Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Danger of Half Truths

One of the great things about trying to educate the public about agricultural sustainability is the pushback I get when I try to explain the basic science that needs to be consulted when making sustainability calculations. This helps me understand where various groups are coming from when they voice opposition to my core belief that efficiency is the fundamental value in feeding a very populous planet nutrient dense food with minimal environmental impact.

There appears to be a meme (narrative) going around that one or another of Monsanto’s Genetically modified seeds produces a crop that “sterilizes the soil, and turns it into dry sand.”

It is pointless to try to find out where the origin of this belief originated; what we really need to know is whether it is true or not.

In my researching yesterday, I tried to put aside the logical argument of “Why would a company sell a product that would ruin its customers, and make the company a lawyer-magnet?” After all, dangerous products have been sold before, like asbestos.

Well, I have not yet been able to “prove a negative” I have not found any authoritative, independent third party source that categorically states “we have found no GMO that is capable of turning a field to dust.”

But what I HAVE stumbled over is some incredibly irresponsible journalism.

Take for example this article that appeared on Grist and the Huffington Post websites.

The article is essentially an outrage piece decrying an ad campaign by Monsanto touting the sustainable aspects of what they do to earn a living. The gist of their criticism is that Monsanto has chosen an image that looks too much like a small- scale farmer when they should show an image of someone who looks like a large-scale farmer. I guess the anger that the “Small, Local, Organic” partisans feel is because Monsanto, Chief Devil in their battle of Good vs. Evil moral play, is stealing their iconography.

Fine so far, right? But then the writer goes on to describe the supposed evils wrought by the large-scale farmers that use Monsanto’s technology, which culminates with “Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.”

Whoa! Paydirt! The author does not state that Monsanto is turning fields to dust, but is merely saying that “Agribiz” (which farms are not also businesses? I’ll have to research this….) may be doing so. They also have a link to back up that statement, apparently.

But when you read the Mother Jones article it links to you, find out that it is an article about the drying of California’s Central Valley -- which Mother Jones blames not on farming of any kind, but rather the diminishing Sierra Nevada snowpack. In fact, the people they profile in the article blame the federal government for not diverting a greater percentage of the water from the snowpack east to the central valley to protect the habitat of a Smelt fish. So, depending on your politics, you could blame carbon admissions, or Washington D.C.’s priorities on the plight of California’s Central valley -- but the only way you can blame the farmers is for choosing to farm there in the first place, since the area is naturally quite dry and was only made productive through aqueducts from other regions.

Call me na├»ve, but this is frankly bizarre. How could the author DARE impugn farmers with a link to an article that doesn’t even speculate that the farmers are to blame? Unfortunately, one can imagine the science illiterate, who maybe already childishly (or cleverly, depending on your viewpoint) refer to “Mon-Satano,” reading this article, not checking the sources, and -- because it is an article about Monsanto – make the intuitive leap that GMOs are drying up the landscape. So, they now have one more feather to plume their headdress, or so they think.

Nonsense like this is hardly sustainable.

The next article I found was actually helpfully provided by an anti-GMO partisan himself, to show me exactly why it spelled doom for African farmers if they were allowed to use their technology: GMOs were “drying up Indian cotton farms and driving them to suicide.” (!!!) To show me this wasn’t his opinion, he referenced that trusted source for gossip and libel lawsuits, the Daily Mail.

In the referenced article, Monsanto is indeed blamed for cotton crop failures (“The GM Genocide.”) It makes for painful reading, as does any description of farmer suicides.

This somehow didn’t ring true to me; Indian farmer suicides have been endemic for a long time in the more marginal arid regions. Meanwhile cotton production in India has soared since the year 2000 to a level that puts India above the USA in the number two biggest cotton producer spot. Read all about it by clicking here.

So, delving into this issue yields two different narratives: some Indian cotton farmers are doing great using GMO cotton, some are not.

First off, the GMO in question, Bt Cotton, has a gene in it that causes the cotton to produce a narrow spectrum anti-bore worm pesticide that is has long been used by organic growers because it is a natural pesticide, to spray their crops (yes, organic farmers use pesticides!) That is a far cry from being a soil “sterilizer” and in fact is naturally produced by soil organisms worldwide.

Errr… that’s it.

No “I’m thirsty” gene is implanted, no “Sterilize the soil” one either, just one that allows the farmer to forgo spraying pesticide on the crop by producing a natural, readily biodegradable pesticide in the plant’s stalk.

Yet, the number of Indian farmer suicides has soared recently. Why? Well, two things have happened:

1. In 1999 India agreed to freer trade under the world trade organization, opening up Indian cotton farmers to competition from Cotton from the USA (which is almost all Bt cotton), which has driven down the price farmers get for cotton -- and oh yeah, drove down the price consumers had to pay as well.

2. At the same time, an economic boom has pushed the cost of living up in India generally.

So, imagine a farmer who has only 5 acres of marginal farmland where he was barely able to subsist before he had to compete with large-scale Bt cotton producers. He is now losing his shirt growing “heritage” (non-organic – these farmers usually use deadly pesticides) cotton, so he takes a chance trying to modernize his operation (like, buy the technologies his competitors use), which means high-interest loans from shady lenders. Now, if he has a bad season, he not only loses his crop and has a very lean time for the year, he now also loses title to his land because of debt.

Sadly, suicides soar.

It would seem that because GMOs play a part in this drama (by making wetter, larger farms much more productive per acre, mostly) some cynical people are trying to blame the whole thing on GMOs, without a shred (that I can find) of evidence.

Other folks are blaming the Indian government for not providing these farmers access to non-predatory lending and subsidized insurance, or a way out of the farming life for those that do not own viably competitive farms.

For a GREAT description of the dire situation these farmers face, read this UN report on the problem, which gives great background and context focusing on the Indian farmer crisis that is ground zero for what is actually an international small farm crisis.

Anyhow, next time you hear an extraordinary claim, even if it fits an emotional narrative you already possess -- let me suggest that you do what scientists are supposed to do – demand extraordinary evidence.

The moral of this story is that there is a LOT of misinformation out there pushing people who already have a negative or ill-informed view of agriculture and the technology that makes all our lives better -- into an even more negative place. When people with no ag or science background hear that a large corporation is putting out a product that sterilizes the soil -- that is a mighty scary thing.

We simply can NOT afford to let this unbalanced, untrue drivel go unchallenged. The consequence for Monsanto might be lost profits, but the consequences of public distrust of ag technology is starvation and environmental ruin for us all. We all have something at stake and its about time we are more vocal about it.


  1. I love how you just flat out refuse to address monsantos business practices. What about terminator seed technology? What about the subsidies monsanto gets? With subsidies their seeds should be cheaper. What about the gene police that have in the past forced small farmers into paying a 50k licensing fee because a truck dropped some seed by the telephone pole out front and it grew 2-3 monsanto plants? What about the fact that agrobacterium(SUNY) can transfer genes to people with suppressed immune systems? What about the fact that truth be told not one monsanto product has ever been tested sufficiently for human safety, although we always find this out after the fact. Your article forgot to address some things. SO far the world has failed to prove to me that organic with mass amounts of benefical bacteria in the soil is not better overall.

  2. Half truths cut both ways and lead to injustice on both sides.The agro industrial, fossil fuel driven model of arable agriculture is not sustainable because we cannot dominate nature, only work holistically with it. Specialization has its place but sustainability lies in diversification and ruminant, grassland recycling of carbon for human fuel, as it has done since the dawn of civilization.
    Collation of evidence from the various disciplines involved gives great cause for concern. Through our dependence on grain/oilseeds and industrialized processing, we have learned how to artificially make food for ourselves and the animals we consume.
    We feed them to become obese and fatten unnaturally and eat the same foods and have a virtual epidemic in obesity, health problems and related costs. Evidence can be adduced that a predominately grass fat steer of today which was the norm 50 yrs ago, can mitigate climate change and health costs to the amazing value of 20 fold its food value.
    Yes time is money in the hands of the producer, but is it really cost effective and efficient to save $200 on one hand and cost the many $20,000.
    Our way forward is a look back and revisit what worked on a holistic, good governance model all the way back to the stewards of the land.