As reported in the New York Times, the prestigious World Food Prize was awarded today to a trio of scientists who had important roles in the early development of crop genetic engineering. One, Robert Fraley, is at Monsanto, and another Mary-Dell Chilton, is with another seed giant, Syngenta. The third is European scientist Marc Van Montagu.
When I was a doctoral student doing research using molecular biology in the 1980s (and in the early 90s as a post-doctoral researcher at USDA), the contributions of Chilton and Van Montagu were invaluable. Thirty years later, the science of applied molecular biology in agriculture, genetic engineering, is mired in controversy.
While these awardees have made some important contributions to science, it has not translated into major positive contributions to agriculture and food security—the supposed purpose for awarding the World Food Prize.
Feeding the world?
Although genetic engineering has been widely adopted in a few major crops—mainly soybeans, corn, cotton and canola—only two general types of engineered genes, for resistance to herbicides and for killing certain insects, have been widely commercially successful after 30 years of trying.
These have provided some benefits, such as a reduction of chemical insecticide use on some of these crops, and some relatively small yield increases. Most of the yield increases for small farmers are from cotton, a low value crop, which is unlikely to pull these farmers out of poverty.
At the same time, in the countries that have used these technologies the longest, big problems are emerging. Weeds resistant to the herbicide used on Monsanto’s crops have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., reportedly infesting about 60 million acres and increasing rapidly. This has increased herbicide use by hundreds of millions of pounds above where it probably would have been had these crops not existed.
And now insects resistant to Bt are emerging around the world. I was at the University of Illinois recently, where I heard a respected corn entomologist bemoaning the intention of corn farmers to return to the use of chemical insecticides to control rootworms that have developed resistance to Monsanto’s Bt gene for controlling that important pest.
On top of that, USDA does not even count the over 90 percent of corn seed—that’s close to 90 million acres—that is treated with neonicotinoid insecticides that are implicated in seriously harming bees and other beneficial organisms. One of the major producers of these insecticides is Chilton’s company, Syngenta.
The point is that the static and narrowly focused economic analyses that have touted the (limited) benefits of GE do not take into account that these products have been developed for use in monoculture agriculture systems, where their nominal value is very temporary (the industry’s solution is more of the same, e.g. new herbicide-resistant crops that will further increase herbicide use).
Add to this the questions raised about monopoly control of the seed supply via intellectual property (patents), weak-kneed regulators, and the challenge of using GE successfully for developing genetically and physiologically complex traits like drought tolerance, and the successes of this technology as applied so far are seen to be meager, and substantially outweighed by its faults.
And what about the opportunity costs of using this expensive technology instead of more effective and cheaper breeding methods and agroecology? It is often argued that we need all the tools in the toolbox to meet the coming challenges of agriculture (this is merely an assertion–there is really no real science behind it one way or the other). But with finite public resources for improving agriculture, it is also important to focus on the most cost-effective approaches, and those that give the best social outcomes. This is not an argument against GE per se, but against the facile, but convincing-sounding, argument that we “must” use it.
U.S. policy in support of corporate goals
Sadly, Secretary of State John Kerry also overstated the case about GE in his address at the World Food Prize announcement ceremony, claiming “dramatic increases in yield,” (not really very dramatic, and importantly, less than what crop breeding and agroecology provide). He made several aspirational claims, saying that biotechnology will reduce pesticide use (that is not the trend, as I have discussed above), or will reduce nitrogen fertilizer pollution. We have carefully analyzed this last claim, and while traditional breeding has made some progress toward improving nitrogen use efficiency, so far GE has not, and there is no good evidence that GE will improve upon what breeding can do. His claim that it has dramatically reduced loss to disease is simply wrong, unless one means the mere few thousand acres planted to a few virus-resistant crops.
Biotech has made some narrowly-defined progress on a very few crop traits, but they have been underwhelming when examined in the context of better alternatives like breeding and agroecology.
Given all of the real problems surrounding the use of this technology in the real world, how could the caretakers of the Prize possibly present it to these scientists?
Follow the money
Is anyone surprised to find that the biotech industry is a major supporter of the World Food Prize? Monsanto, according to the NYT article, has donated $5 million. Included in the long list of sponsors are other biotech giants, such as DuPont Pioneer, and supporters including the Gates Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation (not Syngenta Company, but we know who butters that bread).
The caretakers of the WFP have claimed that industry money did not influence their decision. Of course they would say this; can you imagine them saying something different? That is why the strong appearance of conflicts of interest is considered to be almost as important as a more direct smoking gun, because the latter is usually very well hidden. The current award of the WFP fails the appearance test miserably.
This is, unfortunately, all a part of the perverse influence that multinational industry money is having on science. For example, my colleague Gretchen Goldman recently posted a blog revealing a trail of corrupt influence by Syngenta on the process of science.
The role of private money in leveraging influence on science is exacerbated by congressional ideologues that have been hacking away at productive public sources of funds for decades, making scientists at public research institutions more and more dependent on handouts from the private sector that come with long strings attached, as I discussed several months ago. Unless this trend is reversed, we will all pay a high price when we can no longer have confidence in the independence of such a major facet of our society.