As most of you know, Nathanael Johnson (GRIST) has been posting a series on GE (genetic engineering) for some time now. I have become increasingly disturbed by the lack of rigor in these posts, which purport to offer an objective “balancing” of facts surrounding GE technology, crops and foods.
It appears to me that Johnson is so determined to come off as “neutral” that, whether intentionally or not, he sacrifices intellectual rigor, consistently taking the “pro-GE” statements he receives at face value without attempting to apply an independent critical lens or scrutinize them for their veracity. At the same time, he glosses over the detailed evidence-based critiques that many of us in the science community have provided him. (In his latest post on Bt crops, for example, Johnson misquotes me and then omits 99% of what I shared with him regarding the science, technology, application and real-world impacts of GE crops, increasing pesticide sales and seed industry concentration on farmers’ livelihoods and rural communities’ health and economic well-being. I have posted the following comment to the GRIST site.)
The result is a disturbing and dangerous over-simplification often-times outright omission) of the evidence— agronomic, ecological, economic and political—that a truly rigorous assessment of GE crops and their real-world impacts demands.
I encourage COMFOOD/FOOD CRISIS readers to share your concerns (if you have them) regarding this coverage with GRIST editors, and call for better editorial oversight and more rigorous reporting, as we received in the past from GRIST.
Here is the comment I posted to Johnson's piece on Bt GE crops.
Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network
My comment posted to GRIST, 10/10/13:
After spending nearly an hour in conversation with Nathanael Johnson about the biology, ecology and politics of corn pest management, as well as the overall failures of GE crops to deliver on their promises, I am disappointed to see this misrepresentation of my statements in this article.
First of all, I never stated that Bt crops have led to a “vast decrease” in insecticide use. I acknowledged that we have seen a decline in insecticide use since the advent of GE crops in the 1990s (and that, at least initially, resistance management - where practiced - was successful in slowing evolution of resistance to Bt), but that decrease has not been sustained and is trivial in comparison with the tremendous surge in herbicide use associated with GE crops over the same period. (I also pointed out that a potentially significant load of Bt insecticide has been introduced into the fields through the Bt plants themselves, a fact noted by molecular biologists and biotech experts, but missing from Johnson’s piece.)
Johnson states, “There’s broad agreement that, so far, GMOs have helped the environment by cutting use of chemical insecticides.” He then goes on to quote me, presumably as evidence of this “broad agreement,” while ignoring the much larger evidence of harmful GMO impacts which I provided him. I would emphatically state that GMOs—including the insecticide-based Bt crops—have had a largely negative impact on the environment, for many reasons which I do not have space to go into here, but not least because they are designed to drive and maintain industrial mono-cultural production. (When assessing impacts, one cannot separate the “idea” of a technology from how it is used in practice.)
As for “broad agreement” about impacts of GMOs, I provided Johnson with an eight-page Issue Brief I wrote, which synthesizes the findings on GMOS from the UN and World Bank-convened International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2008), a comprehensive report produced by over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries. This report concludes that “benefits” of GMOs have gone mostly to large corporates manufacturers of the technology, and not to the world’s poorest farmers, nor to the environment.
As for impacts in the U.S., it’s important to put GMOs in historical context, as I told Johnson: few insecticides were used—or needed—in corn back in the 1980s, as crop-rotating conventional corn farmers will explain. So part of the push for insecticide-containing corn came with the economic incentives to plant corn-on-corn year after year (and abandon well-established corn IPM practices), driven in no small part by the larger political and trade agenda of a government eager to push biofuel production and funnel the overproduction of American corn into export markets.
Regarding the efficacy of Bt crops globally, I sent Johnson the two separate Chinese studies he mentioned in his article and explained to him their findings: a) cultivation of Bt cotton in China reduced cotton bollworm levels but led to emergence of secondary pests as new, economically damaging pests and b) farmers who purchased Bt cotton often still applied insecticides as insurance to protect themselves from possible crop damage, precisely because they had paid so much for the Bt seed to begin with. I also pointed out the frequent failure of Bt cotton in India; the Bt variety requires irrigation and fertilizer, inputs that low-income farmers operating in rainfed areas simply do not have access to. When the Bt crops fail (whether because insects have evolved resistance to Bt or because farmers are relying on rains which don’t come), they fall deeper into debt.
I gave Johnson these and other examples to emphasize the point that the “in-the-box” (or “in the lab”) design often has little to do with the “on-the-ground” reality. It is the latter which is relevant. If he is truly interested in the facts rather than futuristic scenarios, as he says, he needs to examine more closely the reality of the GE industry’s success at driving up pesticide sales, and its failure to deliver on so many of its promises.
I also explained to Johnson the money-politics behind the erosion of Bt resistance management in the U.S., and how Monsanto successfully lobbied EPA to reduce the percentage of non-Bt crop refuges that had been initially required as a way to slow Bt resistance. Bill Freese of Center for Food Safety has explained all of this in his comment above. I provided Johnson with the statement by Dow AgroScience’s scientist, John Jachetta (quoted in the Wall Street Journal), that pesticide resistance driven by GE crops “will be a very significant opportunity" for chemical companies. Strange that neither of these points —or much else of what I told Johnson—made it into his piece.
More problematic is that Johnson appears satisfied with misquoting and then slivering comments out of the larger context in which they were delivered, in order to make his own case. On the other hand, he seems perfectly willing to take “pro-GE” statements at face value, without employing a critical lens or scrutinizing or fact-checking these statements for veracity.
What I find most disappointing among many things about Johnson’s coverage throughout his GE “series” is a tendency towards extreme over-simplification (or deliberate omission?) of the evidence—whether agronomic, ecological, economic or political—that a truly rigorous assessment of GE crops, the industry and their real-world impacts demands.
GRIST readers deserve better.