Biotech bogeymen

The San Francisco Chronicle’s muddled swipe at GE crops

If you’re worried about pesticides, then the San Francisco Chronicle has a sweeping indictment of genetically engineered (GE) crops to sell you.

At the end of April, the paper published an article by its Washington correspondent, Carolyn Lochhead, on its front page that used narrowly defined concerns about a new type of GE corn to mount a weakly reported tirade against all biotech crops.

The apparent impetus for, and central thread of, the Chronicle’s story was the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) expected approval of Dow Chemical’s Enlist brand corn, which is engineered to tolerate the herbicide 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid.

2,4-D, as it’s commonly known, has been around since the 1940s and is widely used to kill broadleaf weeds. It has gained new attention in recent years, as farmers nationwide struggle with weeds that have developed resistance to Monsanto’s Roundup—generically known as glyphosate—their herbicide of choice for more than three decades.

“Superweeds,” as the media dubbed them, are a huge problem and the use of chemicals like 2,4-D and dicamba, another herbicide, to control them is worrisome. While all herbicides can drift during spraying, these vaporize more easily than glyphosate, facilitating travel to other fields where they can damage crops that weren’t designed to withstand them. 2,4-D has been linked to a number of human health problems, although the science is disputed.

Rather than maintaining a strong focus on resistant weeds and 2,4-D, however, the Chronicle dredged up two unrelated concerns about GE crops and muddled them into a weak attempt to condemn biotechnology outright.

Let’s start with the lede, which lays out the two other problems:

Biotechnology’s promise to feed the world did not anticipate “Trojan corn,” “super weeds” and the disappearance of monarch butterflies.

First of all, in this context “Trojan corn” sounds like a term coined by environmentalists to describe an invasive species that snuck into fields. In fact, it’s the industry term for corn that is engineered to produce an enzyme that turns its own starch into sugar, making it easier to produce ethanol for cars.

The Chronicle doesn’t explain this until the very bottom of its story, and until then leads readers to believe that 2,4-D-tolerant corn and “Trojan corn” are one in the same. They are not. The concern, which has nothing to do with 2,4-D, is that if the “Trojan corn” cross-pollinated or was mixed with corn used for food, it could lead to mushy or crumbly cereals, breads, and other baked goods.

The Chronicle highlights that worry, but the USDA approved “Trojan corn,” which is produced by Syngenta under the brand name Enogen, in February 2011. Food manufacturers and grain millers were worried about contamination back then, too. In fact, they’ve been worried for years. What the Chronicle never bothers to report is whether or not there have been any actual problems since commercial planting was green-lighted more than a year ago.

Furthermore, returning to the problematic lede, far from being unanticipated, improving ethanol fermentation has been a goal of biotechnology for a long time. Likewise, scientists foresaw the problem of super weeds years ago (true, nobody did anything about it, but that’s a different story). The “disappearance of monarch butterflies” has also been a subject of concern for more than a decade, not to mention the fact that butterflies haven’t exactly disappeared.

At one point in its piece, the Chronicle reports:

Last month, scientists definitively tied heavy use of glyphosate to an 81 percent decline in the monarch butterfly population. It turns out that the herbicide has obliterated the milkweeds on Midwest corn farms where the monarchs lay their eggs after migrating from Mexico.

First, the study to which the article refers notes an 81 percent decline in monarch egg production in the Midwest, not an 81 percent decline in the overall population. Moreover, the conclusion wasn’t really “definitive.”

The very same journal contained another study, which disputed earlier findings that “the migratory population of monarch butterflies is declining.” That drew a counter-rebuttal from the authors of the earlier findings, of course. The bottom line seems to be that there are good reasons to be concerned about the impact of pesticides on monarchs (although there are other things affecting them, including deforestation and severe weather).

The point is: butterfly population trends are not as cut and dried as the Chronicle would have readers believe. And, like “Trojan corn,” the insects aren’t specifically connected to the current debate about 2,4-D and herbicide-resistant weeds. Each of the three subjects is complex enough to warrant stand-alone coverage. Bundling them together in a sweeping condemnation of biotechnology prevents doing justice to any of them.

Take, for example, the article’s treatment of the central thread—2,4-D and superweeds. The third paragraph asserts that “vast increases in herbicide use” created the problem.

First of all, the reader has no idea what “vast” means or whether the Chronicle is referring to all herbicides, or just some. There’s also the question about where this information is coming from.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service keeps data on pesticide use, but not in a user-friendly format that would allow a reporter to make easy claims about underlying trends. In 2009, The Organic Center issued a report titled, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States.” It calculated that GE crops increased overall pesticide use by 7.5 percent between 1996 and 2008. That’s hardly a “vast” increase, and there are finer details worth mentioning.

While GE crops boosted herbicide use, they reduced insecticide use, according to The Organic Center, whose goal is a return to organic agriculture. Furthermore, while glyphosate use has gone way up, other herbicides have fallen by the wayside. The differences between those chemicals make simple claims about the relationship between the adoption of GE crops and pesticide use very difficult. According to the USDA’s Environmental Research Service:

Measuring pesticide use in pounds of active ingredient implicitly assumes that a pound of any two ingredients has equal impact on human health and/or the environment. However, the more than 350 pesticide active ingredients vary widely in toxicity per unit of weight and in persistence.

… Glyphosate has a half-life in the environment of 47 days, compared with 60-90 days for the herbicides it commonly replaces. The herbicides that glyphosate replaces are 3.4 to 16.8 times more toxic, according to a chronic risk indicator based on the EPA reference dose for humans. Thus, the substitution enabled by genetic modifications conferring herbicide tolerance on soybeans results in glyphosate replacing other synthetic herbicides that are at least three times as toxic and that persist in the environment nearly twice as long as glyphosate.

The Chronicle’s article missed this point. It also didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t so much the “vastness” of herbicide use that created superweeds as overreliance on a single herbicide—glyphosate.

All of these details can be found in a 2010 report from the National Research Council called “Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.” Articles that kept a tighter focus on Dow’s 2,4-D-tolerant corn and the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds—such as one from The New York Times—did a much better job of explaining them.

Finally, as if all the forgoing problems weren’t enough, the Chronicle made passing reference to California’s “Just Label It” campaign for GE foods, which it described as “part of a nationwide drive to thwart the Obama administration’s expected clearance of” 2,4-D-tolerant corn.

One assumes that the drive to which the article was referring (it doesn’t actually say) is the Save Our Crops Coalition, a group of farm interests that worries that heavier use of 2,4-D would imperil their products. If so, it’s important to note that the coalition is worried about the herbicide itself, not the GE corn that goes with it. In fact, the group has repeatedly stressed that it “is not opposed to plant technology advances, particularly genetic modification.”

By trying to cram a hodgepodge of different concerns into a single article, the Chronicle ended up producing a slanted piece of journalism that failed to adequately explain any of them.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,