The Biotech Bogeyman

By Keith Kloor | March 4, 2011 12:51 pm

Andy Revkin has a post related to a conference I (and numerous other journalists) also attended this week.  Due to computer challenges (my laptop died on Tuesday) and other obligations, I haven’t yet been able to post on any of the sessions. But I’ll get something up by Monday. I’m still digesting it all.

Meanwhile, for those who care to engage the intertwined issue of sustainability, agriculture, and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), Andy’s diplomatic post is a good primer.  Or if you’re looking for something with less gloss and more zing, this Dot Earth commenter doesn’t disappoint:

Nice, detached kid-gloves comment about the luddite European Union.

Dude, the world is amidst a new green revolution everywhere… except Europe. Most of the planet is planting GM crops and saving water, avoiding pesticides, avoiding much of oil-fabricated fertilizer, yielding more food per planted acre, etc… except Europe.

Why are the Europeans so anti-green, anti-ecological? They can’t even say GM foods have any deleterious health effect, because we have been eating the stuff for 20 years!

The other striking thing about your post is how you gloss over the 4 of every 10 rows of U.S. corn that are now destroyed into ethanol and needlessly burned on U.S. cars. You could feed over 600 million people alone on this immense green environmentalist man-made ecological disaster alone.

For shame, really.

Yes indeedy, when it comes to biotechnology and GMO’s, I’d say that Europe has a bit of groupthink problem. One might even say…anti-science?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs
  • Tom Fuller

    The EU isn’t reall anti-science. it is a-science. Science is a tool of policy over there, and policy-based evidence rules the day.

  • ob

    well, as european citizen, my media-obtained lay-impression was, that the topic is slighlty more problematic or uncertain, than depicted in that comment. That is, why should we risk health- and environmental problems, which are not ruled out on a 90 percent level? I’d say, that’s kind of the median of german-european positions. You might call that anti-sci, i wouldn’t. Additionally, I think, there is a strong antipathy to patents on living organisms and some particular members of the gene-modification-industry – possibly unreasonably so.

  • harrywr2

    There isn’t any way Western European grain farms could compete with US grain farms on an equal footing.
    It’s just a matter of scale.
    The average US farm is 400+ acres.
    The average EU-27 farm size if 34 acres.
    The University of Illinois did a study on the most cost effective machinery combination’s for harvesting depending on farm size. They didn’t even bother with anything less then 600 acres.
    http://www.farmdoc.illinois.edu/manage/machinery/machinery%20harvesting%202010.pdf

    The European anti-GM crop thing is simply protectionism dressed up in environmental clothes.

     

  • bluegrue

    Something you may want to keep in mind when comparing farm sizes. Wheat yields (2003/04 values) in the UK are 7.8 metric tons per hectare, in Germany it’s 6.5. In the US it’s 3 metric tons per hectare.
    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/agr_yie_whe-agriculture-yield-wheat
    Good to see, that monopolization of seed and reduction of biodiversity are obviously not a problem of GM plants, as nobody bothers to mention them.

  • Ian

    I often find the debate on GM foods as confusing and divisive as the climate one. While feeling an inherent uneasiness about consuming GM foods, I recognise that it’s a dis-ease that has little basis on empirical evidence. No doubt my years as an active Australian Green’s party member fortified a cognitive bias.

    What I do find a little perplexing is while, in regards to climate change, the preponderance of environmentalists readily support the conclusions of science bodies such as the CSIRO http://www.csiro.au/science/Changing-Climate.html and UN organisations (such as the IPCC) when it comes to GM foods they will often denounce the general consensus of these same bodies http://www.csiro.au/science/ps3g.html and http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/

  • BBD

    Without wishing to enter the debate, I provide a anecdote that hints at the situation in the UK.

    Several weeks ago, my local newspaper’s syndicated agricultural column gave some moderately favourable coverage of GM in the context of feeding a growing global population.

    The next week, not one but two very huffy letters were published, one from a well-known local ‘environmentalist’, the other from a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists (also local).

    Both excoriated the article, and GM in general. Both were, to my limited knowledge, in error and over-stated the supposed risks. The well-known pseudo-environmentalist for example blamed bee colony collapse disorder squarely on GMOs, even though it occurs in areas of Europe where no GMOs are cultivated.

    My sense of both letters is that they were typical of the ‘green’ position in the UK: strongly, reflexively… dogmatically anti-GM.

    What worried me at the time was that no consideration at all was given to the other side of the argument: feeding a growing global population.

    Clearly to the couple of ‘greens’ in this anecdote, being anti-GM was more important than keeping abreast of feeding the planet.
     

  • Paul in Sweden

    @bluegrss

    GM wheat does not seem to be a factor but the per hectare wheat yield disparity that you pointed out between the “UK, Germany, France” and the USA is staggering. I am curious as to what the reason(s) might me.

    FT.com / Global Economy – Global boost to GM crops
    “The development of GM wheat has been held up by scientific problems ““ its genome is particularly complex ““ and by consumer resistance. But Mr James has detected a change of heart about GM wheat among farmers and agricultural biotech researchers, and he expects it to be ready for commercialisation in 2017.”
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ef5cc4ea-3e75-11e0-9e8f-00144feabdc0.html

  • Gaythia

    I think that this conversation needs to be more about which sorts of GM should be supported, rather than a discussion of denial of GM overall.   After all, humans have been genetically modifying crops since the dawn of agriculture.
    There are innovative approaches to better ecological sustainability such as those outlined by Andrew Revkin in the post linked to above.  There are proposals that I find fascinating that would attempt to develop grain crops that are perennials rather than annual plants (less water, plowing).
    Then there are the standard, non visionary thinking proposals that make more short term money for our chemical industry such as this redundant to Monsanto idea from Dow:
    “Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, announced the publication of an international patent application for its lead commercial herbicide tolerance event in corn, which is part of Dow AgroSciences’ innovative new class of herbicide tolerant traits, and is planned to be commercialized during 2012-2013.” (http://www.zacks.com/stock/news/48339/Dow+Chemicals%27+New+Division)
    Innovative and Green?  I think not.   Europe has a bit of groupthink problem? One might even say”¦anti-science?  Only if it is clear what exactly it is that they, and other members of the public are rejecting.  And what is not being communicated to the public about the real possibilities for sustainable GM crop modifications.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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