Dear New York Times,
We’d like to respond to your recent article on genetically modifed crops.
Many who wrote letters to the editor or posted their opinions online called the author’s main assertion that GM crops were designed primarily to increase crop yields and reduce pesticide use, “a false premise”.
Dr. Steve Novella in his blog NeuroLogica writes, GM technology “is not inherently tied in any way” to any one application. Rather, he describes the promise of GM technology as providing “a tool for agricultural scientists to make more rapid and more specific changes to crop cultivars” using methods deemed “safe with no demonstrable inherent risks beyond any other method of crop development”.
In an open letter to the NY Times Public Editor (email@example.com), a group of scientists assert GM crops were “designed to manage and mitigate some of the causes of crop loss, especially pre-harvest losses due to insect pests or weeds.”
To many scientist critics, Danny Hakim missed the point of GM crops from the start.
Dr. Novella points out that comparing yields in developed countries is inappropriate to begin with since GM crops were not intended to further increase already high yields in developed countries like the United States and Canada.
GM crops are widely used in developed countries today primarily for two traits:
Insect resistance (IR; resistance to certain types of pests)
Herbicide tolerance (HT; imparts tolerance to an herbicide like glyphosate).
Although prior to the implementation of GM technology, many North American farmers were already using effective pest and weed control methods. Dr. Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C. explains how with insect resistant seeds, GM technology provides pest control superior to non-GM seeds. GM seeds are designed to select and attack a specific pest rather than a broad-based effect typically delivered by conventional pesticides.
If you assume (as Danny Hakim proposes) that one of the main reasons developed countries like the U.S. and Canada use GM crops is to increase yields, it is still inappropriate to evaluate yields solely based on genetic modification. According to Graham Brookes, a seed’s genetic capability and “its ability to withstand yield-reducing effects of pests, diseases and weeds” are only two of many factors that affect yield. When considering the complex nature of the outdoor growing environment, there are numerous factors affecting yield including weather, soil quality, farming practices, inputs (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides and seeds), farmers’ knowledge and skills, and the effectiveness of existing technology to control pests, diseases, and weeds among others.
GM crops and reduced pesticide use.
“A relatively tiny proportion of these differences are likely due to GMOs; pesticide use depends on climate, pest species, crop species, economics, availability, tillage practices, crop rotations, and countless other factors. And almost all of these factors differ between France and the U.S. So this comparison between France and the U.S., especially at such a coarse scale, is mostly meaningless, especially with respect to the GMO question.”Dr. Andrew Kniss
Hakim used a faulty comparison and an inaccurate chart to support his claim that pesticide use, as measured by weight, has not been reduced— but is using weight to evaluate pesticide use even useful?
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) doesn’t think so.
Otherwise, using the measurement of weight for pesticide does not tell us anything about its toxicity. While Hakim cites pesticides such as sarin in his discussion of pesticide toxicity, he does little to explain the toxicity differences between pesticides commercially available and used in agriculture today and pesticides developed decades ago and nefariously used as weapons in wars.
To say that all pesticides are toxic is true but misses the point that they all differ significantly in the magnitude of toxicity and the organisms they effect.
In her response to the NY Times article, Dr. Nina Fedoroff who is Emeritus Professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University, explains how herbicides used today are developed to be toxic to plants by interfering with biochemical pathways and processes humans do not have.
For readers who are researching GM crops whether driven by interest or concern, it is imperative to investigate reports that appear to contradict other published peer-reviewed scientific studies. The formal and informal peer-review process that comes with publishing in the scientific literature provides an added level of confidence you are getting information that is not manipulated to support a particular narrative.
Rarely does technology create a magic bullet, and genetic engineering is no exception. However, the article goes beyond discussing any downsides to GM technology by misusing data in an attempt to dismiss the value of GM technology altogether.
This article ignores the fact that farmers are business people who rely on their land and crops to stay in business. They test different varieties of seeds and analyze benefits and trade-offs to see what works best for them. So if the cost of GM crops outweighs the benefits, farmers will be the first to react by not planting GM seeds.
Brookes, G. (2016, October 31). Why Danny Hakim’s New York Times GMO expose misleads. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/10/31/danny-hakims-new-york-times-gmo-expose-misleads/
Fedoroff, N. V. (2016, November 01). Hakim’s effort to skewer biotech crops in Sunday’s NY Times. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.ofwlaw.com/2016/11/01/hakims-effort-to-skewer-biotech-crops-insundays-ny-times/
Giddings, V. (2016, November 11). Scientists’ ‘open letter’ to NY Times’ Public Editor brightlines Danny Hakim’s ‘misleading’ GMO article. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/11/11/scientists-open-letter-ny-times-public-editor-brightlines-danny-hakims-misleading-gmo-article/
Hakim, D. (2016, October 29). Doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/business/gmo-promise-falls-short.html
Kniss, A. (2016, October 30). The tiresome discussion of initial GMO expectations. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2016/10/thetiresome-discussion-of-initial-gmo-expectations/
National Academy of Sciences. The impact of genetically engineered crops on farm sustainability in the United States. (2010). Washington D.C: National Academy of Sciences.
Novella, S. (2016, October 31). The Times gets it wrong on GMOs. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-times-gets-it-wrong-on-gmos/
Perry ED, Ciliberto F, Hennessy DA, Moschini G. 2016. Genetically engineered crops and pesticide use in U.S. maize and soybeans. Science Advances, 2(8):1-8. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/2/8/e1600850.full.pdf