Slugging It Out With a New Contender in the GMOs Debate

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By Nathanael Johnson, Grist’s food writer and the author of All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. Follow him on Twitter at @savortooth. Originally published at Grist

It was the closest thing you get to a blind date between a scientist and a journalist.

I had never met the entomologist John Tooker before he opened his door at Penn State, where I was giving a lecture this April, and invited me into his office. Tooker is tall, lean, and balding, with expressive black eyebrows and ears that stick out from his skull. He leaned back in his chair and linked his hands behind his head.

“I thought it might be worth meeting,” he said, “because I read the piece where you said GMOs had decreased the amount of insecticide used.” This is an important data point in the ongoing debate over the environmental effects of GMO crops. As long-time Grist readers know, I’ve explored this topic in depth.

“Well,” Tooker continued, “in 2015, we published a paper showing that they’ve actually driven insecticide use up.”

I gaped. Even anti-GMO partisans generally accept the premise that genetically modified crops have reduced insecticide use. For a moment I worried Tooker might be crazy, determined to hold me captive while he ranted. But as an entomologist and agricultural extension specialist, he was sure to be familiar with the evidence. What the heck was going on?

The question of whether GMOs are harmful or beneficial to humanity doesn’t always have an easy answer, and lots of contradictory claims can be made in the debate. Sometimes, it turns out, each claim can be right in its own fashion. Every scientist and activist sees the overall picture from a slightly different angle.

For that reason, I’m always open to a new perspective that challenges what I’ve come to learn over the years of investigating GMOs. (For the record, my personal conclusion is that despite all the dire predictions and heated rhetoric on both sides, GMOs don’t actually matter that much.) So I was more than open to hearing Tooker’s new evidence and exploring where it might lead — once I determined he wasn’t nuts.

The result was a fresh argument for a form of pest control — a golden mean of organic and industrial. Here’s a roadmap of the journey I followed to get there.

Seeds coated with chemicalsShutterstock

First, we’ll need some background. Over the last few decades, farmers have been using more of a type of insecticide called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short. These relatives of nicotine deliver insects a lethal high. (Maybe not such a bad way to go?)

Neonics are mostly used as seed coatings. They’re one part in a cocktail of fungicides, insecticides, and beneficial microbes swaddling nearly every seed that modern farmers stick in the ground — GMO seeds and non-GMO alike. But, Tooker argues that the increase in genetically modified crops is what’s really causing the use of neonics to skyrocket, to the point that just about every kernel of field corn planted in the United States is coated with this class of insecticides.

The reaction to the widespread use of neonics, like so much in agriculture today, has been polarized and divisive.

Farmers love them. “We’ve gone from using pesticides with a skull and crossbones on the label,” Iowa farmer Mark Jackson told me. “I used to lay down a seven-inch band of granular insecticide on the ground over my seeds.”

Those ground treatments and sprays kill beneficial insects along with the pests. But a tiny drop of neonics applied right to the seed casing gets sucked into the plant as it grows. Bugs that chomp down on the neonic-infused leaves get a killer dose of the chemical. What’s not to love?

Environmentalists, by contrast, see neonics as a catastrophe that is wiping out valuable pollinators and other beneficial insects along with their target pets. Greens point to studies that suggest farmers gain little to no economic benefit from seed treatments. There’s some evidence — in Europe, at least — of a marked decline in many insect populations, although data on what’s causing this remains scant. (I go deeper here, if you want more background on the bee crisis and its possible causes.)

Farmers can’t see any downside to neonic seed treatments. Environmentalists can’t see any upside. When people can’t see the other side of any debate, they become vulnerable to a form of blindness. Which is what made me wonder: Has everyone become so blinkered that we’re unable to see what Tooker sees, and there really is a massive, under-the-radar increase in insecticide use?

* * *

The fascination with GMOs and neonics got its claws into Tooker at a breakfast meeting with farmers. As part of his job at the ag extension service, he visits with farmers across Pennsylvania to provide advice and learn what about their challenges.

When he walked through the doors of Ard’s Farm Restaurant in Lewisburg, a small town on the Susquehanna river, eight years ago, he was expecting maybe five people to show up. Instead, some 30 farmers looked up from their coffees. Tooker ordered fried eggs and scrapple and asked what had brought everyone out.

The answer: slugs. Thousands of eraser-sized grey slugs were appearing in fields at dusk and gnawing through the stems of the sprouting crop, killing plants en masse.

This was weird. Slugs are usually controlled by insects — including a couple species of ground beetles common to Pennsylvania. To figure out what was going on, Tooker and Margaret Douglas, then a grad student, began setting up little terrariums — clear plastic half-pint cartons (like for your potato salad) with a little dirt in the bottom.

These were tiny coliseums for a clash of mortal foes — slugs versus beetles. Douglas called the containers “arenas.”

“It’s like something you’d see on YouTube,” Douglas says. “Spider versus wasp!”

Slugs are hard to kill. There are a few molluscicides out there, but they’re expensive. And even their born predators, the ground beetles, have trouble taking them down.

“They produce a protective slime,” Douglas said, “so when they are attacked, that slime gets all up in the predator’s mouthparts, and it’s pretty disgusting, though there are some predators that can deal with that.”

Still, when the beetles got hungry, they chowed down on the slugs — slime be damned. To add a touch of farmland verisimilitude, and to see how well beetles might protect a crop from ravenous slugs, Douglas germinated a few seeds that had been sitting in the lab refrigerator and placed a few sprouts in each arena. Then she went home.

The next day, she found the seedlings shredded, and every beetle dead. The slugs were snoozing, their bellies full.

Tooker and Douglas quickly realized that the seeds Douglas had used were coated with a mix of chemicals, including a neonic insecticide. As they sucked up water in the germinating tray, the sprouts had also absorbed the neonics, which bind tightly to water molecules and hitch a ride into plant cells.

The slugs ate the plants, and the insecticide had spread through the molluscs without harming them. When the beetles attacked the slugs, they got a mouthful of poison and keeled over.

Douglas and Tooker confirmed this narrative with further experiments, then published their work and took their findings back to farmers. They suggested that farmers could control the slugs in part by planting seeds without neonics on them.

But farmers told them it was hard to find the seeds they wanted without the insecticides, especially if the seeds were GMOs. Tooker and Douglas started to wonder how widespread neonics were, and realized that nobody knew; the Department of Agriculture hadn’t been tracking seed treatments in its pesticide surveys.

After some sleuthing with government data collected by other agencies, they published a 2015 paper showing that neonic use had ballooned.

Neonics go boomTooker and Douglas

* * *

What wasn’t clear in their paper documenting the increased use of neonics is why Tooker contended that GMO seeds had driven that growth more than non-GMOs. It was only after I spoke with Scott Beck, president of Beck’s Hybrids, an 80-year-old family business in Iowa, that the possible relationship between GMOs and neonics became clear.

Back in the 1980s, when seeds were relatively cheap, farmers often planted extra in their fields, Beck said, expecting to lose some. But then, with the advent of biotechnology in 1996, seed prices rose.

At that point, he said, it no longer made sense for farmers to buy more seeds than they needed. Better to protect their pricier genetically modified seeds with insecticides like neonics.

So is Tooker right that farmers are using more insecticides than they would be without biotechnology? Certainly it might look that way from the perspective of a ground beetle, and talking to Beck had helped me understand Tooker’s argument.

But the numbers don’t add up if you are measuring insecticides by the pound. Take, for instance, this recent study: It counted neonic seed treatments and confirmed the conventional wisdom that GMOs were responsible for a big drop in insecticide use.

This shows kilograms per hectare of seed treatments — in green — and other insecticide — blue — on corn in the United States.Perry et al.

After a little follow up, Tooker conceded that he was making a bit of leap from his 2015 paper on the increased use of neonics to placing the blame on GMOs. He suggested I talk to Douglas, his research partner.

“She’s a bit more cautious,” he admitted wryly. “Sometimes I let my mouth get out ahead of me.”

When I got her on the phone, Douglas explained that farmers are using less insecticide, but spreading it over a much larger area. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you care about.

If you are worried about toxicity to humans, things are improving. But if you care about insects, the ubiquity of neonics may very well mean we’re looking at an increasing threat. Measured in acres treated, it looks like we’ve reached an all-time high in the use of neonic seed treatments. Now they’re spread over 90 percent of corn fields and a little under half of soy fields, Tooker said.

That’s when it finally clicked for me: Tooker studies insects that live on farmland. The bugs he cares about are experiencing a massive increase in poisoned habitat.

For people who care about bugs, neonics have a trio of troubling attributes: They can persist in soil for years; they bind to water molecules, so they’re liable to wash into creeks; and they are lethal to insects at microscopic doses.

Scott Black is one of those people who cares. He is the executive director of the Xerces Society, a conservation nonprofit for bugs. Black isn’t an anti-neonic crusader. He knows that if neonics were banned, farmers could replace them with other insecticides. He understands that habitat loss, climate change, and many types of pesticides are ganging up on bugs.

Nonetheless, he thinks neonics deserve special attention. At this point, he said, they are the most widely used insecticides in the world.

* * *

Soybean seeds in the bins of a planterREUTERS/David Mercado

GMOs certainly aren’t the only force driving the spread of neonics. Farmers told me seed treatments became more important as they embraced cover crops and no-till practices. Because they had stopped plowing, there was more insect life in their fields. Naturally, some of those insects liked to eat sprouting grain.

The seed treatments seemed like the perfect solution: Instead of spreading chemicals on their fields and killing good and bad species of insect alike, farmers could use a fraction of a gram with pinpoint accuracy, applied to their seeds.

Tooker says seed treatments can be great if used strategically. When he and Douglas started sharing their findings about beetles and slugs, they hoped their research might turn farmers away from the preemptive use of insecticides and toward integrated pest management.

That’s a practice that takes the best from both organic and conventional farming. You encourage natural predators and let low-level pests go untreated. But when an infestation threatens, you make a surgical strike with the best available chemical.

This practice would take more work for farmers — and create more worry — but it would save them money, keep pesticides working longer (the more you apply, the more their targets breed resistance), and might just bring back a host of beneficial insects, like slug-eating beetles.

Interestingly, the ag giant Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, says that technical advancements — like down-to-the-meter mapping of fields — are making it easier for farmers to adopt this method of dealing with pests. Savvy farmers will soon be tricking out their seed planters to place insecticide-treated seeds in one spot, anti-nematode seeds in another, and a high-yielding hybrid in another, Fraley told me.

“Planters used to be like inkjet printers,” he said. “Today’s planter, you have to think of as being a 3D printer.”

To reduce the use of neonic-coated seeds, though, first you’ll have to convince farmers that there’s a problem with them. Even the enlightened ones I talked to who already use integrated pest management don’t see any harm.

But Tooker’s findings (along with those of many other scientists) suggest that there’s an underappreciated danger in routinely applying tiny amounts of insecticide over huge areas. If farmers could see things from the perspective of their allies, the slug-chomping beetles, it might plant an important seed of understanding.

We could stand to cultivate a lot more of that in the GMO wars.

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  1. No One

    It seems to me like it should be possible to create GMOs that use less insecticide, or at the very least the same amount as natural crops. This is being framed as a debate between GMO and natural but this ignores the possibility of creating GMOs that use less or more environmentally friendly methods of keeping the bugs away.

    From what I can tell, a lot of the problems with GMOs stem from unaccountable corporations like Monsanto rather than the idea of GMOs. Instead of debating the existence of GMOs, it seems more productive to question how they are used and making sure that use is for the benefit of everyone.

    1. tegnost

      It seems like to me that you should be willing to identify the food that is GMO by putting it on the label so that you can be part of this giant science experiment if you want to and I will be able to opt out by not buying it because it seems like to me that it’s poison. You realize, or maybe you don’t, that nicotine is so poisonous that you can’t use it in your garden? But It’s great for lucrative large scale farming. The guy on the tractor in the grapes of wrath on steroids.

      1. Joel

        But then what you’d want is labeling of the kind of pesticides used, not whether it’s GMO, because all crops use pesticides and non-GMO crops use even more.

        1. mauisurfer

          not true
          non gmo crops do NOT use more pesticides
          if you count herbicides as pesticides
          which most scientists today do

        2. tegnost

          Do you oppose labeling GMO products? As I pointed out, using nicotine as a pesticide in your home garden is illegal, and what I want is for you to llow yourself to participate in the science experiment that you support, while I can opt out by reading the label that says GMO

        3. different clue

          Perhaps I wish to boycott corporate-patented GMOs for political-economic class-warfare reasons. Perhaps I don’t wish to add my money to Monsanto’s revenue stream. Or Syngenta’s. Or Dow Chemical’s. Or Bayer’s.

          Perhaps I would like to have things labeled for GMO-use for THAT reason. Among other reasons.

      1. different clue

        Perhaps it is “hard” to see because the blue used for “all other” insecticides is very similar to the green used for “neonicotinoids”. The blue is shrinking faster than the green is growing, but the green is growing.

        One of the biggest threats to agriculture itself is neonic poisoning of bees which shows up as colony collapse disorder, among other things. Fewer bees, less pollination. Imagine the illogical endpoint of this little spiral down . . . a field full of flowering crops with not one pest insect to trouble the leaves . . . and not one bee to pollintate the flowers from which the economically sought-after product grows.

  2. kimyo

    a commentor on zerohedge noted a few months ago that his/her windshield, unlike years ago, remains bug-free season after season.

    anecdotal, of course, but it does match my experience. even short night-time road trips back in the 70’s & 80’s would require a fair amount of elbow grease at the filling station.

    Cornstalks Everywhere But Nothing Else, Not Even A Bee

    Which brings me back to Iowa, where my NPR colleague, commentator and science writer Craig Childs, decided to have a little adventure. As he tells it in his new book, he recruited a friend, Angus, and together they agreed to spend two nights and three days (“We’ll call it a long weekend”) smack in the middle of a 600-acre farm in Grundy County.

    Cornfields, however, are not like national parks or virgin forests. Corn farmers champion corn. Anything that might eat corn, hurt corn, bother corn, is killed. Their corn is bred to fight pests. The ground is sprayed. The stalks are sprayed again. So, like David, Craig wondered, “What will I find?”

    The answer amazed me. He found almost nothing. “I listened and heard nothing, no bird, no click of insect.”

    There were no bees. The air, the ground, seemed vacant.

    1. ger

      As a small time farmer (more like a large gardener) in a southern state, the loss of insects has been obvious. Five years ago, walking barefoot across the white clover covered yard would get you at least one bee sting. Now the bees are totally gone and the white clover has disappeared due to lack of pollination. My pigs have grown lazy as rooting the ground, for the once plentiful beetle grubs, is futile. The little toads that constantly hopped about the farm catching insects ….. extinct? The bull frogs croaking around the pond …. silent forever? Sad.

  3. Juneau

    I hope agricultural researchers can figure out a way to use the least insecticide most effectively. Still GMO’s are scary “because Monsanto”….patents the GMO seeds that are used to grow some of our food and our food’s food. No one really is entitled to have that much control over the food supply. Especially a corporation. Still, if neonic coatings keep the critter count down without causing too much damage it sounds like a good middle ground. Just don’t know if it is enough improvement for the bees.

  4. Praedor

    You won’t think GMOs don’t matter much when gene drive is released. This is an ecological disaster in the making that could easily end up driving organisms to extinction, and spreading beyond their targets.

    Also, GMOs DO matter a lot since a handful of corporations last claim to virtually all crops and if there’s any “leakage” into non-GMO fields, those farmers get raped for “theft” when the fact is they were trying to AVOID GMO crops to the nth degree!
    How does that not matter? I

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I agree this Grist author seems unduly sanguine, but the point is that even someone who is relatively relaxed about GMOs was taken aback by a new look at the pesticide claims.

    2. gepay

      It has been shown that GMO genes spread easily from the small experimental GMO wheat planting out West to the modified papaya plants in Hawaii – the large soybean plantings – to the immense corn crop. Fortunately Mexico somehow was able to ban them to protect the area where corn originated and has the most extensive variations. The possibility of Black Swan genetic events in GMO is immense. It may become smaller with newer methods but is always there. Remember in the early 70s where almost the entire corn crop was wiped out as the seed used had an unknown til them susceptiblilty to a fungus -almost everybody’s seed had the the same gene.There is nowhere near enough testing and followup to know whether they are actually safe. This is besides the what should be known dangers of glyphosate. .As another commenter noted – where is the chart of pesticide use combined with herbicide use?

  5. epynonymous

    I see the issue of technological risk, and who is in charge of the decision making.

    The only people who decide all have personal economic stake in this process. The risk is hovering over all of us, but we get no say in the battle.

    I’m shooting from the hip here, but odds are even organic certifications are allowing this practice? Somebody could call a publicist and find out, if it’s not already googlable…

    I’ve talked to people in the herd of GMO apologists, and they pretend the well documented the 1980’s failures of farmed bass breeding never happened. Namely creating – pun unintended – sluggish and larger sea bass with less survivability and reproductive odds than the natural population… which we were promised would never happen, but ended up in the ocean anyways. Nat Geo and News Week *used* to report on such things.

  6. Lona

    The article does not mention a big problem with GMOs in that that the vast majority of them are engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which the WHO has recognized as a probable carcinogen. Thus, all the GMO corn and soy consumed by people and animals is tainted with this carcinogen.

    1. shinola

      Seems there might be something to the possible/probable carcinogen claim.

      A local attorneys’ office whose TV commercials usually start with “Have you been injured in a car accident?” is now airing a commercial that begins with “Have you been exposed to the insecticide Roundup?” (which is the commercial name for glyphosate).

      These lawyers are more ambulance chasers than crusaders so apparently they think they have a decent shot at winning.

      1. different clue

        In the pickiest technical sense, Roundup is the name for Monsanto’s own patented formulation of glyphosate. Other companies can sell generic glyphosate ever since it came off patent. And ever since it came off patent, Monsanto realized it would not make big money anymore selling Roundup at the new lower generic prices. So it GMO’d and patented glypho-resistant plants so as to make big money selling the patented seeds and make some more money selling Roundup to go with the Roundup Ready seeds.

        So in the case of Roundup-Ready specifically, the whole project was a cynical ploy to extend the cash-cow value of Roundup.

        I wonder if the Technology User’s Agreement that every purchaser of Roundup Ready seed must sign if he/she wishes to buy any of the seed . . . commands that the user also has to buy the Roundup brand of glyphosate?

    2. marku52

      Here is a very concerning article. It seems glyphosate was ruled safe for humans because it affects an enzyme pathway that humans don’t use, but plants do.

      What this ignored was that this same pathway is used by human’s gut bacteria, which are important to us for proper digestion as well as immune function. And tiny amounts of glyphosate disrupt these.

      This article suggests that the massive increase in glyphosate usage (enabled by GMO tech) is tied to a number of increasing human ailments.

      For me, I’d prefer that my breakfast cereal not come with a side order of Roundup.

      1. different clue

        Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology Don Huber of Purdue University has also begun pointing up this hazard of glyphosate as a chemical of ingestion when giving his GMO-skeptic talks.

  7. Marco

    Curious if anyone here “organically” grows corn in their backyard garden. Where do you get the seeds and any fun with pests? My grandfather always had a few rows in his garden and his only concern involved hungry white-tailed deer.

    1. Faith Carr

      Marco, here in the Gainesville Fl area we have a few members dedicated to attempting corn. Organically. With little to no success. Except…

      One backyard grower exclusively used locally purchased composted cow manure. Her results are amazing. Except for everything else she had planted in the stuff which suffered and died from Leaf Curl.

      Come to find out that all the original manure came from the UF Dairy Herd which had been fed with hay treated with persistent herbicides.

      It wasn’t just her. Over 20 other members had purchased this product and contaminated their gardens for years. We went to the media and got coverage from our local media. We’re still awaiting a satisfactory resolution.

      The corn was very successful.

      1. Quanka

        Interesting anecdote, thanks. The solution if you want an organic home garden is to compost at home. Its nearly impossible to find true “organic” manure or other soil additives in stores that haven’t been compromised in the production chain in some way. Even the ones that claim to be organic often end up having something like your story going on.

        1. kurtismayfield

          And you are going to have to make your compost with 100% organic material, which as you mentioned is difficult. I wouldn’t even certify our urine to be organic anymore.

          1. Quanka

            So true, that made me chuckle. The reality is that chemical alterations of our environment are so endemic that the concept of organic is probably not truly achievable except in more remote parts of the world. Maybe that’s pessimistic on my end but the evidence seems overwhelming at times.

          2. different clue

            But your urine is probably free-enough of that leaf curl-ogenic herbicide that you can use it on your back yard corn or in your for-the-garden compost without curling your leaves.

        1. different clue

          And if you want commercial-quantities of traditionally conventional ( not organic, but no GMOs and no chemo seed treatments either) you can try Shumway Seed Company. Here is their online seed corn section. It mostly has no pictures. If you want pictures, get the ink-on-paper analog catalog in the mail. Anyway, here is the link. And at least the on line version has a picture of a Shumway exclusive long-time-developed variety called Shumway Giant Silo Filler.

          Here is another source for farm-sized amounts of no-GMO corn seed.

          And one can get some from the Seed Savers Exchange Catalog, and from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and from Fedco, and probably others besides. But any more links will choke the commenting function.

    2. a different chris

      Started growing it last year, just for grins (you’d have to live in my area to see how pointless growing corn at home is!) as the plant place has started offering it.

      The corn was already sprouted, so I can’t actually comment usefully on how/if seeds would survive (so I don’t know what the point of this reply was now that I think of it…)

    3. cocomaan

      You can get heirloom corn out of seed catalogs like Sow True Seed:

      Pests weren’t much of a problem. We have a nice 5ft fence that keeps the deer out, along with me peeing on it. Drought was a bigger concern, because corn is thirsty.

      We did get “corn smut” one year, a fungus that is considered high eating in Mexican cuisine. We didn’t eat it, it looked creepy and we didn’t want it to spread, but later learned it was very palatable.

    4. MtnLife

      My parents and I both do with fairly decent success (might not have kernels all the way to the tip but everything else is fully formed, pest free, and delicious). They do the Three Sisters model while my garden is generally biointensive and I leave the “weeds” that provide homes for beneficial predators. Both plantings are under 1000 sqft. We both have chickens (I also have ducks) for fertilizer and bug control. Seeds come from either High Mowing Seed Co (seeds are regionally adapted so works well) or Sustainable Seed Co (I love their heirloom varieties of all veggies). Tempted to try dent corn this year in another area.

  8. EoinW

    Corporate fascism at its worst. This shouldn’t even be an issue. What sane society would consider tampering with its food source in such a way? Why would any society allow select corporations to corner the market? Then we get into the dubious science and the ecological damage. it is insanity. Of course we are talking about a species that created nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy itself.

    What matters in the short term is how North Americans have been force fed GMOs. No vote on their usage, no labeling – no choice. Those in power are a captured entity and the rest of us get to do what we’re told. Ultimately we’re left with nihilism and the hope everything falls apart and this Frankenstein Society is destroyed. The final question: do we want human beings to survive such a collapse? I can’t help but think this planet would be better off without us. I guess, in a round about way, I support GMOs. Maybe we can poison ourselves into extinction. Doing minimal damage in the process.

  9. Quanka

    You don’t know what you don’t know, oh quaint GMO.

    Agree with Yves, Praedor that the author seems to be over-simplifying the GMO case. These things are literally brand new if you take an earth-length timeline into account. It will take generations for us to see the full effect. Moreover, if you consider that most technology seems amazing at first and then quickly loses its luster as we find the flaws … I think in the case of GMOs we have already seen the best they have to offer, but we have yet to see anything close to the worst they can do yet.

    This is where a reading of Antifragile by Taleb would come in handy. Time is the ultimate test of an idea or concept’s breakability – its fragility. GMOs have not been tested by time. To think we’ve perfected a scientific practice in a couple hundred years and bettered Mother Nature with 3-5 billion years experience. Hubris anyone?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I didn’t want to go into my usual “here are my caveats” intro, since the writer was up front about his biases. However, one of many things not to like about GMOs is as you say, the long term effects are not known. And as one of my not food precious buddies (will eat burgers, fries, and M&Ms, but only occasionally) who used to work for the NIH said, this is utterly reckless. It is a massive experiment with no controls and no consent.

      1. tejanojim

        I agree with you, and also want to point out that the nature of the GMO seeds has changed rapidly since they were introduced roughly 20 years ago. So even if the original GMOs were safe, and even if the ones now are safe, it may be that new ones introduced in years to come will turn out to have dangerous unintended consequences.

  10. yan

    Just a couple of comments:
    Why does total insecticide volume matter if the author already argues that trace amounts of niconics are devastating to insects. Isn’t it like saying they are using milliliters of sarin instead of gallons of mustard gas?
    Second: a commenter already posited that there is no mention of herbicide use, which apparently has increased quiet a lot.

    1. winstonsmith

      Yes, the elephant in the room is the increasing use of increasingly toxic agricultural chemicals. The “skeptical” journalist arbitrarily restricts the discussion to GMO related chemical use, then restricts the chemicals to pesticides, and then restricts the pesticides to insecticides. Herbicide use is up because of GMOs engineered to be resistant to herbicides, and the herbicides are becoming more toxic because of weeds developing resistiance. Aerially sprayed fungicide use is up in my area for reasons that aren’t clear. I worry more about the solvents used to facilitate the spraying than the title ingredients.

  11. JohnnyGL

    I watched this lecture awhile back and thought it was pretty interesting, if a bit long. He does some interesting attempts to compare productivity of woody plants (hybrid hazelnuts are used in his example, but there are lots of others) as compared to corn and other annuals. Short version: it’s not even close, perennials blow away the annuals.

  12. Dave

    Hey, I used to grow vegetables for John Tooker, back in my vegetable farming days. Good to see him being reported as “not crazy”, a sentiment I would agree with, except for the regular craziness of all entomologists who get giddy when they see interesting bugs in their CSA shares.

    I have grown sweet corn organically and gotten good results, but it is a heavy feeder and prone to pests. Commercial organic growers will spray it with Bt (which is organic-approved when not inserted in a genome!) and also apply corn oil into the tip of the developing ear with a little syringe – you can find more information online if you look for the “Zea-Later” tool, although you can replicate the effects well enough at home with an eyedropper. Deer are, alas, best controlled via exercising your 2nd amendment rights, which works well enough on a farm but is near-impossible in a more settled environment.

  13. Scott Dunn

    “I gaped. Even anti-GMO partisans generally accept the premise that genetically modified crops have reduced insecticide use. For a moment I worried Tooker might be crazy, determined to hold me captive while he ranted. But as an entomologist and agricultural extension specialist, he was sure to be familiar with the evidence. What the heck was going on?”

    Then from his other article:

    About a third of the way through this series on GMOs, after a particularly angry conflagration broke out on Twitter, I asked my wife, Beth, if I could tell her what had happened. I was hoping to exorcise those digital voices from my head. Someone had probably accused me of crimes against humanity, shoddy journalism, and stealing teddy bears from children — I forget the details, thank goodness. But I remember Beth’s response.

    “No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”

    Nathaniel Johnson’s condescension is subtle yet palpable. Why you even have him on your blog is beyond me. I come here for the economics, not to watch someone demean people who have genuine concerns about GMOs.

    If Mr. Johnson can’t stand the digital voices, perhaps he should work on his presentation.

  14. Sue

    Forget the bugs for one second. From the perspective of those concern about the human intake of pesticide from produce, is this intake higher or lower when there has been a direct application or treatment to the seed compared with the times when the crop’s exposure to a then higher volume of pesticide was external? I still hear my great grandmother’s words, ” you want to make sure, peel the apple or at least rub it and wash it thoroughly if you feel like benefiting from the apple’s skin fiber”. My great grandmother’s words seem useless now when the seed has been directly lab treated with pesticides and consequently the pesticide volume argument could have been relegated to a relatively secondary factor. I must plead ignorance..could anyone clarify this for me?

  15. Jeremy Grimm

    This post reminded me of the genetic engineering horror story of Klebsiella planticola a bacterium that grows on the roots of most plants.

    “In the early 1990s, a European genetic engineering company was preparing to field test its genetically modified version of Klebsiella planticola, which it had tested in the lab and presumed to be safe. But if it weren’t for the work of a team of independent scientists led by Dr. Elaine Ingham, that company could have literally killed every terrestrial plant on the planet.” []

    A Letter to the Editor by John Ikerd (Professor Emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics) [] which was at the bottom of an article at GM Watch relating controversy around the Klebsiella planticola story made some discomfiting assertions about the science of GMOs:

    “However, since many scientists are willing to make inferences that GMOs are safe, we are supposed to accept their safety as a scientifically proven fact. Why would so many scientists be willing to speculate beyond the limitations of their data in one particular direction?”

    “The answer is clear, because of the enormous influence of the biotech industry on the scientific community. No one who has worked with a major university or government agency over the past decade can deny the tremendous influence that the biotech issue has had on the scientific community. Those whose “science” supports the claims of the biotech industry are richly rewarded — economically and professionally.”

    “Those whose “science” refutes the claims of the biotech industry are harshly penalized — economically and professionally. You can bet that the scientists who went on the attack to refute Dr. Ingham will be richly rewarded for their efforts, by their peers as well as by the biotech industry. How can “good science” possibly be carried out in such a biased institutional environment?”


    1. David Barrera

      Good post. We can perhaps learn form the 1970s Nixon years. It is infamous by now how the Nixon administration took at face value a “scientific study” which ultimately approved and promoted the spread use of high-fructose corn syrup to anything it could possibly be added to. Economically it was very persuasive because it lowered the price of a large array of foodstuff. No one could currently dare to challenge the impact on the population’s health condition ( diabetes , obesity and other) that for the last forty decades this science and policy has had. Needless to say that other studies which contradicted the one adopted were blatantly dismissed at that time

      1. David Barrera

        Proofreader: “that for the last four decades this science and policy have had”

    2. Pam Parsons

      Thanks to Jeremy Grimm and GMwatch for bringing out these important points. For those who have a genuine interest in the history and facts behind the development of GMOs from their inception, I highly recommend Stephen M. Druker’s Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public. The title may sound sensational but the research behind the book by its lawyer author is impeccable. The content and conclusions have been fully supported by many genetic scientists who are not part of the biotech cheerleading cabal and who have provided their names and praise in the opening pages of the book. Denka-Showa’s GM tryptophan and how it caused a new and frequently fatal disease epidemic is fully explained. Elaine Ingham, Arpad Pustai and Gilles-Eric Seralini’s stories and research are likewise summarized in detailed chapters. The book is long and comprehensive but it reads like a great murder mystery – hard to put down. If you really want to know the sordid history of GM research from a legal and scientific perspective, please read this book. Renowned primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, hailed it as “without doubt one of the most important books of the last 50 years”.

  16. rps

    “A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”
    –Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

    “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”
    –Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

  17. different clue

    I hope readers try to help this thread grow and mature before running on to the next threads and letting this thread die before it even matures.

    We never know who might be reading these threads. Perhaps one of Nathaniel Johnson’s own friends or aquaintances might be a NaCap reader. Perhaps that reader might tell Nathaniel Johnson that his article has been republished here. Perhaps he will come here to look in on the thread. In the faint hope of that being a possibility, I will try harder than usual to make my comments here think-filled and info-dense in hopes that Mr. Johnson might be motivated to want to pursue the information offered and give it some consideration.

    Professor Emeritus Don Huber is highly respected in his field. Aside from being a Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology and a consultant who is hired by commercial growers in different countries for his high-priced knowledge and advice; he is also a Retired Colonel in the United States Army overseeing the effort against pathogen-and-plague-based terrorism threats. Here is a detailed CV so readers can assess the depth of Professor Huber’s VERY middle-American and VERY mainstream credibility. I mean . . . he is a Professor Emeritus at PurDUE UniVERsity in IndiANa, for God’s sake. Here is the link.

    1. different clue


      Now here are two links for two slow-listening talks given by Professor Huber on issues raised by GMOs, glyphosate, etc.

      The first is a you tube replay of Carol Grieve’s periodically released Food Integrity Now broadcast. It is a near-hour-long interview with Professor Huber. The interviewer is NOT a BBC type smart-ass phuq-head given to interrupting. She lets Prof. Huber develop his points in careful detail. The episode is called . . . Dr. Don Huber: GMOs and Glyphosate and Their Threat To Humanity. Here is the link.

      And here is another episode of the Food Integrity Now program with more Professor Don Huber.
      This one is titled . . . GMOs, Glyphosate and Infertility. ( After two minutes about the “Nutiana Nut Milk Bag” . . . she gets right to Prof. Huber). Here is the link.

  18. different clue

    Way upthread somebody asked about sources for FrankenFree Corn seed. ( FrankenFree is a play on the word Frankenfood, which is an emotionally evocative term given to GMO-derived ingestable feed product.) One could also call it NoGMO corn seed.

    A good place to find ads about buying farmer-relevant clean-gene corn seed is in the ag magazine Acres USA. Acres USA used to send interested people a single free copy of their publication in hopes that a significant number of such requesters might be impressed enough to subscribe to the magazine. One sincerely hopes they are. ( I don’t know if they still do that). Acres USA deserves a bigger readership than it has. But at 12,000 or so subscribers both foreign and domestic, it doesn’t have the budget to advertise itself loudly and longly.

    One such source is Blue River Organic Seed. They have developed some lines and hybrids that are physically resistant to GMO contamination. As I remember from past reading, the way they do that was to develop corn lines with corn silks longer than the pollen tubes of GMO corn pollen grains were able to grow. This bred-for disparity between length of PuraMaize ear-silks versus the pollen tube length capability of trespassing invading GMO pollen grains is a physical barrier successfully preventing GMO contamination of PuraMaize corn. ( Wouldn’t it be nice if this too-long corn-silk feature could be bred into every kind of corn in the world while otherwise maintaining all the present features of every corn in the world? Then every corn in the world would be GMO contamination-proof. Monsanto and the other Black Hat GMO perpetrators would then try breeding GMO corn with pollen grains able to grow pollen tubes long enough to defeat the extra long PuraMaize corn silks. That would show the devotion to pure evil which these GMO companies base their very existence on).

    But anyway, here is a link to the PuraMaize part of the Blue River Organic Seed site. And this is one of just several suppliers of Clean-Gene FrankenFree corn seed who advertise in Acres USA.

  19. Henry D

    It doesn’t seem that systems theory has made a significant impact on modern western culture yet. As such we still look at problems from a reductionist approach, which colors our view of the potential solutions. For example, most readers I suspect think of a human being as an independent individual rather than an ecosystem within an ecosystem and while it has been understood for a long time the importance of the obligate symbiotic relationship of our cells with mitochondria, which have their own DNA that is transferred to our offspring outside of sexual reproduction, it is now clear that during child birth a host of bacteria, fungi and viruses that will make up our bodies ecosystem are also passed along to our offspring and that there are even components of mothers milk specifically designed to nurture at least some of these organisms. It should also be obvious that very few if any of the molecules in your body today (depending on your age) are the ones you were born with and that you are constantly exchanging material with your bodies ecosystem (for example your gut microorganisms are involved in production and regulation of serotonin levels) as well as indirectly sharing with all the living organisms in the larger ecosystem. If you eliminate say our relationship with our gut bacteria with an antibiotic such as glyphosate, the human ecosystem becomes unstable and is susceptible to illness. The same is true for plants. They are not independent isolated organisms, but live as an ecosystem associated with bacteria and fungi integrally associated with their roots. They have the ability to communicate with this ecosystem (fungi, plants even insects) and get assistance. Healthy plants in a healthy ecosystem are able to defend themselves against predators. The “pests” in a healthy ecosystem often are providing a service, by eliminating the unhealthy plants. The same is true for the “weeds” which often benefit the health of the soil, thus indirectly helping plants to grow, but also can directly form beneficial relationships with the vegetables we are trying to grow. Plus many common weeds, such as purslane, dandelion, lamb’s-quarters, plantain, are actually more nutritious than the European vegetables we are trying to grow. Thus while I don’t have a problem with researching and developing GMOs I’m not convinced that they address the real issue of producing the most nutritious food sustainably and certainly releasing them into the wild where they likely can’t be retrieved if something goes wrong seems a huge risk for potentially limited benefits. It may be a good time to revisit the guidelines set up in Asilomar (1975) on recombinant DNA as those recommendations still seem valid and perhaps there should be a scientific debate to update these since they are currently being ignored with no open discussion that I’ve seen. As far as the impact on pollinators, while I love honey bees and keep a hive for the honey, in my experience compared to the native pollinators, they are not even close. For example, several native species of bumble bees appear to do most of the pollination of my blueberries and raspberry fields, while the honey bees seem to prefer my garden vegetables, dandelions, and clover and even there they have to compete with possibly a hundred different native pollinators. The bumblebees like most of the 2000 plus species of native pollinators don’t live in easily transportable, honey producing colonies, but individual holes, often in the ground, which you can imagine the results if I followed the common practice of tilling my land. (It is late and I’m tired, but if anyone is interested I can provide links leading to more info on these topics.)

  20. different clue

    Since “testing . . . testing” got through, I think there may be something thread-choking about the link itself which I just tried offering. So I will instead merely type out the name of the website resource I have suggested for getting GMO-free corn seed.

    It is the Council for Responsible Genetics. It can be search engined under the phrase “safe seed pledge”. If offers a list of all seed companies pledging to sell seed without GMO contamination in it.
    (If this comment goes through, then it was the link itself which choked the comment. If so, would that indicate foul play on the part of people who want to stop webreaders from sending that link?)

    1. different clue

      Safe Seed Resource List

      That’s the name of the page whose URL chokes my every attempt to comment.

  21. different clue

    There is another group of seed companies called the Open Source Seed Initiative ( OSSI). These companies and breeders copyleft, uncopyright, antipatent and otherwise set free certain seedlines/ gene lines for others to work with if those others will take the OSSI pledge to keep it copyleft. Such companies will also very likely be a source of Franken Free corn seed. I am sending this comment without the link in case the link would choke the comment. If it goes through, I will send a self-reply with the link.

  22. Lewis Ward

    It’s been well documented for about at least 14 years that GMO’s increased herbicide/pesticide use particularly since the introduction of the terminator genes.This trend was predicted by ecological minded and organic critics of GMO’s since the late 80’s. Of course, the critques rarely surfaced in mainstream media.
    I’m glad you reported this trend

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