The greener portions of the Web were abuzz this morning with the 'conversion' of UK environmentalist Mark Lynas from anti- to pro-GMO campaigner, centering especially on a takedown by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones of many of Lynas's arguments.
The good news is that the organic vs. GMO debate is generally growing more nuanced and particular, moving in from the extremes of "only GMOs can feed the world / GMOs will kill us all!" As Philpott points out, Lynas does make a couple of salient points about the opposition. But he proves apparently unable to counter detailed rebuttals to some of his own newly-streamlined "feed the world" claims. Check this passage dealing with Doug Gurian-Sherman points critiquing Lynas, which the latter called "a couple of minor issues with my speech." But, says Philpott, these points
are, in fact, fundamental. Lynas' pro-GMO arguments hinge on the idea that GMOs are necessary because other ag technologies and methods aren't up to the task. But that's just not true. Gurian-Sherman counters that conventional breeding actually outpaces genetic engineering when it comes to increasing crop yields. And he points to the work of Iowa State University scientist Matt Liebman, who co-authored a peer-reviewed 2011 paper (along with a USDA scientist among others) showing that diverse crop rotations along with nitrogen-fixing cover crops maintain crop yields while drastically reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides while leaving groundwater cleaner.
The argument over the best way, with all factors considered, to improve agriculture to benefit humankind is not going to be over anytime soon. A Stanford study got major coverage this past fall for its declaration that organic
offers no advantage. But the scope of the study seemed to many to rely on organic cherry-picking and ignored questions that would be more difficult to fit into the anti-organic rubric. As Mark Bittman put it in the New York Times, "the study was like declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats when it comes to blunt-object head injuries." He goes further to quote executive director of the Columbia Foundation Susan Clark:
“The researchers started with a narrow set of assumptions and arrived at entirely predictable conclusions. Stanford should be ashamed of the lack of expertise about food and farming among the researchers, a low level of academic rigor in the study, its biased conclusions, and lack of transparency about the industry ties of the major researchers on the study. Normally we busy people would simply ignore another useless academic study, but this study was so aggressively spun by the PR masters that it requires a response.”
The industry ties were one thing, the algorithms used another. Or rather, some of the industry ties seemed to determine the algorithm. At least one co-author, Ingram Olkin, is known for the “Dr. Ingram Olkin multivariate Logistic Risk Function,” known as a "key component in Big Tobacco's use of anti-science to attack whistleblowers and attempt to claim cigarettes are perfectly safe."
Frankly, it's hard not to see the pushback against organics and for GMOs as part of one push: To line the pockets of chemical pesticide manufacturers. And it's the persistence of pesticides in the GMO system that brings a fundamental flaw that remains even if one could wash away all the more colorful stories about its failings. If more food means more pesticides, that has lots of ramifications down the road, including, possibly... less food. Scientists at the European Food Safety Authority today released a report tying the use of certain insecticides more strongly than ever to the deaths of honeybees, which are a crucial player in keeping most of our food growing.
European authorities said three insecticides long suspected of contributing to plunging populations of honey bees pose risks to the insects and called for such chemicals to be placed under tougher scrutiny.
The finding by scientists at the European Food Safety Authority adds fuel to a debate that has raged in recent years in North America and Europe over the cause of mass deaths in the bee colonies that farmers depend on to pollinate their crops. And it could raise pressure on U.S. regulators, who are now reviewing the environmental effects of the chemicals, to withdraw them from the lucrative U.S. market.
However, here in the US, the EPA has dragged its feet on the issue, seemingly afraid of stepping on any industry toes.
The EPA has refused emergency requests from environmental groups to remove a number of neonicotinoids from the market. But the agency, responding to public pressure, has accelerated a periodic safety review of the chemicals to see if additional restrictions are needed on their use.
It's an issue that bears watching, and speaking out about, as we go forward and it evolves yet again, with another conversion, another study, another debate. The particulars may change, but I think the bottom line remains: Bees are necessary to our survival. Chemical poisons, however profitable they may be for a select few, aren't.