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Informing the Genetically Engineered Crop Debate

National Research Council Report Maps a Path Forward

Anti GMO crop circle SOURCE: AP/Released by Greenpeace Farmers made a crop circle with a crossed-out 'M' to represent their opposition to genetically engineered crops sold by Monsanto corp. Despite a decade of debate, a recent National Research Council Report finds that neither side has all the facts straight.

Genetically engineered crops now account for 80 percent of cotton, corn, and soybean acreage in the United States. This year’s National Research Council report identifies the consequences of this new technology on the socioeconomic landscape of the American agro-economy. While the debate about genetically engineered, or GE, crops rages on in both the United States and Europe, the new NRC report provides some data and insight that advocates on both sides would do well to note.

Today, science policy analysts often assume a standard narrative about the controversy over genetically engineered crops and animals intended for use in agriculture or food. It goes something like this: GE products were introduced with little notice or public protest in the United States, but Europeans took a more precautionary approach, alleging a host of environmental and food safety risks. European precautionary attitudes launched a global controversy of GE crops that, depending on one’s perspective, is a tempest in a teapot—a great deal of worry over very little actual risk—or is a signal event that has exposed grave weaknesses in the U.S. regulatory approach.

From this starting point, proponents and critics of GE crops and animals commence their mudslinging. More generally, scholars of science and technology cite this narrative as evidence of the need to conduct public consultations in advance of introducing a potentially controversial technology.

Although the standard narrative has a germ of truth, it is in two respects quite mistaken. For one thing, early GE products were subjected to significant debate in the United States, concluding with an unprecedented congressionally imposed moratorium that only expired after the completion of an equally unprecedented study conducted by the executive branch Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1992.[i] For another, the U.S. biotech industry did in fact conduct extensive public consultations between 1988 and 1995. These consultations revealed the potential sensitivity of points that eventually became deeply controversial, but they also convinced mainstream U.S. environmental organizations that issues in agricultural biotechnology were not the most important fish they had to fry.[ii]

There are many lessons that might be inferred from these correctives to the standard narrative, but in the present context the point is simply this: What everyone knows is sometimes wrong.

The first genetically engineered microbe intended for use in agriculture or food production were bacteria that had been modified to produce bovine somatotropin, a hormone secreted naturally by lactating dairy cows. The synthetic version made by GE microbes could be produced at a scale and cost that made it feasible for dairies to administer shots of the hormone in order to increase milk production, particularly in cows nearing the end of a lactation cycle. The second microbe, however, was recombinant rennet, the complex of enzymes (traditionally derived from the entrails of slaughtered calves) used to turn milk into cheese. Although recombinant bovine somatotropin was one of the most controversial technologies ever to move through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recombinant rennet elicited not a peep of protest. It was, perhaps, unseemly to suggest that we should keep slaughtering baby calves in order to make cheese.

The silence that accompanied the introduction of recombinant rennet in the mid-1990s led some scientists to think that the hubbub over genetic engineering was already over when the first GE crops were introduced a few years later. Indeed, as implied above, regulatory actions at the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announcing the first generation of herbicide-tolerant soybeans hardly generated any protest at all from the environmental community. Pest-resistant varieties of cotton and corn that produce a toxin specific to caterpillars (bacillus thuringiensis, colloquially Bt) were also approved at the EPA with little public note.[iii] These GE crops were picked up in record time by the vast majority of U.S. farmers, but when biotechnology companies attempted to introduce them into Europe, they botched the job badly.

Soon the boomerang struck: European resistance was covered in the press and soon, GE crops were controversial everywhere. This is the part of the standard narrative that is correct, and reporter Dan Charles’s book Lords of the Harvest tells the story with aplomb. His book is still recommended reading for science buffs of all kinds.

In a political world where even the announcement of the first organism with an entirely chemically synthesized genome is already so last month, all this would seem like ancient history. Yet biotechnology continues to be a polarizing technology in agricultural and food science, and in rural America, generally. The recent NRC report “Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States” released in May will not settle the controversy. This report is remarkably thorough in documenting the way that GE crops have affected pesticide use as well as analyzing the economic fate of mainstream American farmers.

For the most part, the report characterizes these impacts in a positive light:

  • Herbicide-tolerant or Bt varieties of corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets have led to a reduction in both the amount and toxicity of agricultural chemical use in comparison to conventionally grown non-GE varieties of these crops.
  • Use of GE crops is associated with other conservation practices such as reduced tillage, and public or worker health benefits have been observed in connection with the reduction of chemical use.
  • Neither the movement of genes to wild or weedy relatives of these crops nor toxicity to nontarget species has occurred in a manner that raises concern.
  • Farmers have achieved greater cost efficiencies in the production of GE crops, even after user fees for GE technology are included.
  • The contracts and licenses introduced to protect companies’ intellectual property have not had an adverse economic impact on farmers.

But the report does document some negative consequences. Crops tolerant to the relatively benign glyphosate herbicides—Roundup is Monsanto’s version—have resulted in so much reliance on these chemicals that weeds are now becoming resistant. This may precipitate a switch to more environmentally harmful methods of weed control. Scientists have been more successful in forestalling insect resistance to Bt. In fact, Bt crops in particular have been responsible for reducing the unwanted effect of pesticides on species of insects such as bees or other pollinators, that not only do not damage crops, but may be beneficial.

The report is also quite candid in stating that the research needed to determine impacts on social capital and the quality of life in rural America has never been done, despite early warnings that these would be the areas in which biotechnology would pose the greatest threats to the sustainability of U.S. agriculture. Although processes of gene flow or environmental consequences have been studied with respect to impacts on native flora and fauna and with respect to ecosystem processes, they have not been studied with respect to their impact on other farmers who may be trying to grow organic or non-GE crops for the European market.

It is economically unimportant whether the commodity grades of corn and soybeans that are being used domestically are “contaminated” by pollen from neighbors’ fields. But the report notes unsubstantiated reports that farmers targeting “non-GE” markets may suffer economic losses from the effects of pollen drift. The reports are unsubstantiated because scientists at the USDA and in agricultural universities simply have not conducted the research needed to evaluate these claims. In this respect the report testifies to a gap between scientific work that gets done and scientific work that is constantly underfunded and deferred. This gap is arguably itself an “impact of genetically engineered organisms” and one of the main sources of continuing tension in rural America.

This research gap began to have real-world implications when organic growers started experiencing contamination from the GE crops being grown by their neighbors. The conflict between farmers using GE and non-GE organic growers is complex and lies at the heart of the issues that the NRC report identifies as insufficiently understood and under-researched. Organic standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering. This was a choice made by the organic growers themselves, albeit with considerable support from their customers. The big problem with GE pollen or seeds that blow across the fencerow is that they are simply not supposed to be there in an organic crop. Organic rules permit some contamination, so long as the organic certifier states that the GE pollen and seeds were not intentionally introduced, but neither growers nor buyers of organic crops are happy with this situation. The contamination problem is especially serious for those who produce organic seed. Small levels of contamination will be multiplied as the crop is grown out, and the value of an organic seed crop so contaminated can be substantially reduced.

In response to this problem, organic growers in some states lobbied for and in a few cases successfully passed local ordinances banning GE crops, generally on a countywide basis. This was, not surprisingly, resisted by those conventional farmers who wanted to grow GE crops in those counties. It was also seen as a threat by biotechnology companies and by conventional farmers in other areas who felt that their crops were being irresponsibly maligned by people who were campaigning for these ordinances. I’m sure that readers will be shocked, shocked to discover that getting voters to support such ordinances provoked statements on both sides that are not strictly true. In some states such as Michigan, statewide laws were passed to block efforts to enact these local ordinances. These fights caused bitter divisions in many rural areas, and in some cases, pitted university researchers who do work with organic growers against their colleagues who work with biotechnology.

The ante was raised even higher as a result of few legal actions taken by Monsanto, the leading biotechnology company, against farmers who stated that their crops had been contaminated by GE seed. The most celebrated case occurred in Canada, and concerned a farmer named Percy Schmeiser. Monsanto alleged that Schmeiser, who has never purchased Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant canola seed nor signed Monsanto’s license agreement, was, in fact, growing Monsanto’s patented variety of canola, and sued him for infringement of their patent. Schmeiser claims that his fields were inadvertently contaminated. Canadian courts upheld Monsanto’s claim, holding that Monsanto’s patent was valid and that Schmeiser had intentionally violated it.[iv]

What may be more important than the facts of this case is the way that it has reinforced the view among opponents of GE that pollen drift is actually a conspiracy of the biotechnology industry to damage organic markets or even claim ownership of non-GE crops of all kinds. This view was promulgated among Mexican corn growers following the alleged discovery of transgenic maize (illegal in Mexico) in a sample collected from peasant fields near Oaxaca in 2002.[v] While this generated some controversy and a hearing of the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, a side treaty of NAFTA, the inability of either side to provide concrete evidence ultimately left the dispute unresolved.

The bitterness and distrust that has been sown in rural America over these disputes does not come through in the bland prose from the NRC report:

Anecdotal stories suggest that the crops of U.S. organic growers are being screened in the marketing chain for the presence of GE material and are being rejected if levels exceed market-determined levels. We do not have evidence to judge how widespread such testing is in the United States. This issue deserves more investigation.[vi]

The report is much more profuse (and should be strongly commended) in its presentation of evidence showing that, on balance, the impacts of GE crops have been positive when viewed from an environmental or public health perspective, at least over the short run. This evidence is especially important in light of continued allegations on the part of GE opponents that these crops are unhealthful and environmentally damaging. Schmeiser’s own website at contains many links to others who make such allegations.

The report does discuss the complex economic causality that makes calculation of total impact difficult and inherently controversial. If, for example, farmers start using less of a toxic chemical, the makers of that toxic chemical may well lower the price, which may lead farmers to start using more of it. Should biotechnology be given credit for the initial decrease? Should it be blamed for the later increase? Questions like this have given those who would wrangle over “real” impact of biotechnology much fodder to chew on.

The NRC report may not silence those debates once and for all, but it does provide a very detailed analysis that should become the standard for contending parties who want to continue them. More importantly, to claim biotechnology has achieved environmental benefits involves an implicit comparison. Benefit relative to what was being done in mainstream agriculture before biotechnology is, in some respects, a very unambitious comparator. Benefit relative to what might have been accomplished had a significant fraction of the research funding that went into genetic engineering been dedicated to alternative agricultural technologies is so speculative as to be virtually meaningless.

Yet certainly some of the organic farmers who feel that the USDA and land grant universities abandoned them are thinking in just such terms. For them, it is a case of the road not taken, and that has made all the difference.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

[i] Frederick H. Buttel 2000. “The recombinant BGH controversy in the United States: Toward a new consumption politics of food?” Agriculture and Human Values 17 (1) (2000): 5–20.

[ii] Thompson, P. B. 2008. “Nano and Bio: How are they Alike? How are they Different?” in  K. David and P. B. Thompson, eds, What Can Nanotechnology Learn from Biotechnology? Social and Ethical Lessons for Nanoscience from the Debate over Agricultural Biotechnology and GMOs (Burlington, MA: Academic Press, 2008) p. 125–155.

[iii] Frederick H. Buttel, “The Environmental and Post-Environmental Politics of Genetically Modified Crops and Foods.” Environmental Politics 14 (3) (2005): 309–323.

[iv] Bruce Ziff, “Travels with my plant: Monsanto v. Schmeiser revisited.” University of Ottawa Law and Technology Journal 2 (2) (2005): 493–509.

[v] Abby J. Kinchy,  “Genes out of place: Science, activism, and the politics of biotechnology.” Ph. D. thesis, (University of Wisconsin, 2007).

[vi] National Research Council. The Impact of Genetically Engineered Corps on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010) 3–33.

Additional Reference Materials:

Charles, Dan. 2001. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Buttel, Frederick H. 2000. “The recombinant BGH controversy in the United States: Toward a new consumption politics of food?” Agriculture and Human Values 17 (1): 5–20.

Those wishing an excruciatingly detailed overview of social and ethical issues associated with agricultural biotechnology might wish to consult:

Thompson, Paul B. 2007. Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective. 2nd ed. Dordrecht, NL: Springer.

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