMO except the potential premium in yield and revenue they may realize as a result of buying this premium quality seed.

    Now, let’s say you have two farmers planting side by side – one planting GMO commercial corn, and one planting so-called “organic” (ALL food is organic. To be inorganic, it would have to be made out of silicon or some other mineral.). Presumeably, genetic transfer can occur in both directions. I make the assumption you would want the organic guy to be able to sue if his crop is “contaminated” by GM material, right?

    If that is the case, would you also support the right of the farmer planting Bt corn to sue the organic guy if pollen drift diluted the genetically modified properties of HIS crop?

    Pollen drift is inevitable, and it is stupid to assume that it can be prevented entirely. That’s why the industry and ag trade groups have been negotiating tolerance levels of GM material that would be acceptable even in non GM products. Otherwise you’d have an infinite regression – What about two farmers planting two different varieties of non GM corn? Should THEY be able to sue one another for gene drift?

    I think you get my point.

  29. Jeff Clothier,

    I really don?t have any burning concerns with GM that I think aren?t being dealt with in some form, and I didn?t mean to suggest that I did; that?s not why I got into this thread. I?m about to complete my PhD in evolutionary biology, and I just find these questions are very interesting.
    I do have a more general concern regarding the whole GM policy debate, and it also applies to the global warming policy debate (among many others) ? too often advocates on each side are willing to selectively report and interpret data and oversimplify arguments to support their idea of what?s best (assuming for the moment that these advocates are well-intentioned; obviously, this assumption is sometimes violated by folks on each side). Of course, there?s absolutely nothing new about this phenomenon, and it?s certainly not unique to GM, and I?m sure you and everyone else on this thread and everyone who’s ever read a newspaper is well aware of it.

  30. fyodor – With the salmon thing. It’s only environmental damage if you assume “Native salmon, good – hybrid salmon, bad,” or that the native fish somehow has some inherent “right” to exist.

    There are several ways to look at this sort of thing. Again, here in Iowa, where we don’t have many lakes, the ag industry has encroached on many of the native lakes we do have. Native animals have been threatened, etc.

    On the other hand, we have a lot of folks who love to fish, and we are smack between the Mississippi and Missouri watersheds, making water management crucial. So, we have CREATED lakes that would not exist otherwise, stocked them with “native” species, and increased the fish population way over what occurred without human intervention. We have also used hybrid fish like striped bass to increase that wildlife population in addition to “natural” varieties.

    Is a manmade fish species any less a fish than an accidental one? If you prick it with a hook, does it not jump outta the water?

  31. J – Well said. I share your concern regarding policy. It seems stupid to me that this should BE a matter of public policy, as it is the products of the technology that should be at issue, not the process of GM itself. But the debate has ever been framed as “GM, yes or no,” by those who simply don’t want it in any form, and don’t want anyone else to have access to it, either.

    “Evolutionary Biology” Interesting, I didn’t know there was such a discipline. I have a long-standing email feud going with a local talk-show host who thinks evolution is as much an article of faith as Creationism. Any comments or sources I can use on him?

  32. So do I have you correct, Jeff Clothier, that you are saying that native salmon populations could indeed by wiped out or at least significantly degraded by the existence of GM salmon, and the only reason not to care is that such caring is based on an arbitrary preference for native salmon?

  33. Not necessarily. I don’t know what the characteristics of these salmon are, either. If they are Horror Killer Mutant Salmon, I suppose appropriate caution should be taken not to let small children swim where they are present.

    In general, though, yes. If the salmon that are being introduced are benign other than that they MIGHT outfight or outfuck the sluggards that already live there, and assuming there is some supposed benefit in the transaction, then your proposition more or less represents my position.

  34. I see. Just to be clear, in case I wasn’t, the fear is not simply the replacing native salmon with GM salmon (classic survival of the fittest) but rather of losing wild salmon altogether, since the GM salmon are poorly equipped to survive for long in the wild, despite their larger size which tells the females fuck me.

  35. If they are poorly equipped to survive in the wild, than what threat could they be, long term? When they die off, the remaining females will be forced to breed with their former beaus once again. Perhaps they will lose their attraction to larger fish altogether assuming that size, on its own, isn’t a survival trait.

    Throwing new wrinkles into the mix changes the case, but the general idea is that a fish is still a fish, and subject to the laws of nature once introduced there. “Nature” tends toward, as you put it, survival of the fittest, so it is a contradiction in logic to suggest that the, shall we say, Frankenfish can outcompete with native species by virtue of a nonsurvival trait.

  36. There?s a long history of evolution programs at schools in this country and elsewhere, although there aren?t a huge number of them relative to programs like genetics.

    If your talk show host acquaintance is coming at this from a creationist standpoint, and if he/she claims to have some sort of education or knowledge of the science behind evolution, I?d be very wary of wasting my time discussing it with him. There is simply far too much evidence for common ancestry of life on earth and for evolution (by natural selection or other natural biological processes) for an honest informed person to consider evolution as much an article of faith as creationism. And creationists have become experts at distorting the comments and work of evolutionists and other scientists in relevant fields (like the old 2nd law of thermodynamics ?disproof? of evolution ? anyone with a high school basic science education should be able to debunk that one, but creationists have still convinced a lot of people that it?s a legitimate argument).

    But perhaps I?m underestimating the intentions of this talk show host, and perhaps he?s honestly trying to understand the issues. There are a lot of good books and papers on the subject including:

    Pigliucci, Massimo. 2002. Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science. Sinauer Associates.

    Kitcher, Philip. 1982. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. MIT Press.

    Antolin, Michael and Joan Herbers. 2001. ?Perspective: Evolution?s struggle for existence in America?s public schools.? Evolution 55(12): 2379-2388.

    And various books, papers, and lectures by Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould.

  37. J – Many thanks, and good luck with your Ph.D.

  38. fyodor and Jeff:

    “Nature” tends toward, as you put it, survival of the fittest, so it is a contradiction in logic to suggest that the, shall we say, Frankenfish can outcompete with native species by virtue of a nonsurvival trait.?

    I don?t think that?s necessarily the case. Farmed salmon are bred/selected for very different traits than those traits that might make a salmon successful in the wild (like ability to find food, avoid predators, survive disease, etc). And there?s probably have very limited genetic diversity in farmed populations (I?m guessing this, but don?t know it for sure). So they might not have good survival traits, but they may have very good mating traits, if females tend to choose larger salmon for mates. Sexual selection and natural selection for other survival traits might be pulling in opposite directions, so to speak (and evolution by nature selection isn?t necessarily just survival of the fittest). Farmed salmon might outcompete wild salmon for mates in the short term, leading to decline or even extinction of wild salmon populations. But in the long term they might not be as well-equipped to deal with selection pressures from predators, competitors, etc.
    I don’t know enough details about the salmon to know if this is true, but I do think it’s at least plausible.

  39. J,

    What you are saying is exactly what is being claimed. That the male GM salmon are bigger, which attracts the females for mating purposes. While size in “natural” salmon generally denotes hardiness, thus making them better for the gene pool, this is not the case for GM salmon, who according to Joe, are also designed to be slow so as to be easy to control and catch. Now, I don’t know firsthand about any of this, but this is exactly what is being claimed. Thanks for the corrobaration that this is perfectly plausible.

    And so I repeat to Jeff Clothier, the scenario that is feared is not merely the replacement of, shall we say, “evolutionarily chosen” salmon by, as you put it yourself, Frankenfish, but the entire elimination of salmon (or at least a very serious degradation of the population) from the wild.

  40. fyodor – And therefore, what?

  41. fyodor,

    “The ideas of control and influence are often conflated, but I don’t see anything in Bailey’s statement here that indicates that he’s saying Africans are somehow being controlled…”

    Actually, his arguments clearly intimate this:

    “more Africans are at risk of starvation because of anti-biotech fears fanned by ideological environmentalists and European Union politicians.”

    There is a clear causal argument being made in that statement; these people are causing starvation in Africa. However, I would argue that it is Africans causing starvation in Africa.

    “And while Jean Bart’s point is well taken that quantity and price of food are not necessarily the only factors behind African famine, I find it hard to imagine those factors would have no effect at all. Is that what you’re saying, Jean Bart?”

    Quantity and price are mediated through human institutions (they aren’t just some deus ex machina); human institutions are the key here, and have always been the key when it comes to famine. Blaming these problems on nature or an invisible hand or God is really beside the point and shifts the locus of responsibility from those in charge – human beings. In other words, a market-based system is great, and I favor it, and I believe it is the best of all systems; but I don’t view it as anything other than it is – a human tool.

  42. fyodor,

    Or let me put it more bluntly: I am a firm advocate of human agency, and Ron Bailey is not. I think this is especially evident from the article Bailey published some time ago on not “worrying about what you eat”; which is a paternalistic, insulting approach that anti-GMO individuals and groups have seized on (and rightly so).

  43. “With the salmon thing. It’s only environmental damage if you assume “Native salmon, good – hybrid salmon, bad,” or that the native fish somehow has some inherent “right” to exist.”

    Um, no. The modified salmon are less adapted to survive in the wild – slower and more docile and fatter. They get eaten more as babies, they can’t catch as much to eat. Not bad enough that a released specimen will definitely die before mating, but definitely less well-adapted than natural salmon.

    Most of the time, this wouldn’t be a problem, since the released speciments and their offspring die off over time and the gene pool reverts back to being as it was before the release. But with the prospect of releases happening regularly, and with wild salmon populations already endangered (especially in those regions, naturally, where salmon farming is most profitable), the “temporary” erosion of the salmon’s “fitness” could be both long term enough and widespread enough to cause the salmon population to be outcompeted and their numbers crash, possibly to the point of extinction.

    So it’s only if problem if you believe “Native salmon – good, no salmon – bad.”

  44. So, what is the supposed purpose in introducing the fat salmon in the first place? I missed something somewhere.

  45. J.B. – I agree that Bailey is a bit bombastic, and gives environmentalists too much credit for effectiveness when he links their propaganda directly to African starvation. But it is also paternalistic NOT to offer promising technology to those who want it if it can do them some good.

    I do believe politics in Africa has more to do with the suffering and starvation there than anything else. Primitive agriculture, tribal feuds and ridiculous birthrates have roles to play there, too. But I also agree with Norman Borlaug who advocates GM as a powerful tool in helping make standard foodstuffs like casaba hardier, more drought-resistant, and thus, more abundant.

  46. Okay, going back through the posts, I think I understand now that supposedly these slow, fat, giant Frankensalmon who are apparently real babe magnets are somehow escaping from fish farms into the wild, not put there on purpose? Have I got that right, now?

    Well, jeez, no problem. We have telapia farms all over Iowa now. Big, fat, isolated tanks. They’d have to get out and walk if they wanted to join the sunfish in the river. Maybe what’s needed isn’t genetic engineering, but the old-fashioned structural variety

  47. “Well, jeez, no problem. We have telapia farms all over Iowa now. Big, fat, isolated tanks.”

    This is something I’ve wondered about with farmed salmon, but not enough to actually bother putting some effort into finding out about it. Why is it so difficult to prevent their escape into the wild? My understanding is that they’re kept in offshore cages, which would cause environmental problems even if they didn’t escape (contamination of surrounding water by food, waste products, other stuff?). Why can’t they be raised in isolated tanks the way some other fish are? Is there something about the temperature or some other quality of the ocean water that would be unfeasible to replicate? The amount of space needed? Something else obvious I’m missing?

  48. Jean Bart,

    The only thing Bailey’s statement directly attributes to non-Africans is fanning the fears of bio-tech. The effect of this, he intimates, is to lead to greater starvation in Africa. Nowhere does he say non-Africans make Africans starve or refuse non-GM foods.

    No one said market forces come from God. All human institutions are flawed, so it makes no sense to say any particular price or shortage is just due to bad institutions. More efficient institutions would increase availability, sure, but so would more abundant and cheaper products. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Whatever Bailey did or didn’t mean, look at it like this. If Europeans and environmentalists influence or convince African officials to reject GM foods which would be cheaper and more plentiful, this would be bad anywhere. And where those bad institutions you speak of are leading to famine, this would contribute to greater famine.

  49. J and Jeff Clothier,

    Where’s a damn salmon farming expert when you need one?!?

    Suffice to say, Jeff Clothier, if it’s as simple as you suggest, then we have nothing to worry about. But something tells me that J is right and there’s more to it than you think you know.

  50. fyodor,

    To repeat:

    “more Africans are at risk of starvation because of anti-biotech fears fanned by ideological environmentalists and European Union politicians.”

    Bailey tries to establish a direct causal link between starving Africans and the actitivities of anti-GMO people.

    “More efficient institutions would increase availability, sure, but so would more abundant and cheaper products.”

    Better and cheaper products arise from humans and human actions and human institutions (which are themselves of course created by humans); they don’t just spring fully-formed from the Earth. Humans do all these things; markets don’t exist unless humans make them, nor do other human institutions. What you are arguing for is just another type of determinism.

    “If Europeans and environmentalists influence or convince African officials to reject GM foods which would be cheaper and more plentiful, this would be bad anywhere.”

    Nevertheless, the decision lies with the Africans, not with the activists. Its all about human agency. And let’s be blunt here – many of these activists are Americans.

  51. Jean Bart,

    Yes, a causal link between GMO activists and more starving Africans. He does say “more” as you quote him yourself. Thus it is clear he does not say nor imply that GMO activists are the only reason for African famine. Plus, a causal link does not imply control. It can easily imply influence. One can read “control” into what Bailey says, but what he says does not necessarily mean that. So again, why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

    The decision to fan the fears of bio-tech rests with the anti-GMO activists, and it’s not implausible that they may have influence on African leaders. But I’ll grant you this: Bailey does not demonstrate how significant that influence might be. If you’re expressing skepticism that African leaders give a whit what non-GMO activists have to say, you may have the seeds of a point. Bailey’s example of a single youth delegate citing bogus information fails to convince by itself. I’m open either way pending more information. But what I’m not open to is all your unfounded charges about Bailey not believing in African free-will and such based on your reading things into what he said that he did not directly say.

  52. Sigh, look at it another way, in general, abstract terms.

    Some people are screaming “X is bad.” Some officials of a country institute policies consistent with this belief. Citizens of that country are starving. Bon Railey comes along a theory that “X is good” and can increase food supply. Doesn’t it maybe, just possibly make sense for Bon to take issue with the people screaming “X is bad”??? Okay, maybe he should take issue with the African leaders too. Maybe he overstates the influence of the screaming people by even bringing them up. And maybe he’s got his reasons, too, I don’t know. But I don’t really care, either. Unless you’re going to take issue with “X is good” and agree with “X is bad,” I think it’s pretty damn silly to focus on how people are starving for other issues or how the leaders have their own free will. Seems whether X is good or bad is the much larger issue here. But I’m guess I’m being silly for even bothering to debate with Jean Bart’s silliness.

  53. J – “foreign DNA onto a new genetic background?”

    There is no such thing as “foreign DNA.” This is a failure in scientific understanding, and it is understandable. There is no such thing as “fish DNA,” “corn DNA,” “human DNA” etc. DNA is DNA, and all species on Earth share a large percentage of the same code. This is precisely one of the mechanisms that ALLOWS for the coevolution you describe.

    One is thinking phenotypically, that is, thinking of the macroorganism one sees and interacts with, not genotypically, which refers to the genetic level of an organism, when one speaks about “inserting foreign DNA.” When I left Pioneer Hi-Bred, there was quite a bit of internal research going on about how much gene transfer between species goes on in what we refer to as “nature.” Turns out there are more avenues for such transfer, primarily viruses, than we think. So the idea of cross-species gene transfer is only novel because we were not as previously aware of it as we are now.

  54. Jeff Clothier,

    Pioneer Hi-Bred is the company that Monsanto bought, correct? Did you ever meet Robert Shapiro? He was not the greatest public relations expert in the world. 🙂

  55. J.B. – No, DuPont bought Pioneer in 2000. I was in corporate communications at the time, and worked fairly closely with Chad Holliday, DuPont CEO, and the management of my company overseeing the change. Monsanto was and is a competitor, and has been a thorn in the side of the industry for years. Their bad PR and overly aggressive tactics have set the cause of biotech years behind where it ought to be in terms of public acceptance.

  56. “The anti-GM arguments about cross pollinating the surrounding plants is pathetic. Let’s do a quick run down of the area surrounding a farm. How much “natural vegetation” is there?”

    In addition to J’s takedown, above, this argument also ignores the fact that “the area surrounding a farm” usually includes lots of other farmers’ fields. Although I was only an English major, I’m pretty certain that cross pollination between two species of corn is within the realm of the possible.

  57. Jeff Clothier,

    Alright, I was mistaken then. Yes, I totally agree regarding Monsanto; they did a particularly horrible job in Europe.

  58. joe,

    It is, but the danger is not as bad as it seems.

  59. Jean Bart – AGREED! Never met Shapiro, but the policies he implemented, particularly around patenting and licensing, alienated others in the industry, the press, the public, and most of all CUSTOMERS. Unfortunately, the octopus that is Monsanto is so large, with so many arms, that it manages to thrive, don’t ask me how or why. There are other more responsible players in the industry, and I will show my bias here to say that Pioneer/DuPont is one of the more responsible.

    joe – You are quite right that cross-pollenation occurs. That’s how conventional hybridization takes place. If you’re talking about corn being grown for seed, it is typically detasselled, neutered, if you will, to prevent accidental cross-pollenation. Farmers planting commerical corn often do the same to prevent just that sort of accidental hybridization. Planting buffer zones around a field, leaving fallow ground between fields, and double-cropping, that is, planting rows of beans around the perimeter of a corn field, are just some of the methods by which accidental cross-pollenation is combated.

    There is a phenomenon called “hybrid vigor,” which means that the offspring of a cross of two different strains often grows and yields better than the parents, but that hybrid vigor tends to fail in succeeding generations of the hybrid. That is why seed-saving of hybrid corn for replanting doesn’t work well. Probably more than you wanted to know. 😉

  60. joe,

    Try the following article:

    Mary A. Rieger, et. al., Pollen-Mediated Movement of Herbicide Resistance Between Commercial Canola Fields, vol. 296 SCIENCE, 28 June 2002.

    Also compare the following articles on gene flow of transgenic DNA into “traditional” maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico:

    David Quist, et. al. Transgenic DNA introgressed into raditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, vol. 414 NATURE, 29 November 2001.

    Rebuttals by:

    Matthew Metz, et. al., Suspect evidence of transgenic contamination, vol. 416 NATURE, 11 April 2002.

    and

    Nick Kaplinsky, et. al., Maize transgene results in Mexico are artefacts, vol. 416 NATURE, 11 April 2002.

  61. J.B. – Excellent citations, as that incident in Mexico was a big thorn in our side, even though the evidence on both sides is controversial.

    If I may summarize for joe (Can you tell I love this topic?), maize, what we call corn, is a crop derived from a Latin American grass which still exists in its original form, the seed from which is still gathered rather than cultivated as a foodstuff by indigenous people. The articles Jean cites point to possible gene transfer from commerical GM corn to the native grass. All it says is basically that the gene may be there. Doesn’t say much about whether that’s good or bad, which is to be expected in a scientific publication.

    Canola, likewise, was cultivated from wild rape, and there is probably more evidence for what the industry calls “advantigeous presence” of GM traits from commerical canola in wild rape populations in Canada and test plots in the U.K.

    What these studies don’t say is that the wild type is, by virtue of the fact that it has withstood the test of centuries against all sorts of competition, often much, much hardier than commercial crops which are bred for food or fiber, not necessarily for plant vigor.

    That’s why Bt corn or genetically-modified canola doesn’t pop up like dandelions in your front yard.

  62. Good stuff, Jeff.

    JB, “It is, but the danger is not as bad as it seems.” I don’t know how bad the danger is. What concerns me is that the rollout has occured before question was adequately answered.

  63. joe – That is a legitimate concern, and one that is shared by many. But consider – Seed companies advertise widely, they have very vocal trade groups who are active in getting the word out about new, and hopefully better, products, the products of GM processes are rigorously tested by the companies who market them both for safety and effectiveness – and if they fail in either way, there is no profit in bringing them to market – and, finally, they are submitted for approval by the USDA and FDA as well as other agencies.

    What, in your mind, would have constituted a more timely “rollout” of GM crops, who should have been in charge of it, and what level of testing would have been adequate to assuage both your fears, and those of, say, Friends of the Earth and their ilk?

    The answer is, for those who will never accept the technology, no level of testing or approval would be enough.

    Nobody sneaked up on the public and put weird genetic material in their food. The companies who market these products are, quite rightly, in it for the money. So, they TRUMPETED these products to the marketplace on the strength of their increased yield potential, ability to fight off pests without applying pesticides, resistance to the most benign yet effective herbicide, Roundup, and in the future, traits that will increase the nutritive and material value of commodity crops.

    The fact that most people don’t pay attention to agriculture until the price of food goes up or the Sierra Club has a hissy fit is not an indication of bad acts on the part of the biotech industry.

  64. Jeff Clothier,

    A good example of what you are talking about is the soybean for animal feed that was produced by Pioneer Hi-Bred that contained an allergenic protein from brasil nuts; Pioneer Hi-Bred, once it realized the problem, abandoned the project, without any government intervention as I recall.

  65. J.B. – BINGO! That, in fact, is the only documented example of such a substance occuring in a GM product, and the project was indeed killed before it reached the commerical stage.

  66. Also, it was killed despite the fact that that protein was completely digested in the animal gut, and would not even have been ingested by those eating the meat of such an animal. Truly, it is the biotech companies, who stand to lose bajillions of dollars if their products hurt people, who truly practice the precautionary principle.

  67. fyodor,

    Your argument denies human agency; therefore I reject it.

    “But I don’t really care, either.”

    I am sure that you don’t care.

    “…I think it’s pretty damn silly to focus on how people are starving for other issues or how the leaders have their own free will.”

    Why is it silly? After all, they are the decision-makers, not the activists. Indeed, make the focus on the activists gives these decision-makers a lot of cover, and allows them avoid responsibility.

    “Seems whether X is good or bad is the much larger issue here.”

    Why is it that the larger issue?

  68. Jeff Clothier said: ?There is no such thing as “foreign DNA.” This is a failure in scientific understanding, and it is understandable. There is no such thing as “fish DNA,” “corn DNA,” “human DNA” etc.?

    There?s obviously no such thing as foreign DNA in the sense that all DNA is the same chemical structure of sugars, bases, attached methyl groups, etc. But there?s just as obviously a substantial difference between the genomes of fish, corn, human, etc. Is this sense, there is most definitely foreign DNA.

    ?DNA is DNA, and all species on Earth share a large percentage of the same code.?

    This is an oversimplification; there are certain genes, which are quite similar even between the most distantly related organisms. There are other genes that are quite different even between closely related species. And there are other genes which are found in certain species but have no known homology with genes in other species.

    “One is thinking phenotypically, that is, thinking of the macroorganism one sees and interacts with, not genotypically….”

    The phenotype is a completely appropriate level at which to consider the effects of GM, since it is at the phenotype, not the genotype, that organisms interact with each other and their environment. GM companies are not interested in creating organisms with the genotype of ?genetically modified;? they?re interested in creating organisms with the phenotype of pest resistance, drought tolerance, etc. And yes, there is some degree of horizontal gene transfer between distantly related species mediated by various viruses. The degree of this transfer and its long-term evolutionary impact are certainly not well understood, although we know that it can be very significant. If anything, this is another reason for caution and carefully controlled studies.

    Once again, I don?t want to say that there are no benefits to GM ? there clearly are, and they?re huge; I?m simply saying that there are also legitimate concerns. These concerns can and should be addressed through rigorous testing (and, as far as I understand, to a great extent they are). And I certainly don?t want to ally myself with groups such as Friends of the Earth that see no use for this technology. But statements to the effect that GM is simply a more precise form of breeding or that ?DNA is DNA? strike me as whitewashes that oversimplify and trivialize legitimate questions.

  69. “more Africans are at risk of starvation because of anti-biotech fears fanned by ideological environmentalists and European Union politicians”

    The ideas of control and influence are often conflated, but I don’t see anything in Bailey’s statement here that indicates that he’s saying Africans are somehow being controlled, so I would give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s probably talking about influence. And if he considers the information behind the influence to be wrong and harmful, I don’t see what’s wrong with him saying so. And aren’t there some sort of trade pressures from Europe as well?

    And while Jean Bart’s point is well taken that quantity and price of food are not necessarily the only factors behind African famine, I find it hard to imagine those factors would have no effect at all. Is that what you’re saying, Jean Bart?

    OTOH, can someone tell me why the scare stories about salmon are all wet (if they are)? For those not familiar, supposedly male GM salmon that escape into the wild could end up outcompeting wild salmon for female mates because they’re bigger, and this could be a big problem because…I confess I don’t remember exactly why, either they’re sterile (which I guess would only be a problem if it greatly reduced the number of reproductive males getting mates) or because they’re lousy parents leading to the death of the offspring.

    So, what is it? Nonsense, nothing to worry about, environmental wacko-ism? If it’s true, it’s hard to see how the free market would solve the problem.

  70. At the bottom of this is a value judgement that overrides the scientific: There are those who believe that the products of human science are “unnatural,” and that if it happens in “nature,” that is, by accident or an act of God, it’s good, and if it happens purposely as a result of human action, it’s bad.

    J., our friend the apparent genetic determinist, voices concerns heard often from people of the above mindset while he disavows association with them. That’s fine, J. But maybe you’d care to take a crack at the questions I asked joe earlier, What level, methods, duration and character of tests or studies would be sufficient to satisfy you in this regard, and precisely what makes you think such studies are not now taking place, or have taken place in the past?

  71. Ron Bailey,

    “BTW, I wonder how many European tourists pack their own GMO-free food before daring to visit the United States?”

    BTW, this appears to imply that there are no GM-foods in Europe; which is an incorrect assertion. Indeed, GM-crops are common in Europe; though particular GM-crops may not be.

  72. Jeff Clothier,

    Perhaps it would be worth your while to re-read my 11:43 post, in which I explicitly state that ?as far as I understand, to a great extent [GM crops] are? being rigorously tested. You may also discover that I think there are clearly ?huge? benefits to GM ? not a statement you?re likely to hear from someone with a Friends of the Earth ?mindset,? as you suggest I have.

    I didn?t make an artificial distinction about the goodness or morality of ?natural? vs. ?unnatural,? and I?m not sure how someone reading my previous posts could reasonably reach the conclusion that I did. I?m also not sure how you?ve decided I?m a genetic determinist based on my previous posts (that might depend on exactly what you mean by genetic determinism, since that can be a messy concept).

    Basically, in my posts I did not bring up any perceived failures of tests on GM products, lack of tests on GM products, complaints about the ?unnatural? nature of GM, or anything else along those lines. I hope GM technology continues to be developed and applied (and tested). I addressed what I saw as a misunderstanding of an argument concerning hybridization between GM and non-GM plants, and I addressed what I saw as simplistic and inaccurate statements about the nature of GM vs. traditional breeding.

  73. RE: Salmon – We clearly don’t have enough information, so it’s silly to argue about it.

    RE: Africa – If biotech can really help, and someone is willing to pay for it, hooray! So-called activists with nothing better to do then broadcast screwed-up pseudoscience and collect oodles of donated cash to fund their non-activities get in the way, then proponents need to step up to the plate and get better at PR.

    As for biotech crops being a potential environmental hazard, Africa has plenty of environmental problems as it is, very few of which are due to high technology. Yuppie white guys from the San Fernando Valley sporting Greenpeace badges perhaps need to walk a mile or two in the shoes of a few folks in Nigeria, Kenya, or South Africa before they make pronouncements about what’s good for them.

    Goes for us blogomaniacs, too.

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