What the New York Times missed with its big GMO story
A big piece that made the front page of the New York Times over the weekend takes aim at two of the most prominent arguments in favor of genetically modified crops: They increase yields (meaning we can get a lot more food from less land) and reduce pesticide use (meaning we’re poisoning that land and ourselves a lot less).
The article concludes that GMO seeds are no better at either than any other form of breeding. As you can imagine, a page one story in the nation’s biggest newspaper with such a strong assertion has opened another front in the GMO wars — and as someone who has been reporting from the frontlines of those wars for the past few years, I’ve got some thoughts.
The story is an odd one for the Times because if you take the most mild interpretation of the piece — GMOs haven’t dramatically improved yields, but they are useful — then it’s really not news. Back in May, the National Academy of Sciences said the same thing with much more nuance and detail.
If your takeaway from the piece is that GMOs just aren’t useful, then it runs contrary to loads of evidence — which the story almost completely omits. And it makes comparisons that sound compelling, but don’t actually tell you much about the state of farming.
The article relies on a comparison of farm statistics from North America (where we grow GMOs) to farm statistics from Western Europe (where they don’t). The problem with this big picture focus is that the details on GMOs get really fuzzy. At the international level, there are so many variables — weather, pests, soils, economics, and farming techniques, just to name a few — that it’s near impossible to pick out the effects of biotechnology. So, viewed from 100,000 feet, GMOs are a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
That said, if genetic engineering really had turned out to be a silver bullet for agriculture, we would be able to see the change in the zoomed-out big picture. And if GMOs had proved to be a quantum leap forward, we would see it in Times writer Danny Hakim’s crude country-level comparisons. In that regard, Hakim’s contribution is useful.
The problem here is that there’s enough data that you can easily pick the evidence to support your favorite narrative, depending on where you focus. For instance, in a rebuttal to the story, Monsanto’s chief technology officer picked a narrower focus and found plenty of data for a counternarrative making the case for biotechnology. The most balanced approach is to look at all the available evidence — and that’s what the National Academy of Sciences report already did.
Hakim cites the report where it supports his conclusions, but not in the places it contradicts them. He writes that the report found “‘there was little evidence’ that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops.” But Hakim doesn’t mention that the report also noted that genetic engineering increased yields “where weed control is improved” and “when insect-pest pressure was high.” He doesn’t mention the report found that insect-resistant GMOs reduced insecticide use “in all cases examined.”
Perhaps the most compelling stats in Hakim’s story come from a comparison with France, which has reduced insecticide use by 65 percent and herbicide spraying by 36 percent in the last 20 years. The United States has only reduced insecticide use by 33 percent, while herbicide spraying has increased 20 percent over that same period.
But that’s the zoomed-out view. Zoom in and you can see that France started with crazy-high pesticide application levels, which are just now coming down to around the amounts farmers spray per acre in the United States. It’s also odd that Hakim would single out France: Pesticide use there has been declining, but it’s been increasing in other parts of Europe. (See weed scientist Andrew Kniss’ take for more detail on this.)
It’s often hard to see the evidence of important technological changes in zoomed-out statistics. Back in the ’90s, businesses were buying computers like crazy, but overall productivity numbers “failed to suggest that anything unique was occurring in the workplace,” according to the St. Louis Fed. Computers didn’t bend the trend lines for decades. As economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”
Because most of us aren’t farmers, we have a hard time seeing the GMO age at all. But U.S. farmers can see it. Farmers aren’t backward dupes who are easily tricked into buying unnecessary technologies. These days, farmers are skeptical and tech-savvy. Many have multiple degrees. They often test yields and pest-resistance by planting half a field with one kind of seed, and half with another. They clearly think they’re getting something valuable when they pay the extra money for GMOs. Both farmers interviewed in the Times piece — one in France and one in South Carolina — said they thought GMOs were helpful.
One last point: The New York Times story treats GMOs as a single entity to be accepted or rejected. The main thrust of that National Academy report was to suggest that we should stop treating GMOs as a monolith and assess each crop on its merits. It’s not clear that non-GMOs are better: Europe’s rejection of genetic engineering has led to a surge in crops bred via mutagenesis — which has a higher likelihood of generating genetic unknowns — as well as non-GMO crops bred to work with herbicides. Even if we decide that genetic engineering isn’t worth the risks, we’ll face risks in other forms of breeding.
And GMOs really aren’t all associated with industrial farming. The disease-resistant papaya is a wonderful innovation. The insect-resistant eggplant seems to be reducing pesticide use in Bangladesh. This banana, this cassava, and this rice could all truly improve the lives of small farmers if those new crops make it over the technical and political hurdles.
I agree with the Times’ milder point — herbicide-tolerant soy isn’t going to be the key to saving the world. I’ve written that, in the grand scheme of things, GMOs don’t matter. If we decide it’s just too culturally fraught to accept genetic modification, we can survive without it — in the same way that we’d survive without computers. We’d figure something else out!
But it would be a shame if we on the liberal coasts decided the technology was useless just because we have a hard time seeing the benefits that are clear to Midwestern farmers. Zoom out far enough, and you’ll eventually reach a point where all human effort barely makes a blip. That’s fine — it’s always useful to step back and look at the big picture.
But if we want to figure how to make our food system more equitable and sustainable, we’re also going to have to zoom in on the realities of agriculture on the ground.