Deconstructing Green

Genetically modified crops use fewer pesticides than conventional crops. Far fewer. That’s not me saying it, that’s an enormous meta-analysis of 147 studies published just a couple of weeks ago. The difference is not small: we’re talking 37% less by volume, compounded over this huge range of studies.

It’s interesting how little play this story gets in the media. So much environmental reporting is intent on placing any story on a simple, green/not-green scale, which is really code for virtuous/vicious. The assumption is that these things move together: everyone knows GMOs are not green, and therefore they must use more pesticides, produce more GHG emissions, kill bees, the lot.

Reality isn’t that neat by a long shot. No-till agriculture sounds great, until you realize not-tilling raises weed pressures, which farmers respond to by just nuking them with extra herbicides. Organics sound great, but of course they give you lower yields, which means you need more land to produce the same amount of food, land that you can’t then use to plant trees, which trap carbon.

As “Green” turns into a marketing category, the culture’s ability to process this kind of complexity wanes. Who wants to buy a loaf of bread marked “GMO Free! Grown from wheat using 18.3% more pesticides and 14.9% more carbon emissions due to extra land-pressures arising from lower yields!”

As transgenics mature and more ambitious transformations are attempted in plants, these kinds of tradeoffs are likely to become more prominent. Some GMO research is now aiming at improving crop roots’ capacity to take up phosphorus from the soil, which will of course reduce the amount of fertilizer you need to reach a given yield level.

Hate fertilizer overuse? Here is Monsanto, with this transgenic maize that will help stamp it out!

Of course, for lots of activists GMOs aren’t really the issue, Monsanto is. Those guys could develop a GMO crop that ends global warming while giving Malala an education and people would still picket against it. Plenty of anti-GMO activists have a problem less with gene-splicing itself than with the economic system it’s part of. The easy “Monsanto-paid-you-didn’t-they?!” attack is now so ingrained for people it comes automatically, pretty much regardless of what a participant in one of these debates says. (Look for it in the comments section below!)

But even that’s not as straightforward as it once was, either, because some amazing genetic research is now being done by public research institutes with impeccable social credentials and no shareholders to speak of.

Take striga, the pretty purple flower pictured at the top of this post as it munches away on nutrients taken directly out of the roots of the sick maize plants in that field. Striga-resistant maize is now being developed by the same organizations that brought us the original Green Revolution. For my money, striga-resistant maize is the hardest transgenic crop to object to out there. It takes real bloody mindedness to harrumph the development of crops that ward off a pest that’s been destroying African livelihoods for as long as anyone can remember, doesn’t it?

Then there’s IRRI’s insanely ambitious C4 Rice project, which would remake the rice plant at its most fundamental level – the way it photosynthesizes – yielding a plant that looks like rice, produces rice, but eats sunlight like maize. The botanic equivalent of dropping a new, far more powerful engine into an old car, C4 rice promises to be vastly more productive than existing C3 varieties. The upshot would be much, much more food coming out of the same amount of land.

You can be against striga-resistant maize and C4 rice, of course, but then the onus is on you to say where all the extra land to produce the same amount of food should come from. We could chop down some forests, maybe. Or we could get all Malthusian and accept famine as a birth control method. I don’t find either of those alternatives especially appealing.

More and more crops  like these are going to be developed, and as they come online, I think intellectually honest people are going to have to reconsider their opposition to GMOs in light of new evidence.

That’s a process that’s only now starting, and it won’t be quick. But maybe accepting the idea that there are tradeoffs involved and that our cognitive shortcuts for figuring out what’s green and what isn’t can lead us astray is as good a starting point as any.

9 thoughts on “Deconstructing Green”

  1. ‘Cognitive Shortcuts’? You been reading Daniel Kahneman? If so, interesting application to advocacy thinking – when do you heave yourself from the lazy/automatic world of System 1 to the exhausting, back to first principles and evidence world of System 2?

  2. Those guys could develop a GMO crop that ends global warming while giving Malala an education and people would still picket against it.

    I laughed out loud at that. And couldn’t agree more.

    But it’s not just withholding GMOs. Withholding other tools in your I-hate-Monsanto basket is more widespread. Did you read the paper referenced here?

    This guy is not a GMO-lover, but saw first-hand that clueless volunteers were telling farmers the wrong things on fertilizer too. And herbicide-hate is keeping farmers from being more food secure. Monsantomania has multiple consequences.

    1. I remember in rural Venezuela coming across a family the neighbours described, with averted gazes, as “so poor they can’t even afford round-up.” I was pretty green (in the other sense!) at the time, and didn’t get it, so I pressed them.

      “Bueno, they said, their son isn’t going to school because they have to keep him home to do the weeding by hand.” Then the penny dropped.

  3. Needed saying and well said.
    South Africa has been using gmo for years and once all the initial controversy died down the farmers just got on with using it. But gmo is banned in the countries surrounding SA though some seed smuggling takes place.

  4. Recently research had come out that showed the opposite – pesticide use initially declines but quickly climbs and farmers (in the US I believe it was) end up using more pesticides. I definitely have some reservations on GMOs, mostly linked to patents, but pesticide resistance is really a liability. I expect more meta analysis to come out in following years. Also some research has shown that GM maize has not benefited american farmer’s yields.

    Not sure how they are going to make maize striga resistant. But messing with pesticides like bt resistant corn/soy can easily backfire. might work for 10 years, but what you are really doing is developing resistance to that pesticide. This is already a major problem in the US, and they have been planting them for 10-15 years – which is to say very little time. There are different ways of dealing with striga – climate smart push pull from ICIPE. Not only resists striga but also drought.

    The “oh think of the poor people affected” meme is not quite right. If the solution could solve the problem but create many new ones we must assess if it is worth it. Really it is similar to medication. Sure this pill cures cancer – but its safety must be assessed first. For crops considerations should be made as to the environmental impacts – is the main characteristic likely to develop pesticide resistant pests? If so what could be the costs/consequences of this?

    C4 rice I can see the positives more easily. Still, the whole GMO and conventional solutions for agriculture has a productivist point of view. people are hungry today not because of lack of food. Not saying that we will not need to increase production, but rather that solutions to agricultural and food security challenges are most likely to be solutions that look at poverty reduction and changing the paradigms of conventional farming and retail systems (most farmers in the world are poor. I think most of them are barely over the poverty line in the UK). While i agree GMO often elicit a knee jerk reaction, the “other camp” consistently proposes technological solutions to what are social, political, economical and environmental challenges.

    If we are talking about where to get the extra food we need because of avoiding ecologically unsustainable methods (like pesticide resistant maize), then agroecological approaches produce more food per hectare than conventional, so it would be a matter of incentivising agroecology rather than input intensive agriculture.

  5. I like your take on Monsanto, and this is a fascinating result you are posting on. I tire of the mindless anti-GMO block. One issue though that your post obscures is the power of Monsanto as a developer and marketer of GMO products, and the reliance of farmers on these products. This is similar to people distrusting Microsoft or Google (or the railroads a century ago), and worrying about consequences of over-reliance on companies with near-monopoly power. It leads to costumers overlooking the incredible value of the products, but the concern over the ethical, social and other implications of a company’s power in a particular market should not be derided. More variety of GMO products rather than less would be a good result.

    1. See for instance the following from

      “Why is Google tinkering with a brand new microprocessor? “We’re really driven by an aggressive demand. The growth at Google has been very significant,” McKean says. In other words, Google keeps growing, and so the massive collection of servers that runs Google must keep growing too. Yes, the company can keep expanding its operation using Intel chips. But it behooves Google to use other chip suppliers. That’s a way to cut costs, but it’s also a way to ensure that the chips it uses just keep getting better. Companies like Google don’t want to rely solely on Intel. They want competition in the market. They want to play one chip maker off another.”

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