Tag: GMO

NYT Article Understates the Benefits of GMOs

An Oct. 29, 2016, article by Danny Hakim in The New York Times gives a decidedly skewed view of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is based on the author’s presumption that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were supposed to accomplish two things: (1) increase crop yields; and (2) reduce the use of chemical pesticides.  In essence, Hakim sets up two straw men and proceeds to knock them down using questionable analysis.

Hakim compares crop yields in the United States and Canada, where GMO use is widespread, with yields in Western Europe, where GMOs generally are not allowed.  He finds that North America had “gained no discernible advantage in yields” relative to France, Germany, and other European countries.

As an example, Hakim includes a chart showing that the trend lines for yield increases of rapeseed in Europe and canola (a variety of rapeseed) in Canada are parallel, so that both added a similar amount of output per hectare. What he neglects to explain (or perhaps doesn’t appreciate) is that the percentage increase in European yield from 1995 to 2014 was modest. It rose from about 3.1 metric tons (MT) to 3.7 MT per hectare, an increase of approximately 19 percent.[i] Canada’s yield grew about the same quantity per hectare – from 1.4 MT to 1.9 MT – but the percentage increase was much greater at roughly 36 percent.  This is because Europe grows winter rapeseed under conditions that allow for high yields, while Canada grows spring canola under conditions in which lower yields are the norm.

So which farmers experienced a greater increase in profitability? Compared to their 1995 earnings (assuming constant prices), European famers managed to increase their per-hectare revenues by 19 percent. Canadian famers, on the other hand, achieved an increase that was almost twice as high – 36 percent. Casual observation would suggest that Canadian canola growers have become relatively more profitable over time than their European colleagues. One factor that appears to have increased Canadian profitability is the planting of GMO seeds.

As for Hakim’s argument that herbicide use has increased in the United States, especially on soybeans, it’s not clear that this is a bad thing. Most of the soybeans grown in North America have been genetically modified so that they are not harmed by Roundup (glyphosate), an herbicide that kills many weeds. Roundup has the advantage of being less toxic than some other herbicides, and it breaks down quickly in the soil. Anyone who has spent hours in a soybean field on a hot, humid day pulling weeds by hand is not likely to object to the idea that the same result could be achieved by modern biotechnology.

The bottom line is that Hakim largely ignores the reality that many thousands of individual farmers make decisions each year regarding which seeds to plant and which agronomic practices to use. The fact that so many farmers choose to plant costly GMO seeds (in countries where they are allowed) indicates that the added expense produces a real benefit. It seems improbable that those agricultural entrepreneurs all are making poor decisions about what is best for their businesses. The safe assumption is that users of biotechnology expect it will lead to a marginal increase in revenue that is greater than the marginal increase in cost. In the real world, it looks like the use of GMOs is being driven by favorable economics.

Mr. Hakim may think that GMO “technology has fallen short of the promise.”  The marketplace, however, understands things very differently.


[i]The data included in the article are in graphic form, so it’s not possible to determine precise numbers.

When Bad Regulation Isn’t a Bad Idea

Last Friday, President Obama quietly signed legislation requiring special labeling for commercial foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—plants and animals with desirable genetic traits that were directly implanted in a laboratory. Gene modification typically yields plants and animals that take less time to reach maturity, have greater resistance to drought or disease, or have other desirable traits like sweeter corn or meatier livestock. Yet some people oppose these scientific advances, for reasons that aren’t all that clear.

Most of the foods that humans and animals have consumed for millennia have been genetically modified. Usually this was done through the unpredictable, haphazard technique of cross-fertilization, a technique whose development marked the dawn of agriculture. Yet the new law targets only the highly precise gene manipulations done in laboratories. The labeling requirement comes in spite of the fact that countless scientific organizations—including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the British Royal Society—have concluded that GMOs pose no more threat to human health than new organisms developed through traditional methods.

Accordingly, some Obama critics have responded to his bill-signing by sarcastically quoting his earlier vows to rely on science when policymaking. The cleverer critics have even asked what comes next: dihydrogen monoxide warnings? Labels that foods contain no fairies or gremlins?

The critics overlook the incredible weakness of the new law, which can be satisfied with something as unobtrusive as a nondescript QR code linking to a GMO notice. In fact, anti-GMO activists oppose the new law because it preempts more rigorous regulation. And that’s exactly what President Obama and Congress intended to do.

The immediate reason for the new legislation is a more onerous 2014 Vermont law that would have affected the food supply chain, raising consumer prices nationally. Similar requirements were percolating in other states, advanced by anti-GMO activists (and agribusiness groups that don’t want competition from GMO products). With a stroke of the pen, President Obama and federal lawmakers have used a bad but meager requirement to counteract those far worse state laws.

This is not the only time the Obama White House has helped consumers and advanced science, to the frustration of the anti-GMO crowd. His administration previously approved the AquAdvantage salmon that had languished in bureaucratic review hell for decades.

Cato’s Regulation has covered GMOs and the broader biotech controversy for decades. You can see a couple of those articles if you click on the last two links above. Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler will have an article on the new labeling law in the magazine’s fall issue.

Pass the “Parmesan-like” Cheese, Please: Will Battle over Geographic Indications Kill TTIP?

The word “daunting” comes to mind when considering the task before U.S. and EU trade negotiators, who are meeting in Miami this week for the 11th round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, which commenced in late spring of 2013.  If a TTIP deal is eventually reached, the 11th round may only be remembered as part of the early era of the negotiations. Not only are there so many issues on the table, but the number of issues that have drifted from low-hanging fruit to difficult, and from difficult to intractable, seems to be growing.

One seemingly intractable issue is the matter of “Geographic Indications,” (GIs) and what protections, if any, they should be afforded. EU negotiators consider GIs to be intellectual property deserving of robust protection, which includes proscribing use of words like “Champagne,” “Parma” ham, and “Muenster” cheese (yes, GIs could just as aptly signify gastrointestinal issues) unless the product is made in the named region using processes and standards traditional in the region.  It’s a priority issue for the EU negotiators, but the U.S. negotiators aren’t buying it at all.

My colleague Bill Watson has immersed himself in the details of the geographic indications issue and, in his Cato Online Forum essay (published in conjunction with last week’s Cato TTIP conference), describes the conflicting EU and U.S. positions and explains why there is very little room for compromiseBill does offer up some possible solutions, but he’s not betting the house that it will work:

The United States has demands of its own in the TTIP negotiations that are at least as unpopular in Europe as is GI protection in the United States.  American negotiators have been tasked with the near impossible mission of opening up Europe’s market to genetically modified crops and meat from hormone-treated cattle, ractopamine-fed swine, and chlorine-washed chicken.

It may be possible that TTIP could include a grand bargain in which some combination of these agricultural demands are met along with a commitment for stronger GI protection in the United States.  For traditional trade barriers like tariffs and quotas, that kind of bargain would be a welcome outcome and, indeed, is the basic way that reciprocal agreements work to liberalize trade.  

In the regulatory sphere, however, this sort of political horse-trading raises questions of democratic legitimacy and is, in any event, not a way to arrive at well-reasoned policies.  Many regulatory policies that impede market access are motivated by non-economic interests.  And the benefits for foreign producers that stem from changing those policies aren’t going to mollify irate domestic constituencies.  

The tradeoff strikes at the heart of the difference in American and European cultural approaches to agriculture.  It’s difficult to imagine that TTIP negotiators could strike a deal that overcomes the European desire to protect traditional foods and ways of life or America’s ingrained preference for high-tech production and innovation.

Read Bill’s essay here.  Read all of the Cato Online Forum essays here.

 

 

High-profile Paper Linking GMO Corn to Cancer in Rats Retracted

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

 

About a year ago, a major paper appeared in a high-profile scientific journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, claiming a link between genetically modified corn and cancer in rats. The findings were published by a research team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini of the University of Caen in France. It was widely trumpeted by people opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Simply put, making a GMO dramatically accelerates the normally slow process of traditional plant breeding, which takes many generations to stabilize some desired new trait in the plant genome, making the philosophical objections to it seem somewhat naïve.

While Séralini’s finding was heralded by anti-GMO activists as an “I told you so,” the paper was promptly, harshly, and widely criticized by geneticists and the general scientific community, many of whom lobbied the journal directly to address the shortcomings in the paper.

The most stinging criticism is going to sound painfully like what we see so often in environmental science, where researchers purposefully design an experiment likely to produce a desired results. Two months ago we documented a similar process that pretty much guaranteed that the chemical currently the darling of green enrages, bisphenyl-A, would “cause” cancer.

In Seralini’s case, the research team used a strain of rats with a known strong proclivity to develop cancer if left to age long enough, which is what they allowed, obeying the maxim that “if you let something get old enough, it will get cancer.”