An interesting response to an earlier post on the limited consumer benefits of agricultural biotechnology led me in search of data on the application of herbicides and pesticides to genetically engineered crops. What I found paints a pretty bleak picture. The technology was developed with an environmental benefit in mind—by developing crops that were resistant to the application of wide-spectrum herbicides like Round Up, the total amount of herbicides applied to any crop would be reduced. Similarly, the development of insect resistant varieties—like Bt cultivars—would reduce the need to apply various insecticides throughout the growing season, thereby reducing the total volume applied.
Early in their lifecycles, the genetically engineered varieties seemed to be living up to their promise. A study by Food and Water Watch, for example, finds that “Herbicide use on corn, soybeans and cotton did fall in the early years of GE crop adoption, dropping by 42 million pounds (15 percent) between 1998 and 2001. But as weeds developed resistance to glyphosate, farmers applied more herbicides, and total herbicide use increased by 81.2 million pounds (26 percent) between 2001 and 2010.”
They also noted that “The total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012,” as reflected in the table below.
The study by Food and Water Watch echoes an earlier study by study by Charles Benbrook of Washington State University which concluded that “[Herbicide tolerant (HT)] crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds over the 16-year period (1996-2011). The incremental increase per year has grown steadily from 1.5 million pounds in 1999, to 18 million five years later in 2003, and 79 million pounds in 2009. In 2011, about 90 million more pounds of herbicides were applied than likely in the absence of HT, or about 24% of total herbicide use on the three crops in 2011.” He argues that the increased application of herbicides is connected to an expansion of herbicide tolerance among weeds, observing that “There are now two-dozen weeds resistant to glyphosate, the major herbicide used on HT crops, and many of these are spreading rapidly. Millions of acres are infested with more than one glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of resistant weeds drives up herbicide use by 25% to 50%, and increases farmer-weed control costs by at least as much.”
The most widespread glyphosate-resistant weeds include waterhemp, palmer amaranth, and ragweed, and as the map by WeedSceience.com and cited in the Food and Water Watch study shows, they have spread as the use of glyphosate has increased.
The biotech giant Monsanto is making efforts to improve its public image, including shaking up its senior public relations staff, hiring a new public relations firm, launching a new website, and posting a host of videos on YouTube. A statement issued by Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, noted that the company has “been absolutely riveted and focused on giving technology and tools to farmers to improve their productivity and yield and we haven’t spent nearly the time we have needed to on talking to consumers and talking to social media and really intercepting this” opposition to biotechnology.
For longer-term observers, Monsanto’s current efforts echo a previous initiative launched in 1999, when then CEO Bob Shapiro launched a shareholder meeting by conceding that, “We started with the conviction that biotechnology was useful and valuable but we have tended to see it as our task to convince people that we were right and that people with different points of view were wrong. We have irritated and antagonized more people than we have persuaded. Our confidence in biotechnology has been widely seen as arrogance and condescension because we thought it was our job to persuade. But too often we forgot to listen.”
So what’s changed since 1999? Interestingly, not a lot. Despite promises by Shapiro, Monsanto launched a series of new initiatives intended to convince a hesitant public of the benefits of biotechnology, but the company never engaged in the “listening” he suggested. Since then, efforts to impose mandatory labelling of genetically engineered products in the United States have grown, and Monsanto has been forced to engage in a series of defensive operations to defeat ballot measures in California, Washington, and elsewhere. In each instance, ballot measures were narrowly defeated after massive spending by Monsanto.
More importantly, though, the technology of genetic engineering in agriculture has not yet lived up to the hype and promises of its advocates. As I’ve said before, the production-centered traits of the current generation of agbiotech show no real benefits for the end consumer. Roundup-Ready and Bt crops may make production easier for the farmer, but the absence of any direct benefits for the consumer give consumers no real reason to accept GM crops. And until agricultural scientists can develop crops that do show clear consumer benefits, consumers will remain skeptical of any PR initiative launched by Monsanto or other agbiotech companies.
I’m blogging from the African Studies Association meeting in Baltimore this week, where I’ve been able to attend some interesting panels. While there are a surprisingly small number of panels on African agriculture here, those that have taken place have been quite good.
Tom Lavers’ paper on land grabs in Ethiopia presented some interesting theoretical connections between land tenure and the reach of the state. His argument began with the observant that much of the literature on land grabs in Africa has centered on the belief that such land deals represent an erosion of national sovereignty insofar as they culminate in transfer of control over land to non-state (usually foreign business) actors.
However, in his presentation, Lavers argued that in the Ethiopian case, land acquisitions are generally taking place not in highland areas held by smallholder farmers but in lowland areas used by pastoralists who generally operated beyond the reach of the state. In this instance, land grabs do not signal a surrender of sovereignty but its assertion, an expansion of the reach of the states to relatively remote lowlands traditionally neglected by the government in Addis Ababa. Supporting this argument is the fact that in Gambela, his case study and a region where the government has designated up to 42 percent of land for possible land deals, land acquisitions are being accompanied by efforts on the part of the state to move 70-75 percent of the population from more remote settlements into villages. Such efforts, he asserts, can thus be read collectively as an effort to project state authority–and more broadly sovereignty–into the furthest reaches of the territorial boundaries of Ethiopia. It’s a very interesting argument that deepens the debate over the questions and grabs in Africa.
A powerful critique of the promotion of corn-based ethanol as “clean energy” appeared on the AP Wire yesterday. While not breaking any new ground, the story highlights the importance of US electoral politics—and particularly the position of Iowa as an early battleground state in the presidential nomination process—as central in President Obama’s support for corn-based ethanol.
The story also notes the inefficiency of corn-based ethanol as an energy source… Even under the most optimistic scenarios and assuming technologies not yet in place, corn-based ethanol is only slightly better than gasoline in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. And it raises a host of questions about priorities in food production. Yet without addressing many of these questions, an increasingly large portion of US corn production has been diverted to ethanol, as the graph below suggests.
A petition and media campaign by the NGO Oxfam aimed at pressuring beverage companies to take steps to stop land grabs has produced its first results. The Oxfam campaign targets Coke, Pepsi, and Associated British Foods in an effort to convince them to source sugar from non-land-grab producers.
And earlier this week, the campaign claimed its first success, as Coca-Cola announced it would no longer purchase from suppliers that failed to follow guidelines to protect the land rights of local communities. In a formal statement, the company proclaimed that “The Coca-Cola company believes that land grabbing is unacceptable. Our company does not typically purchase ingredients directly from farms, nor are we owners of sugar farms or plantations, but as a major buyer of sugar, we acknowledge our responsibility to take action and to use our influence to help protect the land rights of local communities.”
Monitoring would be contracted to independent auditors, who would evaluate protections afforded for social, environmental, and human rights. The company also asserted that it would maintain a “zero-tolerance” policy for land-grabs. Oxfam has now turned its attention to Pepsi and Associated British Foods, which have yet to follow suit. Keep up the good work, Oxfam!
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday issued a preliminary ruling declaring that partially hydrogenated oils would no longer be classified as “generally recognized as safe.” Partially hydrogenated oils—like shortening and margarine—are created by adding hydrogen to liquid oils to make them solid fats. While they have a long history of use in the United States, particularly in processed foods, a number of recent studies have found a correlation between consumption of trans fats and higher levels of heart disease. As public pressure has increased to curtail their use, some retailers have responded. McDonald’s for example, does not use trans fats in its foods. Nevertheless, the average American consumes about 1 gram of trans fats per day (down from an average of 4.6 grams per day in 2003), and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted that “current intake [of trans fats] remains a significant public health concern.”
The Food and Drug Administration uses the classification of “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS) for rapid approval of substances that are not believed to pose a risk to human health. According to the PEW Health Group, more than 10,000 chemicals are classified as GRAS. But the system has been widely criticized, with one study of the process by which GRAS approval was granted finding decisions were based exclusively on studies performed by parties with a financial interest in the outcome.
The FDA’s decision to rescind GRAS status for trans fats will not be finalized until after a 60 day open comment period. But several groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have already issued statements of support for the FDA’s decision.
To be clear, the FDA is hardly at the cutting edge of the debate over trans fats. Prompted by FDA labeling requirements imposed in 2006, many companies have already begun to phase out the use of trans fats. New York City banned their use in restaurants in 2008, and Wal-Mart in 2011 pledged to remove all foods containing artificial trans fats from its store shelves by 2016. Existing school lunch guidelines were revised to prevent trans fats from being served in school cafeterias. Withdrawal of GRAS status would not completely prohibit the use of trans fats, but it would mean that products containing trans fats would be subject to additional review and approval by the FDA before they could be marketed, and this shift would represent an important step in improving public health in the United States.
John Bare, Vice President of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, published an interesting op-ed on the CNN website this morning, arguing that the food movement should banish the term “food desert” from its vocabulary. Bare contends that the emphasis on food deserts “focuses on diagnosis but not a cure” and that “The food desert diagnosis too easily turns into a cub used to beat families most in need. Being labeled a food desert makes a neighborhood undesirable, rather than a target of opportunity.” Instead, Bare argues that we should focus on the positives—construction of food oases—rather than on the negatives of food deserts.
In essence, Bare is presenting to key issues here. The first centers on what he sees as the excessive analysis of neighborhoods attempting to classify them as food deserts or not according to metrics established by the USDA. Bare’s solution here is a straightforward one—ask them. “Show up at a neighborhood meeting with research on how residents are living in a food desert. Guess what? They already know.”
Bare’s second argument is that the label of “food deserts” disempowers the very neighborhoods its intended to help. It blames the victims for choosing to live in “food deserts.” And it overlooks the countless efforts to establish “food oases.”
I’m not particularly convinced by the first half of Bare’s argument. Analyses of food deserts highlight the underlying dynamics which drive their creation in the first place. They emphasize racist policies that relocate supermarkets away from poor communities of color into white suburbs. And they draw attention to the impact of such moves.
The second part of Bare’s argument, though, is far more powerful and poses some interesting questions to think about. Is the “food desert” discourse disempowering? Should we be focused on individual examples of overcoming the food desert challenges? Or is there still need for conversations about the class-based and race-based dynamics that govern access to food?