Hakim’s Effort to Skewer Biotech Crops in Sunday's NY Times

Danny Hakim’s attempt to skewer biotech crops in his recent article on the front page Sunday’s New York Times (Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, Oct. 29, 2016) is skewed from beginning to end.  His insight – what he says the debate has missed – is that genetic modification has not accelerated increases in crop yields.

Well – duh! – they weren’t meant to.  The two major modifications in widespread use today are resistance to certain types of pests and tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate.  These biotech traits were designed to be advantageous to farmers by decreasing their input costs through reduced use of insecticides, and reduced necessity for weed control.  So citing yield data is simply disingenuous.

It’s kind of like accusing the body shop that just fixed your dented car door of not making your engine run better.

Indeed, he goes on to say the promise of genetic modification was that herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops “…would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.” 

Hmm…this might actually be true, although these modifications would not be expected to directly impact the rate of increase in crop yields.

Economist Matin Qaim, who has examined the impact of GM crops in detail, writes me by email:

“…it is not surprising that yields for canola and sugar beets have not increased faster in Canada and the US than in Europe. The only GM trait commercially available for canola and sugar beet is herbicide tolerance. Instead of higher yields, herbicide-tolerant GM crops have contributed to reductions in herbicide costs, labor time, machinery time, and fuel use. Thus, herbicide-tolerant crops have also helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production.”

But Qaim also draws a more nuanced picture:

“For cotton and corn, positive yield effects did occur, as for these crops insecticide-resistant GM traits are also available (in addition to herbicide tolerance). Some of the insects that are controlled by Bt (i.e., the insect resistance traits) are not effectively controlled in non-GM crops. So GM crops with more effective insect control have higher yields. The article by Hakim does not say much about cotton. But it argues that corn that yield developments were not faster in North America (with GM crops) than in Europe (largely without GM crops). This comparison is misleading. First, the insects that Bt corn controls are not a major problem in most regions of Europe, so they do not reduce yield even when no GM traits are used. This is quite different in the U.S.  Second, in Southern Europe (especially in Spain), where these pests are more of a problem, Bt maize is being used by farmers.”

And Qaim makes one more critical point:

“The article mentions in one sentence that yield effects of GM crops are larger in developing countries, but this is ignored in the rest of the article. This must not be ignored, because agriculture in developing countries is absolutely key for global food security. Our research shows that yield and income gains of GM crops can be very substantial for smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The article also mentions briefly that GM traits other than herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are in the pipeline. But the major conclusions are nonetheless based on herbicide tolerance alone. This is quite biased given the broad title of the article in the New York Times.”

Hakim offers that "…use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent."  The statistics are pretty clear on the use of insecticides on the pest-resistant crops – current data show that insecticide use has indeed declined by 37% since the introduction of GM crops.

It’s not clear why he threw in fungicides, since that’s not a major biotech trait as yet. It may be that he’s muddled insecticides with herbicides with fungicides because they’re all pesticides: insects, weeds and fungi are all pests.  But here’s the deal: Insecticides are toxic to non-target insects, animals and people, while herbicides are not – they’re only toxic to plants.

Hakim says that "….the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides."

Weed scientist Andrew Kniss writes me in an email:

“This is faulty, because even though France has decreased pesticide use, they still use FAR more pesticides than we do here in the U.S. This comparison is further meaningless since we grow much different crops, and have much different climates. Grapes in France require far more fungicide applications compared to soybean in the U.S. And there are no GMO grapes. Using national-level pesticide use data to make sweeping conclusions about GMO use simply doesn't make any sense.” 

And he goes on to observe:

“France was also among the minority of EU countries to see a decrease in the amount of pesticides used; most countries actually observed an increase in pesticide use over the same time period, also without the benefit of GMO crops. It seems the NYT reporter was cherry-picking the small bit of data that supported his narrative, while ignoring the much larger data set that didn't fit his narrative.”

Hakim makes much of the fact that herbicide use has gone up, but neglects to mention that the major herbicide used, glyphosate, is much less toxic than its predecessors.  Hence, most sound analyses do not analyze simple amounts used, but a more sophisticated measure called the “environmental impact quotient” or EIQ.  By that measure, glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant crops have a lower environmental impact than their non-GM counterparts, since pre-emergent herbicide is used on such crops as well. 

Indeed, Kniss continues:

“The other main deficiency in this NYT piece is that it simply reports the weight of pesticide applied (“pounds on the ground”). This tells us nothing about whether these changes in pesticide use are good or bad. This would be like a doctor worrying only about the weight of the drugs she prescribes without regard to efficacy, side-effects, or toxicity. It is nonsensical.”  

To see his thorough analysis of Hakim’s assertions, check out his blog.  

Then there’s this gem from Hakim:  “European anger at the idea of fooling with nature has been far more sustained.”  As I have repeatedly pointed out in public presentations, we’ve been fooling with nature for more than 10,000 years.  Indeed, all of civilization is based on our “fooling with nature” to create our food plants, animals and microorganisms.

Hakim follows that up with this outrageous statement: “The potential harm from pesticides, however, has drawn researchers’ attention.  Pesticides are toxic by design — weaponized versions, like sarin, were developed in Nazi Germany — and have been linked to developmental delays and cancer.” He then quotes a Harvard University professor saying that: “These chemicals are largely unknown,” with a link to a publication that examines the possible effect of methyl mercury, lead and organophosphate insecticides on children IQs.  This is as if there’s no EPA, no regulation, no tolerances set…..  And, in fact, the section on potential effects of the organophosphate insecticides essentially says the levels they’ve detected in people are below those that would cause IQ differences.  Not surprising given that EPA tolerances are generally set two orders of magnitude below the minimum dose that causes adverse health effects in experimental animals.

On the issue of herbicide tolerance, Hakim writes: "But weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides. The latest seeds have been engineered for resistance to two weedkillers, with resistance to as many as five planned. That will also make it easier for farmers battling resistant weeds to spray a widening array of poisons sold by the same companies.”

Here’s the situation. Herbicide tolerance is the result of the overuse of a single herbicide.  The reasons were that 1) crops resistant to glyphosate were available before crops resistant to other herbicides and 2) glyphosate is more benign than other herbicides.  However, using only a single herbicide year after year applies enormous selective pressure, leading (surprise, surprise) to the emergence of weeds that are more tolerant of that herbicide or have mutations that confer tolerance.  

The answer is not to abolish the use of herbicides, but to develop additional resistant crop-herbicide combinations.  That’s happening, belatedly, now.  But to call them “poisons” as a category reveals the author’s ignorance of the difference between an herbicide and an insecticide.

Insecticides are generally neurotoxins and affect other animals, including people, although it clearly takes more to kill an animal or human than to kill a bug.  Herbicides affect pathways and biochemical processes in plants that people do not have.  In particular, glyphosate interferes with the biosynthesis of an amino acid that we don’t make, so we don’t have that biochemical pathway.  But the author keeps calling herbicides “poisons,” which they are in the sense that they’re poisons to plants. His unqualified use of the term poison suggests that they’re poisons for animals and people as well, though he never quite comes out and says that.  

The author then comes back to yield increases — and the point is that both GM and non-GM varieties are bred for higher yields.  The GM traits in use today increase farmer profits and environmental sustainability.  Increases in yield are a complex function of genetics, environment and agronomic practices.

Agricultural Economist Graham Brookes, who has studied both the economic and environmental impacts of biotech crops, writes me by email: “There are numerous factors that affect yield such as weather, soil quality, husbandry practices, use of inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides and seeds, knowledge and skills of farmers, price of inputs, effectiveness of existing technology to control pests, diseases and weeds, etc. The genetic capability of seed and its ability to withstand yield reducing effects of pests, diseases and weeds are but two of these factors.”

“Hakim mainly uses a comparison of GM HT canola (rapeseed) yields in Canada and non-GM rapeseed yields in Western Europe (also GM HT sugar beet from the US with non-GM sugar beet in Europe).  It is not surprising, therefore, that claims about a lack of evidence of yield gains can be seen relative to Western European yields given the main aim of GM HT technology is not necessarily to increase yields.  It is also not surprising that average yields are higher in Europe than Canada as the crops are different between the two regions – in Canada spring canola is the main crop compared to winter oilseed rape in Europe (winter crops typically yield better than spring crops.”

“In sum,” writes Brookes, “Hakim is making spurious comparisons that lack context and will mislead readers.”

That’s a pretty accurate summary of his article.

Nina Fedoroff is a molecular geneticist.  Prior to joining OFW Law, and in addition to her extensive academic research career, Dr. Fedoroff served as Science & Technology Adviser to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, as well as to U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah.

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