Archive for September, 2011

Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

September 23, 2011

One response I receive when discussing genetic engineering is “What about the increasing number of farmers committing suicide in India”. The claim is that Indian farmers are “committing suicide on a mass scale” and that this is primarily the fault of the failure of genetically engineered crops, Bt cotton in particular. So we really have two main claims here to examine. First, are farmer suicides in India on the rise significantly and secondly, if so what is the cause.

According to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) during 1996-2007  yearly farmers’ suicides increased from 13,622 to 17,060, an  annual compound growth rate of 2.5%, suicides among the whole population rose from 95,829 to 118,112 in 1997-2006, a 2.4% increase. Between 1991 and 2001 Indian had an annual population growth rate of 1.93%. From the data we can see that while there has been an increase in farmer suicides it is modest and is not significantly greater than the rise in suicide in the general population. Even as India grows increasingly urbanized, farmer suicides remain around 15% but with a decreasing trend that will hopefully continue. The claim that there has been a dramatic increase in farmer suicides is not supported by the data.

So far the case against Bt cotton has been based largely on a perceived correlation, but simple correlation does not equal causation so we must dig deeper. That is exactly what the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) did in their 2008 study titled Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence. The IFPRI concluded that Bt cotton was not to blame and may have actually lead to a reduction in the expected number of suicides saying, “the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing.” I highly recommend you read the full study. In the discussion section they report,

…our analysis is sufficiently well documented to discredit the possibility of a naïve direct causal or reciprocal relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides. First, adopting Bt cotton is not a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides in India. It is estimated that about 1 million farmers have planted Bt cotton, whereas a cumulative total of 90,000 farmers are reported to have committed suicide between 2002 (year of the commercialization of Bt cotton) and 2007. More important, the trend in farmer suicides in India appears to have slowed down since the year when Bt cotton was introduced, which would certainly not have happened if Bt cotton were responsible for increasing farmer suicides. Second, the adoption of Bt cotton is not, nor has it ever been, a necessary condition for farmer suicides in India. Farmer suicides occurred in various states of India long before the introduction of Bt cotton.

One of the oft-pointed to hotspots for farmer suicides in India is the state of Maharashtra, a major cotton producer. Suicide rates there are quite high and this has been blamed on Bt cotton production yet suicide rates in neighboring Gujarat, another major cotton producer, are far lower. One proposed relevant difference is that farmers in Maharashtra must sell their cotton to the Maharashtra State Cotton Monopoly Procurement Scheme and are barred from selling it out of state even when they can get better prices and often must pay bribes to receive favorable grading of their cotton and thus get a good price. Farmers in Gujarat on the other hand have access to more open markets and have been able to achieve bountiful yields and profits.

An investigation titled Farmers Suicide: Facts and Possible Policy Interventions, published in 2006, found that the suicides are not “confined to one district, One state or one particular crop” and “while indebtedness was rampant, there was little clarity” pointing out that each suicide was a unique occurrence with complex confounding factors such as lack of personal and institutional support, mental illness, family problems, medical issues, and other financial expenses.

Now that we have examined the alleged connection between Bt cotton and farmer suicides lets turn our eye to Bt cotton itself. Developed using genes from a common soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt cotton produces Cry proteins which affects certain insects, though not humans or most non-target insects. Its mechanism of action is explained fairly simply here. Even before genetically engineered crops B. thuringiensis was used to make insecticides and is still commonly used as a topical spray in conventional and organic agriculture, but topical spraying can have disadvantages, it can increase input cost and must be applied in large amount. Some other issues with topical application include reduced effectiveness from rapid degradation in the presence of UV radiation and lack of protection for the roots and interior of the plant. Modern Bt cotton is more targeted, can reduce input cost, increase yields, and reduce environmental and human health impact from chemical insecticides. There is good evidence that growing Bt cotton might be saving many lives through reduced incidences of pesticide poisoning. Is pest resistance an issue we need to worry about? Yes, but it an not just an issue related to GMOs but to all agriculture. Use of topically sprayed Bt preparations in non-GM agriculture has led to the Diamondback Moth being the first insect to evolve Bt resistance in the field. Abandoning genetic engineering will not solve agricultural problems with resistant insects. What is needed is better management schemes, one such method is to provide refuges for susceptible insects.

There are also claims that Bt cotton is poisoning livestock in India. The most oft-cited sources I see are reports of sheep and cattle that allegedly died after consuming Bt cotton. It should be noted that the reports are anecdotal and toxicologists haven’t pointed the finger at the Bt cotton itself, instead nitrate, gossypol, or pesticide poisoning were ruled the most likely culprits. Such deaths are also not isolated to GM fields and livestock poisonings have occurred before the introduction of GM crops.

Cotton is important to India both as a source of fiber for their massive textile industry and as a source of edible oil. Even before Bt cotton was legally introduced, engineered seeds were reportedly spreading from farmer to farmer on the black market. Farmer were willing to risk prosecution and are still are willing to pay the much higher price for Bt cotton seed year after year because of the benefits they see. A study from The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India found that 93% of Bt cotton farmers were satisfied with the end result. Individual cases of crop failure may have many causes other than failure of Bt cotton itself, inclement weather, planting of fraudulent seeds, or planting of lower quality second generation mixed Bt seed that is not approved.

Possibly the strangest claim about Bt cotton is that it is the cause of Morgellons disease, a condition characterized by a crawling sensation on the skin and open sores often with fibers protruding. There is no known cause of Morgellon’s but the best evidence* points to it being psychosomatic in nature and that the fibers are from the environment, clothes, furniture, ect. Therapy for stress and in some cases psychiatric medication appears to be the most promising treatment. Adverse reactions to Bt seem quite rare as there appears to have only been 2 reports regarding Bt to the EPA, one person was found to have a previous diagnosed illness and the other was found to have allergies to other constituents of the Bt spray. There just is no good evidence to connect Bt cotton and Morgellons or any widespread allergic reaction, in the end Bt cotton is safer than the inputs used for non-Bt cotton.

Ultimately the focus on genetically engineered crops as the primary cause of suicide in India is overly simplistic and unsupported by the data.

Further Reading:
Frankenfood Fears
My previous post on the subject
Farmer Suicides in India
by Anastasia Bodnar
P. Sainath and Farmers’ Suicides in India by Siddhartha Shome
Persistent Narratives: Why is the “Failure of Bt Cotton in India” Story Still with Us? by Ron Herring
Bt cotton now helps to avoid several million cases of pesticide poisoning in India every year by GMO Pundit
Morgellons by Steven Novella
Morgellons by Sarah
Still more evidence that Morgellons disease is most likely delusional parasitosis, 2012 edition

*UPDATE 1/30/12: The CDC has recently released the most comprehensive study on Morgellons to date. The conclusion states, “No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation.”

Frankenfood Fears

September 17, 2011

There is much being said in the vegan and animal rights community about genetic engineering, most of it is negative and the issue is often clouded by scaremongering, misconceptions, half-truths, and out dated information. September 12-18th is GMO awareness week and considering someone recently made the ridiculous statement to me that “Vegans are at the highest health risks from GMOs. Practically all your primary fare contains GMO ingredients.” I felt it was about time to post an introduction to the topic. There is need for a less sensational and more rational discourse about genetic engineering. For this post I will be addressing mainly the non-animal side of genetic engineering technology, the issues of modification of animals and the use of animal derived genes will be dealt with in a separate post.

Genetic engineering, put simply, is when humans transfer genes between organisms in a controlled manner through a variety of methods in the laboratory. Such technology has been put to use in many ways such as medicine, research, industry, and agriculture. For a basic over-view of what genetic engineering is go here. I will be dealing with just a few of the objections to genetic engineering for now and presenting some potential benefits they may offer. If you don’t see your pet issue or objection addressed here, be patient, it is a complex issue and more post are on the way soon.

A common argument against genetic engineering is that it is too risky to alter organisms at the genetic level since we can not fully predict the consequences. This ignores that genetic engineering only transfers a small, known packet of genes while traditional methods of plant breeding involve transferring or mutating large amounts of genes in an uncontrolled manner. This may be achieved through cross breeding species to create many now common hybrids, another method is induced mutation using radiation or chemical mutagens to alter existing genes rather than transplant known genes, one common example of this process is Mentha piperita, peppermint. Grafting plants can exchange genes in an uncontrolled manner as well. Gene transfer also occurs in nature through bacterial, viral, or fungal routes and even between different trees in a process know as inosculation. All these methods create potentially greater amounts of unpredictable genetic change than controlled gene transfer in the lab. These more traditional methods are actually considered more risky that genetic engineering. Even traditionally bred crops have the potential to introduce new sources of allergens or undesirable changes, yet crops that are altered in such traditional ways are not subject to the same scrutiny as genetically engineered crops. Genetic engineering on the other hand has the potential to create reduced-allergen foods and reduce anti-nutrient content.

People have asked, “Why can’t we stick with traditional plant breeding methods, they seem to have worked fine so far?” The problem is that we face an inevitable short term growth in population and massive environmental problems related to resource usage. Hybrid crops and synthetic inputs helped provide the needed increase in food supply starting in the 1930′s but it is just not cutting it anymore, we need something more. When people say GMOs aren’t natural they are failing to recognize that humans have been manipulating our food supply for thousands of years, now we are just doing it smarter. Without human intervention the barley edible wild ancestors of a large percentage of your local produce market’s stock would be all but unrecognizable to you. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale are all selectively breed variations of the same wild ancestor. The mighty corn is the descent of the scraggly teosinte and just try comparing a wild banana and Cavendish banana. How many genes had to change to produce such vast differences? We must put GMOs in perspective.

Another common complaint is that GMOs have not been shown to be 100% biologically safe, but such a complaint stems from a misunderstanding of how science works and possibly ignorance of the hundreds of published safety assessments. What is being asked is that we prove a negative, that GMOs are not dangerous in any way, this is not only impractical but logically not possible and unrealistic to ask for. What we can do is show that despite all our research we have little evidence of harm and given our current data and understanding there is little reason to expect harm. This could change in the future, but for now the preponderance of the best research points to GMOs being generally as safe as conventional plant breeding.

GMOs are not only the focus of much public debate but also a major focus for environmental and political activists. Groups such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front in particular have targeted GMOs by cutting, burning, and otherwise destroying test crops. Wearing ominous looking, but entirely unnecessary,  bio-hazard suits while destroying the crop is just a scare tactic that helps to bolster the public’s perceptions that there is something dangerous or infectious about such crops. Such actions are largely futile and distract from actions that are focused on aiding sentient beings. Images of liberated monkeys and puppies gained animal liberationists and direct action much public sentiment while also directly aiding sentient beings in captivity. What does crop destruction do? While I do not agree with GM crop destruction being sensationalized as “terrorism”, a word thrown around a lot these days, I can not in any way support it, it’s just pointlessly destructive and I wish activists would put their energy elsewhere.

In addition to some of the commonly known applications of transgenic technology such as herbicide resistant soy or  Bt corn there are other beneficial applications. While fear mongers have made unsupported claims that eating GMOs can cause diabetes, scientists have been hard at work to treat diabetes with that very same technology. Insulin production used to involve killing a lot of pigs, but thanks to genetically modified bacteria this is no longer necessary for most people. Genetic engineering hasn’t stopped there with diabetes, insulin producing lettuce has been produced as well as rice that would cause less of an insulin spike after eating. Others use poor evidence to falsely cite GMOs as causing Crohn’s and IBD while ignoring how genetic engineering may very soon help treat such conditions. Another common but often ignored benefit of genetic engineering is the bacteria that produces the B12 which is used to fortify many foods, vitamin pills, and nutritional yeast, affectionately know as “nooch”. This is important as B12 is one of the few micro-nutrients vegans have to be significantly concerned about. Other benefits vegans have to look forward to include long chain omega-3 fortified plants and plant-derived vaccines such as for the flu and even HPV. Some of the other potential and actual benefits of  GMOs include a shift in input profile towards less dangerous substances, reduced tillage, increased yields, better nutrition, disease resistance, and even fighting pollution.

Another common issue that muddles the conversation over genetic engineering is the improper equation of transgenic technology with large corporations like Monsanto. The claims range from reasonable suspicion of corporate misconduct to grand conspiracies to sicken or control the populace. Invoking Monsanto is like the Godwin’s Law of GMOs. We must be careful to separate our political ideologies from the issue of whether genetic engineering actually works and is safe. The same goes for patent issues, which is certainly not unique to the field of GMOs. A lot of research and development goes in to genetic engineering, just as with new inventions or software the manufacture wishes to recoup their investment, and then some. There is a good deal of public dialog over patent law already especially in the medical and computer software fields. Such concerns would mean addressing patent law and other regulations rather than the scientific validly of transgenic technology itself.

Is genetic engineering the answer the all our agricultural problems? No, but it can serve a useful role and also need not be seen as the mortal enemy of organic agriculture as can be attested by Pamela C. Ronald, a plant genetic scientist, and R. W. Adamchak, an organic farmer, authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Overall the current level of fear and sensational rhetoric surrounding the issue is scientifically unjustified, as always we must be skeptical not susceptible.

Please read my follow up post Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking

Further reading:
The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support by Vegan Skeptic
Alexey Surov and GM Soy – A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods by Vegan Skeptic
Vegan GMO Redux by Dave D
You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr by Dave D
Frankenfood- a talk given by Kevin Folta to a joint gathering of Chicago Skeptics & Vegan Chicago
Skeptically Speaking: Episode #71 Genetically Modified Foods
Vegans Who Support GMO’s (Say What?)
WHO: 20 questions on genetically modified foods
Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops
The Genetically Modified Alfalfa Scare: Don’t Panic
Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela C. Ronald & R. W. Adamchak
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly By James McWilliams


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