GM-resistant corn rootworm: getting the facts straight

guest blog

by Robert Wager

The segment GM-Resistant Rootworms and the Future of Farming was aired on May 29th on CBC’s The Current. The program reviewed a particular type of genetically modified crop – Bt corn – and how it has performed over time. The program had several guest speakers with differing points of view.  It was an interesting program overall, but there were a few keys facts missing:

  1. GM-resistant corn rootworms have been found in less than 1% of US corn fields so the context/scale of the problem was not made clear on the program (for more on this see the Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division (BPPD) IRM team’s review of Monsanto’s Cry3Bb1 resistance monitoring data (EPA-HQ-OPP-2011-0922-0037) (2010), Table 2).
  2. Integrated pest management (IPM) can include organic production methods if they are deemed best for a given farming situation. The suggestion that IPM is separate from organic farming is simply not true.
  3. The suggestion that only organic farming practices enhance soil ecology is blatantly false.  The National Academy of Science 2010 report, Impact of GE crops on farm Sustainability in the US stated farmers who have adopted GE crop technology have seen “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”  The organic farmer spokesperson on the program ignores this fact.  A good example is the well documented soil enhancements that are made possible with reduced/no tillage farming that Roundup Ready crops permit.  Tilling for weeds (the organic option) is quite destructive to soil structure.
  4. Organic agriculture is not chemical free. They use a different set of chemicals (coppers, sulfates). The environmental impact quotient (EIQ) for some of the organic alternatives is far higher (more negative impact on the environment) than conventional or biotechnology counterparts.
  5. The significant yield drag for organic agriculture is not mentioned by the organic production advocate.  On average decades of research show a 15-30% yield reduction for organic crop production (see Alex Avery’s book The Truth About Organic Foods (2006)).  This would have a very significant impact on food prices and farmer incomes.
  6. There was no mention that organic agriculture use the same Bt that was the main topic of the show. Organic crop advocates often vilify Bt in GM crops and then use the very same Bt in their own agricultural practices.  Where was that fact in the discussion?
rootworm damage NDSU

Source: North Dakota State U http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/

Having outlined a few shortcomings of the show’s content, I would like to congratulate the panel on the The Current’s program for shedding light on the need for better IPM practices in farming.  No one system of agriculture will solve all of the problems inherent in food production.  The world will need to double food production by 2050 and for that we require many systems of agricultural production in order to address the challenge.

Robert Wager
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo BC
robert.wager@viu.ca

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rob wager 1

Robert Wager has been a faculty member of the Biology Dept at Vancouver Island University for the past 18 years.  He has a BSc. in Microbiology and a Masters in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  Rob has been interested in Genetically Modified (GM) crops and food with emphasis on public education and public policy.  He has written dozens of mainstream articles for the general public that help explain different aspects of the technology.  You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobetWager1 or review his work at: http://web.viu.ca/wager

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper

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Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

Mythbusting 101: “Don’t say it – spray it”

In my bio, I claim to be a ‘mythbuster’ of sorts.  I like to clear up misconceptions about agriculture and food production. It amazes me what kind of nonsensical information gets circulated and how readily some people believe it.

Today is the first in my series entitled “Mythbusting 101.” I was inspired by a discussion on Facebook that centred around one particular photo.  Brian Scott (The Farmer’s Life) circulated the photo with the comment: “I hate out-of-context garbage like this. Especially when I see how many people *like* and *share* these things. There is absolutely no context given as to what is going on here.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Mythbusting 101: When you see pictures and words combined like this, channel your inner skeptic. This photo is grossly misleading (and this is just one example of many that are out there).

Although we can’t find the original source of the photo (it was posted on FB through Anti-Media), we are certain that this guy is not spraying water. He is spraying a pesticide. Labels on pesticides provide instructions on how to SAFELY apply these products (including ORGANIC approved pesticide products as they are toxic too). This ‘gear’ is standard protocol when administering any pesticides to crops (organic or otherwise). And… this photo has NOTHING to do with GMO foods, or labeling for that matter. In fact, this man appears to be spraying flowers or nursery stock of some kind.

A photo with the accompanying text like this is an example of what I call ‘misinformation in action’. Someone (a ‘myth-monger’ as I refer to them) is intentionally (sometimes unintentionally) misleading people.

We need to think critically about how food makes it from the field to our plate. Food is a very personal thing. That means that we need to also think critically about what we see and read about ag and food production. We should ensure that we are interpreting the information correctly and that the information *we* share with others is accurate.

If you are not sure, ask someone. Ask a farmer. Ask Brian. And make sure to check out the comments below. I was delighted to have others weigh in with their opinions on this matter.  I like to call this ‘crowd-sourced mythbusting.’ :O)

Live TV experience provides fertile ground for learning to talk #GMOs

I was invited to join Kevin Chorney on Calgary NOW this past week to discuss GMOs. I just starting giving public talks about the science of genetic engineering and its application in ag and food production. The topic “GMOs” is a controversial one. And, to be honest, depending upon who is involved and their respective agendas, things can get ugly pretty darn quick.

big bad GMOS

PROGRAM FORMAT: Fortunately, that didn’t happen in this case. Overall, the LIVE TV interview (my first) was a good experience. The folks at Calgary NOW were gracious and hospitable. But I think there were a couple of fundamental problems with the format of this particular program that are worthwhile highlighting:

The first thing is that we covered way too much ground in the time that we had. GMOs is a broad, complex topic that brings up a whole bunch of questions like:

  • What is the science behind genetic engineering?
  • Which crops that are genetically engineered for what traits and why?
  • Where are GE crops grown?
  • Are GMOs regulated? How? By who?
  • What about patents and intellectual property?
  • What about developing nations?
  • How about ‘corporate control’ of seeds and farming?
  • Then there’s a whole other realm of insights into GMOs that can’t be ignored.
  • The tactics of interest groups, all the myths that are perpetuated in the media and, of course, public perceptions around ag and food production as a result.

Whew. Lots. And with only thirty minutes, we should have probably picked only one or two things and focused on those.

The second thing was that there seemed to be a mis-match in the expertise of guests. Brent was the other invited guest. He and his wife own and operate a gluten-free food wholesale company in Calgary. They provide local grocery stores and restaurants with gluten-free fresh food fare. Brent is a very knowledgeable chap with years of experience in the wholesale/retail food industry. I kept waiting for our host, Kevin, to link our expertise together in some way. It never really happened until later in the program when I figured out that they were trying to elude to a causal link between genetically modified foods and Celiac disease / gluten-intolerance.

Please note, currently there is no genetically engineered wheat on the marketFor those of you that were watching and if it wasn’t made clear, I would like to convey this one factual bit (again): There has been no causal link established between genetically engineered food and harms to human healthNone. Mountains of scientific evidence attest to the safety of GE crops and food (eg National Research Council 2004; European Commission 2010).

causal link ge and health

LESSONS LEARNED: My hubby ‘B’ (and #1 Fan) came with me to the Calgary NOW studio that night. He played ‘arm-chair quarterback.’ I like having him along as he always provides me with good, honest feedback. That night was no different:

B: “To the viewer, your presentation of the facts kind of made you look like a Monsanto supporter.”

Me: “What? Really?” […as Cami mentally back-peddles to review what was said]

In my efforts to participate in the dialogue and to share the facts as I know them, I think that I may have missed the mark in ‘good communication’. I am like many academics. We are often so busy mentally working to convey the facts accurately that sometimes we forget to frame and communicate broader more positive messages about the great things that science does for society. When I come off as a flag-waving fan of anything I am demonstrating bias. That was not the intent behind the information that I shared on the program. My intent is always to present the evidence; the facts. When I do that incorrectly, I am doing a disservice to all the good science that continues to be done in agriculture.

missed the mark

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: So, for those of you that actually watched the program, I would just like to clarify a few things:

  • Many of the crop varieties that have been developed to improve ag productivity have been developed by the public sector (universities and public research institutes) and other international not-for-profit organizations. Canada is a leader in the world in these kind of developments. We should be proud of that.
  • Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market.
  • Would I like to see more competition in the ag biotechnology industry? Of course! Who wouldn’t? But did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years? And just to clarify, the system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.
  • Nobody wants to see monopolistic control of seeds. Farmers have options. There are hundreds of unrestricted, off-patent and non-genetically-modified seeds that can be freely accessed. Farmers often use farm-saved seed (mostly cereals) as part of their crop rotation and risk management strategies. They choose to go with genetically modified varieties if they see it as a benefit to their operation. In fact, here is what Brian Scott, a multi-generational farmer from Indiana, says about it:

“…I look at it right now as division of labour. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and farmers are great at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fibre.”

  • And what about those damn patents? If someone (anyone) invents something, they should be able to protect that invention long enough to make back the investment for providing a valuable product to the market. Our intellectual property system, faults and all, is the only system that we have to protect our inventions for a limited period of time. How can we change that? Well, I’m not sure (definitely not my ‘wheelhouse’).

THE TENUOUS LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FAITH: We live in a world where faith is a part of our social fabric. As a researcher, though, I don’t have the luxury to believe anything. I am obligated to examine the evidence and present the facts. Period. In terms of what we consume and the products we buy, it is important that we distinguish between the facts and faith. A good illustrative example of this is in the development of bridges and buildings where structural efficacy depends on evidence based engineering science and not on faith. Our safety depends on it.

As for ag and food production, I will continue to present my knowledge on science and agriculture using an evidence-based approach. I will continue to convey messages like: if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need 2 billion more hectares available to produce what we produce today. I will remind everyone that we need to raise global agricultural productivity by another 60% in order to meet demands for food in 2050. To meet those demands and other grand challenges (climate change, drought, pests and diseases the world over) in an environmentally friendly way, we need science; good science including genetic engineering techniques.

A RETURN TO CONVERSATION: Back to the Calgary NOW discussion(s). How, in hindsight, could we have changed the format to better suit the expertise that was at the table? Well, in my opinion, it might have been good to just narrow the talk down to the subject of ‘wheat’ – and just wheat. I think that Brent, Kevin and I could have had a great dialogue about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance and about the history, myths and facts around wheat development and production.

There are many of us out there that are trying to communicate the realities of ag and food production and/or science and we are all doing it in different ways. We have to continue to share our respective knowledge by participating in discussions on programs like Calgary NOW, by giving public talks, by sharing our stories and by having conversations. There are gaps in knowledge and many of us just don’t understand the bigger picture of ag and food production.

By the way, I put myself in that latter ‘camp’ too – so much yet to learn.

And I admit it. I might just need a little more media training. ;o)

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Other good sources as it relates to this post:

Want to know more about GM? Check out Emily Anthes’ article in the New York Post  (March 9, 2013) “Don’t be Afraid of Genetic Modification

Steve Savage gives a fantastic overview of the patent system as it relates to plants in his blog “A Defense of Plant and Crop Related Patents

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References:

National Research Council (2004). “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects.”

European Commission (2010). “A Decade of EU Funded GMO Research: 2001 – 2010.