Friday, February 25, 2011

Sustainability and the GMO Myth

Almost everybody agrees that we should be wiser with our resources. Most of us also agree that a worthy measure of this goal is sustainability. To this end, people with very different personal and political commitments are working together in local communities to recycle trash, conserve water and save energy, etc.

Studies regularly show that consumers prefer buying certified lumber and pesticide-free food if the price is right. And with the price of gas continuously rising, fuel efficient vehicles are clear favorites on the market.

It’s no wonder that agricultural companies have an interest in promoting a corporate image of sustainability as well. It pays, after all. And such an image is desperately needed in an industry that struggles to keep intact an aura of environmental integrity.

I joined the agriculture industry in 1991 working for a small environmentally conscious company named AgriDyne Technologies. We developed a natural insecticide from the seeds of the Asian neem tree. Our competitors were a handful of like-minded enthusiasts focused on making money by a safer use of natural resources - of being sustainable. These efforts, all combined, have made only a limited impact in the Ag industry. And it wasn’t until the major Ag businesses took up the torch of sustainability that the message became more visible.

One of the first real corporate statements of this kind came in 1997 in a Harvard Business Review interview with Robert Shapiro (then CEO of Monsanto). Entitled Growth Through Global Sustainability, Shapiro outlined the need for agribusiness to develop in a sustainable way if it hoped to avoid disaster and at the same time feed an ever growing world population. Since Shapiro’s interview other major agricultural companies began promoting their own brands of sustainability too.

Monsanto had a lot to gain from this message. With a history replete with environmental negligence (including the disaster of Agent Orange in Vietnam, corruption during the dioxin “catastrophe” at Seveso, and the misuse of data in the Bovine Growth Hormone Affair, etc.) it had recently discovered a promising new direction: genetically modified organisms (or GMO’s).

What made these GMO’s so nice was the appearance of sustainability that they created. They promised to reduce the rate of toxic chemicals in the environment (by containing them within the crop itself). They also promised to reduce soil erosion (by allowing no-till farming with their premier herbicide Roundup).

Of course there are many other components needed in a truly sustainable environment: renewable energy, biodiversity, water conservation, etc. But the two pieces Monsanto promoted were a good place to start, and the company has been successful in promoting them, or at least in part.

Now over a decade later, enough time has passed to see how truly sustainable the GMO revolution has been. Sad to say, it hasn’t been. I don’t mean it hasn’t made Monsanto a lot of money - it has. I do mean that the industry is no closer to creating sustainable growth than it was in the 90’s.

The most obvious cause of GMO failure has been insect and weed resistance. The cotton bollworm, for example, can no longer be controlled consistently with GMO cotton, especially in the Southeastern US. Resistance has also been detected in India.

More importantly, there are now a number of weeds (such as pigweed, horseweed, and giant ragweed) that can’t be controlled with Roundup - Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide and driver of many GMO varieties (that were made so that Roundup could be sprayed over the top of them without harm). Because of resistance, an increasing amount of chemical inputs are required. There is no evidence that the GMO promise has reduced chemical use in the least. In fact, chemical use has actually increased.

In the meantime, millions of acres of GMO corn, soybeans, wheat, etc. are planted worldwide with claims that their use will revolutionize the landscape of global food production and overcome hunger. Sadly, these claims have been seriously misleading - not only because of resistant weeds and increasing chemical use but also because of the loss of crop diversity that the GMO revolution is causing – a loss that strikes at the heart of sustainability.

A classic example of how this happens is in Mexico where GMO corn has disrupted the centuries-old agricultural practices in the heartland of corn diversity.

In the Oaxaca region over 150 local varieties of corn are grown. These have been developed through traditional methods of crop selection and cross-fertilization. Individual families have generations of knowledge invested in these crops and they can be counted on to breed true – or at least true enough to sustain the communities growing the corn and to perpetuate the local varieties.

Unfortunately an increasing number of these varieties are being contaminated by the genes of GMO corn that have been transferred by wind-blown pollen from far away. This threatens the traditional agriculture in a couple of ways. The most immediate is that the genetic contaminants are patented and recognized internationally as somebody’s property - somebody’s, that is, except the local farmers.

But perhaps more serious is the unpredictability of the GMO’s themselves, which are made in a very random process. The manipulated genes that provide “advantages” to a plant can, and do, show up in all sorts of places in the host DNA. Some arrangements seem to show no significant changes to a plant’s appearance. Other arrangements, however, produce truly monstrous phenotypes. What sort of effect might this contamination have on these local communities? Nobody knows.

Of course, this sort of thing might never get out of hand. Perhaps local plant breeders could eliminate the harmful genes over generations. In the meantime, however, it is not wise to pursue a poorly understood technology when so much is at stake. This is just one example of the conflicting sustainability claims of GMO’s.

This may all seem like a science fiction fantasy with its cutting edge technology and impending global disaster. In fact literary entrepreneurs have not been blind to this opportunity. James Rollins’s recent thriller The Doomsday Key is an excellent example. The story centers on a cryptic guild of early Europeans and a fictional corporate giant called Viatus that are tied up in the use of GMO’s to reduce the world’s human population. US secret service agents end up discovering the threat that was taken from an ancient secret surrounding the medieval Doomsday Book. Of course many parts of this story are clearly unrealistic. Some however are not far fetched. The reality is that we don’t know how much of such a scenario is fantastic and how much might actually occur.

One thing we do know, however – or at least we should know – involves the biggest error in all of the GMO sustainability claims: the justification that a larger population needs more food.

At first blush this might seem obvious. The human population is growing at an alarming rate. Certainly the ever-increasing number of people will need to have something to eat. Claiming otherwise seems like an outright admission of misanthropy.

Robert Shapiro went so far as to suggest that a failure to embrace this vision of sustainability would relegate the world to starvation - or to use his own sarcasm: “letting the Malthusian process work its magic on the population”.

The mistake that Shapiro makes here is a big one. Sadly it is a mistake that far too many people make - even people that should know better. Population growth rises to the level of available resources. It is not an independent factor. Malthus was clear on this.

The truth of the matter is that agricultural technology is the primary cause of population growth, not an ancillary science struggling to keep up with it. Shapiro’s claim that Monsanto’s vision is required to feed a hungry world is exactly backwards. It is causing population growth.

Now I am not arguing that we should go back to the dark ages - giving up all our technology - in order to starve the world into a level of fewer people. I am arguing that a blind acceptance of industrial solutions is misguided. Making more and more food is not the answer. Helping more and more people make their own food, is.

Several years ago Barry Commoner pointed out the counter-intuitive relationship between population growth on the one hand and education and health care on the other. Places with higher education and better health care have lower levels of population growth. It has also been shown that open markets contribute to this same trend and improve living conditions for the greater good. But there is a big danger when we presume to take global responsibility. It’s all too easy to move from the ethics of democratic capitalism (sensu Michael Novak) to a presumed virtue of global industry (sensu Monsanto et al.). And it is in this failed transition that we make serious mistakes that make us less sustainable, not more so.

The current state of affairs will only bring more and more technology to developing countries that enrich the major global industries, making poorer peoples more and more dependent, and driving them away from the land and their best hope for true sustainability. More people will migrate to urban areas creating even larger cities with larger slums and greater hunger. It doesn’t take an Old Testament prophet to see all this happening.

If, however, we stop dragging local farmers into our version of the global economy, they will adopt those technologies that make sense to them. Local businesses will succeed, local people will live more dignified lives. Food may be relatively more expensive, but this is not the major problem that it seems. Simple clean housing in developing countries has never been the 30-year burden that it is to us in the developed world. Through the entire history of the planet people have lived fulfilled lives by farming - by spending more resources than we do on food. What may be surprising is that these “higher” priced foods tend to be less processed, and arguably healthier than the cheap diets foisted upon us by industrial society. The fact is that rising food prices becomes a serious problem primarily for those that don’t raise their own food. Those who do somehow manage to get by.

We can create a better world - a more sustainable world. But it won’t happen with an industrial mindset or with industrial tools. It will happen when we stop imposing ourselves on to our poorer neighbors and start focusing our efforts at home. If industry wants to be a true contributor to the problems facing us, let it help local communities become sustainable (without strings attached to global markets). Let it help motivate more people to take up farming, even to the point of empowering small farmers. We need to build soil, save energy, conserve water, and care for our own biotas locally. But claiming that we can save the world using self-serving technologies and economies that we don’t even understand is a recipe for disaster.


Commoner, Barry. 1988 Ecology and Social Action; In, The Conservators of Hope. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho.

Magretta, Joan. 1997. Growth Through Global Sustainability: An Interview with Monsanto’s CEO, Robert B. Shapiro. Harvard Business Review, January-February.

Novak, Michael. 1982. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Touchstone, New York.

Robin, M.-M. 2008. The World According to Monsanto. The New Press, New York.

Rollins, James. 2009. The Doomsday Key. Harper, New York, New York.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Wintry Book Foray

The day after I arrived in Dallas an arctic atmosphere the size of a continent repositioned itself over the United States in the shape of an inverted parabola, its southern limit extending to the middle of Texas.

Temperatures dropped over 30 degrees within a couple of hours and all of the Dallas / Fort Worth area was glazed over with snow and ice. Several of my colleagues (who had arrived for the same scientific meetings that I was attending) were unable to sleep because of the constant clapping of sleet against the large parietal windows of their rooms.

Periodically throughout the next day power went out in the hotel as the city's faltering electricity was portioned out in cycles to its many stranded citizens. For, in fact, very few people were willing to brave the storm and drive to work. As a result the hotel was only half staffed and services were limited.

One is justified in wondering why a middle-aged Californian would wish to trek out in this weather. Certainly not after food, there was plenty of that in the hotel. Not even entertainment, the need of exercise or the promise of interesting insects (all hunkering down beneath the ice) would suffice.

The only possible reason left was books. And that was precisely the pull. Two years ago I had discovered a nice used bookstore (called Half-Price Books) on the other side of town and I was determined to visit it again.

I knew the trip would be tricky as soon as I stepped out of the hotel. The parking lot looked like shattered glass with patches of crusty snow throughout. After slowly making my way to the other side I came to the lawn. The snow had all but covered it up leaving only little tips of grass visible on top. Glad as I was to be free of the parking lot, I stepped with confidence onto the congealed turf only to realize (too late as it turned out) that it was harder than I thought.

Instead of gaining purchase, my unsuspecting foot glanced out from under me and slid to the bottom of the hill pulling me along with it. Fortunately it wasn't too steep or too far to the bottom. The worst thing that happened was the loss of my travelling snack - a Snickers bar - that I had slipped into my coat pocket. In the excitement of the fall I didn't even detect that it was gone until it was too late to go back and get it.

Now, however, I was aware of what I was up against. No more thoughtless or over-confident steps would do. I would have to make the four mile trek with tiny steps. Ahead of me the metropolitan floor extended in a patchwork of blacktop, concrete and little sections of frozen plants. The prospects weren't promising for any of these and so I tried the grass again. This time I gently eased my full weight into a square inch of my shoe. Thankfully it was enough (well maybe it was obviously enough) to break the crusty surface and I stood triumphantly secure.

Thus I plodded over lawns and pansy (poor things) past sidewalk and business until I discovered the remarkable value of poor masonry - concrete curbs, to be precise, which projected unprofessionally above the level of the walk. For some reason they were left un-iced and when there was a lull in the traffic (which was most of the time since nobody in their right mind was on the street) I ventured to balance my way along more easily.

Occasionally I would come upon a parking lot with patches of lovely black footholds. These I would navigate much like an old man playing hopscotch. And in fact it really was fun. I also became quite adept at noticing just slightly uneven surfaces. Failure in this regard could have been a serious problem where walks and driveways sloped ever-so-subtly into the four-lane street.

Unfortunately there were places that became quite difficult, like the entire block I had to manage between a row of crepe myrtles and a metal fence; or the extended driveway that was seemingly as smooth as glass. Very often I was left looking for any irregularity in the ice that I could find - like small pebbles or the frozen reliquiae of animals.

It was while I was inching my way along that I realized half of the stores around me were closed. What if the bookstore was closed too? I wondered. It couldn't be. Besides I was now over an hour along and couldn't bear the thought of turning back empty-handed.

I had been motivating myself through this wintry adventure by the thought of fine books. Now I seemed on the verge of distraction. But what was I to do? I was over half-way there. I couldn't stop now.

And so I mustered my tiring determination once again and kept walking. But in my worries I had failed to pay close enough attention to my footwork. Instead of tiny steps I had lapsed into my more comfortable lope and suddenly I slipped. My right foot raced to the side and my right hip instinctively pirouetted an instantaneous 90 degrees. My left foot shifted into a new position while my left knee flexed and tightened. My back arched forward like an amateur tight-rope-walker hovering over the abyss. Miraculously I remained standing.

And then I started to laugh out loud. How foolish I must have looked, flailing my body around in jocular abandon. But it didn't matter. The black plastic hood of my jacket was cinched tight around my head. I was certain that nobody could recognize me.

So I continued to laugh and walk and sniffle with joy, imagining how happy I would be to find a friendly book.

And so it was I found my favorite Texas store - humble though it is. And it was open, while most of the neighboring windows were dark. In the Natural History section I found an expensive cricket book for a song. I found Ernst Mayr's last book for a couple of dollars. In the regional section I found the essays I'd been looking for (for years) at a reasonable price. And then the cashier announced that because of bad weather, the store would be closing soon. I couldn't help believe that they had remained open just for me.

But now I had a problem I hadn't previously considered. I had a bag of books; no gloves and a long way still to go. Now if I fell, I would have to decide what to do with my hands. I could use them to break my fall (thus dropping the bag) or I could hold on to my package and deal with the bruises. In the end I couldn't make up my mind - and, in fact, it made no difference. I still had to start walking.

At the first crosswalk from the store I noticed an old beat-up truck spinning its tires. A middle-aged woman was pushing it from the back and her young friend was driving and cursing in the front seat. They had been out rummaging for discarded metal to recycle and got a flat tire. I helped them push their vehicle on to flat ground where the jack could be maneuvered without sliding. It wasn't easy pushing it on ice. Not until I found a foot grip on the curb did we make any progress. After managing as best we could I bid them a hearty "good luck" while silently hoping they weren't out on darker errands - along streets of abandoned shops.

The cloudy day was now turning into a cloudy dusk. Only a couple of cars were left in the vast acreage of a mall's parking lot. I moved along in controlled slides and then found a covered parking area with no ice. There was a cold breeze funneling through but the dry ground was a dream-come-true. I felt like walking around in circles to get the full benefit of secure footing but finally convinced myself that this was a waste of energy. And so I worked my way back to the snow and the tiny careful steps. There were still thousands to take - one after another - soon becoming a habit. Finally I was back before the hotel where I had fallen. On the ground was my candy bar - now frozen but untouched and intact. My cheeks were as ruddy as ever and my hands and arms were locked into a book-embracing rigor. But all was well. I pulled the hood off my head, breathed in the freezing air and walked anticlimactically into the lobby: a silent successful adventurer.

Some of my colleagues were standing around in idle chitchat. I nodded their way and smiled, feeling somehow above such sybaritic comforts. But then again, in a matter of minutes I would be in a warm bed reading.