Seeds of Change?

Why we need independent data on genetically modified crops

Some time early this year a group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications will issue a report, and a ritual of sorts will ensue. The report will probably say, as it has for the past dozen years, that more countries are growing more genetically engineered crops on more acres. Then, on cue, watchdog groups, most visibly Friends of the Earth International, will issue press releases questioning the report and its claims. The press will report on this, first addressing the ISAAA’s report, then turning to Friends of the Earth and other groups for critical comment in an effort to create a semblance of balance. Then we’ll move on to other things until the annual report emerges the next year.

Any reporter covering any beat knows the drill: digest new report, find opposing data or claims, write story. But having engaged in this ISAAA/watchdog ritual last year myself, I stumbled into a dilemma: I couldn’t find any opposing or alternative data because no group other than the ISAAA—an industry-funded, pro-biotech organization—collects it. And while this may seem like a narrow problem, it’s an especially important one right now. Roughly one billion people around the world suffer from chronic hunger or malnutrition, and as global population rises to an expected 9.1 billion by 2050, the problem of how to feed everyone will grow even more acute. This expected population growth, along with the complicating factors of climate change, means farmers will have to grow more food on less land and under more extreme weather conditions.

Biotech companies are open about the fact that this scenario creates a huge business opportunity for them—that they can capitalize on this looming crisis through their technologies, which will, they insist, produce more food, using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides, on less land. From their perspective the only thing standing in the way of a biotech solution to world hunger is the acceptance by government and the public that will put more GM crops in the ground in more places.

Controversy, in the form of health and environmental concerns, has swirled around GM crops from the beginning, and countries around the world have been cautious in adopting GM technologies. Given this reality, the biotech industry has an interest not just in increasing global acceptance, but in the appearance of diminishing resistance to its technology. As more farmers in more countries grow GM crops, the industry thinking goes, the less opposition there will be in the future to their products—something the annual ISAAA report seems to demonstrate. Ask any spokesman in the biotech industry about negative notions of biotech, and he’ll say: Look at all the countries adopting our technology. Look at all the farmers benefiting from GM seed. How bad can it be?

For journalists who cover this story, however, getting a reliable answer to that question is anything but simple.

When the first genetically modified crops were commercialized in 1996, opponents, advocacy groups, and some in the media immediately seized on the term “Frankenfood” to characterize the new crops. The foundational science is owned by three companies—DuPont, Syngenta, and Monsanto—and association with a scary monster was clearly not their idea of good PR. But, much to the companies’ irritation, the name has persisted in the public consciousness ever since. In fact, thirteen years later, the debate over GM crops is even more entrenched than ever, and the press has been largely unable to tease apart the competing claims and bring some measure of clarity to the issue.

The initial skepticism about the technology focused on food safety, with GM critics questioning the long-term consequences of eating GM food. They continue to say there is no evidence that GM food is safe, and some believe there is enough evidence—such as studies that connect GM foods to allergic reactions—to support more rigorous regulation and safety testing. The industry counters that there is no evidence demonstrating the food is unsafe, and says testing the long-term safety of GM crops, which are functionally the same as a non-GM crops, is virtually impossible. Indeed, even the anti-GM camp admits that there is no solid evidence linking GM food to human illness.

Critics in the United States repeatedly point out that food safety testing in not required by regulators and accuse the Food and Drug Administration of being too lenient. Though the administration says all companies marketing GM food submit to a voluntary review, what that means is that companies conduct their own safety reviews and provide the results to the FDA. “The FDA posts the [company’s] review on its Web site. Typically just two or three pages, basically just abbreviating what the company said in its submission about the safety of the crop,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group critical of biotech regulations. “Then the FDA sends them a letter saying it’s their responsibility to maintain the safety of the product. All they put up is the review, not the data. As somebody who’s done risk assessments, that’s practically useless.”

In other words, the only information that’s made public is the industry’s own conclusions about its products’ safety, not the data supporting those conclusions. The industry says the science behind its products is proprietary.

Another controversy around GM crops stems from concern over environmental contamination and possible “gene flow”—the transference of genetically modified material between plants, which could diminish biodiversity and destabilize ecosystems. Once this happens, some critics say, it would be impossible to track or stop. But the biotech industry says, again, that there is little evidence that gene flow has led to adverse contamination or to a reduction in biodiversity. They point instead to the environmental benefits of GM crops—less soil tillage and fewer pesticides.

Finally, critics wonder if the promise of higher yield through biotech crops—the promise the industry makes when it says it can help feed the world’s hungry—is attainable. So far, the studies on improved yield are mixed, and because the companies won’t allow independent research on their seeds, it is impossible to test their performance.

In an attempt to resolve these questions, four hundred scientists and researchers from around the world banded together to form the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, or IAASTD. In 2004, the group launched a sweeping project, involving the World Bank, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, private-sector companies, academics, and governments, to, among other things, evaluate the role biotechnology could play in alleviating hunger and poverty. After four years, fifty-eight countries (the U.S. not among them) signed on to an executive summary that issued a blow to the biotech industry:

Biotechnology has always been on the cutting edge of change. Change is rapid, the domains involved are numerous, and there is a significant lack of transparent communication among actors. Hence assessment of modern biotechnology is lagging behind development; information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown.

But the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), representing the industry’s position, published a response that said quite the opposite:

The science is very clear. However, a massive international anti-GMO campaign by many NGO’s has planted the seeds of doubt in the public. There is no evidence to support these “perceived risks” and therefore they have no place in the “evidence-based” IAASTD report.

Amid the conflicting claims and contradictory studies, the biotech industry has consistently relied on one, easily digestible message: Look at all the farmers who use our seeds. Look at all the countries using our technology. This message has, in effect, become a stand-in for the more complicated arguments for GM technology. For example, even before Food, Inc., a documentary highly critical of biotech giant Monsanto, hit theaters last summer, Monsanto posted on its Web site a refutation of several of the film’s claims. The post included this bit of boilerplate: “The sheer numbers of countries, not to mention farmers, who have embraced agricultural biotechnology, suggest that it’s not undue influence but instead useful technology and sound science that have been the deciding factors.”

A reporter working on a story about the controversies might then reasonably ask these questions: How many countries grow biotech crops, which crops, and on how many acres? Getting that information in the biotech-friendly U.S. is easy. The Department of Agriculture keeps data—self-reported by farmers—on what GM crops with which traits are grown and (roughly) where. But to get a global snapshot there is only one place to go: the pro-biotech, industry-funded ISAAA. (A Canadian company called AGBIOS has a searchable database that allows you to insert a country’s name and see which crops and traits have been approved there. But the list is limited to data that individual countries voluntarily make available, and it does not indicate which crops have been commercialized.)

This doesn’t necessarily make the ISAAA data wrong, but any journalist listening to Clive James, the author of the ISAAA report, should feel a little queasy about relying on it as an ironclad source. In a video that accompanied the release of the 2008 report, James said:

I believe that the question that we’ve asked of biotechnology and the question that society has asked . . . over the last twelve years is whether in fact there is a risk associated with this. Is there a risk in terms of food safety? Is there a risk in terms of the environment? Now we have the opportunity to look at a very rich database that has been generated over a twelve-year period, and what that database tells you is that this technology is as safe as conventional technology, or sometimes safer. So therefore the question that we must ask now: What is the risk in not using this technology? And it is clear from the evidence that has been generated that, if in fact you do not use this technology you will not be able to provide for a secure world tomorrow in terms of food.

Putting aside James’s vaguely threatening tone, critics argue that the report has methodological flaws and isn’t peer reviewed. “The ISAAA data are not reproducible, and they don’t cite their sources,” says Greg Jaffe, the biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, referring to some of the adoption data. “Is the acreage correct? Is the number of farmers correct?”

The data source in the report is often listed simply as “Clive James,” leading some readers to question how he gathered the material. “It’s hard to believe that in Africa, with roads the way they are, with communications barriers, transportation barriers, that it would be easy to get those numbers,” Jaffe adds.

Melinda Smale, a senior researcher at the aid group Oxfam and formerly of the International Food Policy Research Institute, has studied whether biotech crops benefit small farmers. “If you want to do objective research, you need a census, a reliable list, to do your sampling,” Smale says. “If the only source of that list is Monsanto, people can question that data.”

Ask the industry where to go for information on the global adoption of biotech and it will point you to ISAAA. Ask the industry where to go for the benefits that biotech crops have delivered to farmers and it will point you to Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot’s studies done for PG Economics, a U.K.-based enterprise, or to studies by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, both funded by Monsanto.

One of the key benefits of GM crops, according to the industry and its supporters, is higher yields through plants engineered to tolerate herbicides or resist pests. The industry is now working on crops that can better tolerate heat and drought—key attributes in a hotter, drier world. But recently, a couple of studies have cast doubt on the actual and potential ability of some GM crops to increase yield. One study, by Barney Gordon, a professor of agronomy at Kansas State University, caught the eye of Geoffrey Lean, the environmental editor at The Independent in London. Lean’s story, which ran under the headline “Exposed: The Great GM Crops Myth,” began: “Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows.” Professor Gordon called the story a “gross misrepresentation” of his research, which looked specifically at soybeans’ response to manganese in very high-yielding conditions.

Another study, called “Failure to Yield,” released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in April 2009, concluded that yields of herbicide-tolerant GM corn and soybeans in the U.S. had not gone up in the thirteen years those crops have been grown commercially. (This study was based on Department of Agriculture data and looked only at yield in U.S. crops.)

Monsanto posted a refutation of both Lean’s story and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ study on its Web site. The refutation contained a link to a response by Gordon, which sent readers to a page on the Web site of the International Plant Nutrition Institute—which is associated with the Nutrients for Life Foundation, which is supported by Monsanto.

“If you don’t trust the industry, and you don’t want to use the Brookes and Barfoot study because it was commissioned by the industry, you could look at their sources or look at what emerged from independent academics,” said Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa. “But you’d almost have to go country by country.”

The problem is that the industry sources tend to be industry-funded, while the independent science on these matters is limited and focuses mostly on cotton, not on food crops. To get a full picture of global adoption, a reporter would have to go—as Paarlberg says—“country by country.” Such an undertaking would be nearly impossible.

Early last year, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, visited St. Louis. He gave a speech at a local university, which was billed as discussion on food but meandered into the various places where food intersects with energy, climate, and the economy. St. Louis might seem like an odd locale for such a talk, but it happens to be Monsanto’s hometown. On his daylong visit to Missouri, the company’s suburban headquarters was Ban’s first stop.

The United Nations and its Food and Agriculture Organization have no formal position on biotech crops, nor do they keep data on global adoption. But after the global food crisis of 2008 sparked riots around the world, Ban became especially interested in biotech’s potential. Last fall he convened a retreat on Long Island, inviting representatives from the biotech industry, government, and academia to discuss the role biotech crops might play in feeding the world’s growing population—and what role, if any, the U.N. could have. One of the projects the group explored was the creation of a global “information hub” that would list the policies and guidelines that individual countries have implemented. But it wouldn’t include anything on global adoption. For that, “there’s no one go-to place,” Eva Busza, a principal officer in Ban’s strategic planning unit, said at the time.

Just the ISAAA.

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Georgina Gustin writes about all things food-related for the Metro section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When not in the newsroom or tracking farmers in the hills, she's usually in her kitchen, ruining dinner.