Recently, I posted a piece on the discovery of the potential for a serious allergenic response from a foodstuff that was being promoted as a non-genetically-modified (non-GM) alternative to GM soybeans. There was almost total media silence on this matter even though the research itself was published in a leading peer-reviewed medical journal. ACSH Nutrition Director Dr. Ruth Kava recently noted yet another case of media silence, but before I describe the parallels and differences in the two cases, allow me to conjure an imaginary scenario.
Good News Is Only News If It's Genetically Pure
Let us imagine that in a peer-reviewed article in a leading scientific publication -- one of the world's most prestigious journals -- a comparison of farmers' health found that those who grew genetically-modified rice were less healthy than those who grew conventional rice. Is there any doubt that this would have become a major media story, with that one study being described as having "proven" the dangers of genetically-modified crops and closed out the need for further inquiry? One can almost hear the NPR interviews with the researchers and the comments of the non-governmental-organization (NGO) "scientists." One can further imagine the legions of the NGO environmentalists, back-to-nature, and "organic" enthusiasts contacting their local media to make sure the story was not ignored and that it was "correctly" interpreted. Add in letters-to-the-editor and call-in shows and one could expect a blizzard of publicity and concern over the health and wellbeing of poor farmers around the world. In fact, one does not even have to imagine a peer-reviewed article -- a non-peer-reviewed, NGO-funded study would probably have been sufficient to cause a ruckus.
In fact, research "assessed" both the "productivity and health effects" of "insect-resistant GM rice in farmer's fields" in China. The study was published in Science (29 April 2005) and authored by two distinguished Chinese scientists and two distinguished American scientists (Huang et al. 2005). The research was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Chinese Academy of Science, so one could hardly accuse it of having either a corporate bias or for that matter one favoring the position of the U.S. government on this issue. On top of all of that, there were press releases from the universities that were home to the American researchers and very good stories by the Associated Press and others on this issue, posted on a number of very popular news groups for agricultural scientists. In case you haven't guessed it by now, the research found that farmers who planted insect-resistant GM rice had increased yields and their households experienced no pesticide-related illnesses in contrast to those planting conventional rice, who continued to experience these pesticide-related problems. (The reduced need for pesticide with the GM variety would obviously lead to reduced pesticide-related illnesses. And one does not have to accept the anti-pesticide hysterics of the chemophobes to recognize that dose makes the poison and that what may be safe levels for consumers might be part of a cumulating dose received by the farmer applicator.)
The author's words from the article abstract nicely state the research conclusions: "Farm surveys of randomly selected farm households that are cultivating the insect-resistant GM rice varieties, without the aid of experimental station technicians, demonstrate that when compared with households cultivating non-GM rice, small and poor farm households benefit from adopting GM rice by both higher crop yields and reduced use of pesticides, which also contribute to improved health" (Huang 2005).
If you haven't heard about this research, it is quite likely because its findings were favorable to a GM crop. The study was intelligently designed and carried out, was useful and informative, and revealed few surprises to those who knew the scientific issues involved. But it is not what someone in the media who has been under a steady barrage of anti-GM propaganda would expect, so it should have been news to them. It apparently wasn't! We are talking about small, poor, or at least low-income farmers being better off economically and healthier. These are the farmers that the anti-biotech NGOs purport to be defending. But the farmers aren't doing things the way anti-tech NGOs want them to, through low-tech and "sustainable" agriculture methods -- the farmers are using cutting-edge technology and science capable of delivering similar benefits to the poorest farmers around the world.
Science vs. Starvation in the Developing World
The study was very well done. The farm groups for the conventional and GM planting were carefully matched and no payments or subsidies were provided other than making GM seeds available at the same price as conventional varieties. Even more important, there were no special instructions provided on planting or pesticide use, yet there was an "80% reduction in pesticide usage and a reduction in their adverse effects" along with a 6 to 9% increase in yield.
As someone who has been involved in developing-country agriculture in a variety of locations, including Asia, I was pleasantly surprised by a number of points. I have talked with farmers in countries where extensive pesticide use was a relatively recent event either in their lifetime or in the village memory. They remember the frequent crop failures that preceded pesticide use and are therefore reluctant to cut back on pesticides. So-called tradition-bound farmers were quick to adopt the technology of the Green Revolution and having experienced its enormous benefits were justifiably concerned about losing them. An integrated pest management (IPM) project that I studied actually "paid" selected farmers to use less pesticide by guaranteeing his or her crop. Guaranteeing the crop is often a good way to introduce an agricultural innovation to an area. I once asked a farmer outside of the IPM project what he would say if I told him that a farmer across the valley was spraying about one fifth (about the same reduction as the China study) the pesticide that he was and getting the same crop. He replied that he simply would not believe me.
I have often argued that farmers want to use as little pesticide as possible, since it costs them money. This is even more true in poor countries, where pesticide costs can be a significant fraction of household income. But farmers also don't want to lose their crop. Thus, the study published in Science was a pleasant surprise, showing us how quickly farmers can develop an understanding of the potential of insect-resistant rice and reduce their pesticide use without any technical assistance or advice in their decision-making process. Farmers aren't stupid, but they are cautious and there must have been a number of solid indicators of plant health and protection, or insect resistance, that led them to reduce pesticide use so significantly.
Modern Farmers Are Healthier Farmers
In the late 1980s and early 1990s (with a few echoes to the present), there were any number of unsubstantiated reports of thousands of deaths from pesticide use by those opposed to its usage -- though these accounts routinely include deaths where the pesticide was used to commit suicide. Still, consistent with my view of the lack of dangers from pesticide residue on food, I recognize that the level of exposure for farm workers can be a problem. Even if one argues that most estimates exaggerate the sickness and deaths, one characteristic pervades virtually all estimates, namely, illness and death associated with pesticide use is vastly greater in poor countries than in developed countries.
My experience in Asia and elsewhere leads me to believe that the health benefits from the reduction in pesticide use in China would be easily matched in most of the developing world. I have observed farmers spraying without protective clothing and, in one case, a farmer spraying a cabbage patch starting from the top of a hill and working his way down, spraying right on top of what was drifting down from his spraying the previous rows. I have worked with farmers who finished spraying and sat down to eat with their hands without the option of washing them, except in a canal with floating fecal matter.
Since pesticide use is an essential component of getting yields to feed the world's population, I have long favored programs for teaching safer methods of pesticide application -- and for very labor- and often knowledge-intensive programs of insect-"scouting" and IPM -- to try to reduce pesticide use without loss of output. Now, with the help of biotechnology, small farmers can reduce pesticide use, increase yields and income, and protect their health.
Many of those now silent on the latest study are precisely those who have been screaming about the dangers of pesticide use. They should be on the rooftops shouting hosannas to biotechnology and promoting the use of insect-resistant crops. Undoubtedly, there will be some attempts to refute or discount the study by those who refuse to accept any positive evidence on GM. However important the recent study may be -- and it is important -- it is also consistent with a series of studies on reduced pesticide use as a result of GM crops. Unfortunately, the silence on this study will in no way be matched by a corresponding silence over the next NGO-funded claim of GMO harm -- that report will inevitably come and be widely reported as fact. Those of us who are supportive of efforts to use science and technology to help the poor improve their lot in life (and the world's population to improve the conditions of life) need to find new ways to reach the media to get our side of the story reported.
Huang, Jikun; Ruifa Hu; Scott Rozelle, and Carl Pray. 2005 Insect-Resistant GM Rice in Farmers' Fields: Assessing Productivity and Health Effects in China, Science 308(5722):688-690 , 29 April.
Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori, Professor of Economics, University of Houston and Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health, has extensive overseas experience as a development economist, including work as a policy advisor to donor organizations and developing countries. He is widely published and his most recent books include: Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate; The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology; and Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense (all from Blackwell) and Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment (from the Cato Institute). His homepage is http:www.uh.edu/~trdegreg and his e-mail address is trdegreg[at]uh.edu.