In Defense of Modern Industrial Agriculture, Agribusiness and Our Food Supply: A Spirited Response to the Critics part 2

Part 2

“In 1950, the U.S. had 22 million head of dairy cows producing an average of 2,415 kg of milk per year. In 2,000, the U.S. dairy industry had 9.2 million cows averaging 8,275 kg milk per year. Total U.S. milk production in 1950 was 53 MT, compared to 76.2 MT in 2000. The dairy industry produced 44% more milk in 2000 with 58 percent fewer cows than in 1950” (Blayney, 2002, cited in  Havenstein, 2006). Blayney, D. P., 2002. The changing Landscape of U.S. Milk Production, USDA/ERS, Stat. Bull. 978, June,

Contrary to the critics of modern agriculture, there is no scientific evidence that “organic” is healthier. There is substantial evidence in peer reviewed scientific literature that there is no appreciable difference. Nor is it more sustainable. Yet too often, the media simply assumes these to be true as do the grocery chain stores ex. – “Stores find organic food is the natural way to go” Houston Chronicle 01/19/2013. 

Per unit of output, organic agriculture as it is allowed to be practiced has a larger carbon footprint and is often less environmentally friendly overall. This includes consideration of nitrogen and other nutrient run-off in food production. Further, conventional agriculture is more amenable to improvement through scientific research. Feedlots animal wastes present a problem but feedlot finished cattle are so much more efficient in animal production, particularly in terms of carbon footprint, that strict regulation of containment ponds to control environmental contamination would be warranted and cost effective. Even better would be regulations mandating the installation of anaerobic biogas digesters that would create a relatively clean fuel and safe fertilizer.  Some of the larger poultry facilities have already done so and found it reduced the operations need for an external fuel source and added to profitability

Being “organic” does not necessarily mean being pesticide free or even being grown without synthetic pesticides. In fact, some of the “all natural” pesticides such as copper sulfate are highly toxic and persistent in the environment. The USDA’s organic program has a list of approved pesticides including some synthetic pesticides. Nor was pre-modern agriculture pesticide free as there was a long history of using toxic substances such as arsenic to protect plants. In agriculture when you grow and concentrate nutrient for human use, you are also concentrating nutrient for birds, rodents, insects, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Plants had to be protected and often substances far more persistent and toxic than those used today were applied to the fields. Again agriculture is not magic and though there were various protective strategies that farmers could use, too often they had to use a toxic substance.

Being organic does not mean being free of toxins – in fact, in many instances, organic produce is likely to have a higher load of toxins. Plants are chemical factories that produce a variety of toxins to defend themselves many of which are carcinogens. According to toxicologist Bruce Ames, over 99% of the toxins that we ingest each day are from those produced by plants. Michael Pollan and others claim that organic produce is more nutritious because it is “less-well protected.” This means that if a plant is invaded by micro-organisms or insects, it will express toxins to defend itself. What is toxic to one organism is not necessarily toxic to another but the proponents of the organic/anti-GMO play word games not using the word toxin when it suits them but use the term toxin (or even poison) to identify plant proteins that protect against micro-organisms or insects but are harmless to humans. The supposedly “more nutritious” parts of the “less-well protected” plants turn out to be antioxidants – flavonoids and phenolics – that are now considered to be of questionable benefit. (Note: Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants and are considered to be beneficial to human health. Is it because of the antioxidants or the form in which they take in fruits and vegetables? Are fruits and vegetables beneficial because we eat less of other things that might be harmful? Clinical studies on adding antioxidants to diets not only fail to show any benefit but often find significant evidence of harm.)  Not mentioned are the other toxins produced by the invading micro-organisms of the less-well protected organic plants some of which are very toxic to humans. Many chemical food preservatives are also antioxidants.

USDA certification of a product as being organic has no meaning other than it was grown using certain means (and not others) – it has no implications about quality, nutrition etc. as clearly stated by the USDA. These standards were largely the creation of those who either wish to grow or to consume “organic.”

The most sustainable form of contemporary agriculture is what is called “conservation tillage” (AKA – no tillage or minimum tillage) using a genetically engineered herbicide tolerant (Ht) crop with a broad spectrum pesticide such as Glyphosate. 

There is no scientific controversy concerning the safety of transgenic transformations using rDNA (AKA GMOs, “frankenfoods,” genetically modified among others) food crops nor is there about cisgenics, intragenics or antisense technologies (RNAi) though the anti-GMO groups have convinced large segments of the public and the media that there is. This point could easily be documented in detail along with the multitude of examples of activist’s ignorance of some of the basic understandings of modern science. Michael Pollan’s claim in the early editions of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” that carbon was the most common element in the human body and in all life forms would be risible if it were not so pathetic. What about the activist promoted referendum for an ordinance banning the growing of GMOs in Mendocino County, California that defined DNA as a complex protein found in every cell in the body. It passed. Or what about the polls in Europe that found that a majority or sometimes just a plurality of the population believed tomatoes did not have genes unless biotechnologist put them there? In the U.S. we did a little better with a plurality but not a majority believing the claim to be in error. This is just a sample of the activist errors of fact.

In the media and on the internet, much of the opposition to genetic engineering of plants focuses on Monsanto even instances where Monsanto is not involved. Monsatan as the clever activist wordsmiths call it. One of the enduring myths of the anti-transgenic is that farmers are sued by Monsanto for pollen drift on to their fields. This is widely claimed, endlessly repeated in a multitude of different media and widely believed even though there is not a scintilla of evidence for it. The myth is repeated so often that I periodically would called a friend of mine who is considered a leading expert on agricultural law who would reassure me that in no instance in the cases settled in court did the defendant claim accidental pollen drift. It is one thing to make a claim in a documentary film and another to make it under oath in court.

Much as we are all must trust the expertise of others since it is impossible for any one of us to know everything first hand. On a controversial issue like farmers being sued by Monsanto, I would prefer to have direct knowledge but there was no way I was going to read all the many court cases. Fortunately, the activists overplayed their hand and filed a suit to enjoin Monsanto from suing farmers for being the recipients of pollen drift. The case was Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association v. Monsanto Co., 11cv2163, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) filed in March 2011 with a ruling on January 2012 by Judge Naomi Buchwald, a Clinton appointee.  

Judge Buchwald dismissed the case since the plaintiffs could not offer in court a single instance where Monsanto had sued a farmer for accidental pollen drift. It was dismissed, not tried because there was not a case to be made. Her dismissal was affirmed June 2013 (Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association v. Monsanto Co., 12-1298) by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Washington).

The anti-Monsanto activists have also been peddling the tale of the Canadian canola grower Percy Schmeiser who it is claimed was the innocent victim of a lawsuit by Monsanto. Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser is a case that I have read and re-read multiple times to make sure that I was not missing something that those who use it for ant-GMO propaganda were finding. I encourage those who are interested in these issues to read the case themselves. A reasonable person would find that numerous claims made by Schmeiser were rather preposterous.   

“The courts at all three levels noted that the case of accidental contamination beyond the farmer’s control was not under consideration but rather that Mr. Schmeiser’s action of having identified, isolated and saved the Roundup-resistant seed placed the case in a different category” (Quoted from Wikipedia, September 2013). The judge in the initial case ruled that Schmeiser had either known or ought to have known that he was planting a patented seed.

Pollen drift is not “contamination” unless one can demonstrate harm in that the resulting crop actually harms those who eat it. By clever use of language such as “contamination,” activists seek to control the discourse by controlling the language. Historically, those producing a specialized crop are responsible for maintaining its genetic identity. Similarly, those whose religion requires food to be halal or kosher assume the full cost and responsibility for maintaining it. I respect that.

The proponents of organic agriculture, unlike those who require halal or kosher expect other farmers and producers of food to bear the cost of sustaining their ritual purity for a product for which they receive a price premium. The rules for what could be labeled organic were established following a series of town hall meetings. Organic farmers were prohibited from planting GMOs. The USDA certified organic label strictly applies only to the way that a crop was raised and has no implications concerning sustainability of the production system or the nutritional quality of the food produced.

Not satisfied with the rules that they created, organic consumers and others demanded even stricter prohibitions against any pollen drift into a field of organic production even though it would still qualify for USDA organic certification. It is a free country and if that is what they want and they are willing to pay for it, then that is their privilege. But instead of paying for it, they are seeking to use the courts to shift the burden from the roughly those who grow 1 to 5% of the sugar beets and the alfalfa to those who grow the roughly 95 to 99% of these crops. This is the antithesis of democracy.

Many of those involved in lawsuits and organizing for labeling laws have made it clear that there ultimate objective is to eliminate genetically modified food from the marketplace. There is more than a bit of hypocrisy or even fraud for those who rail against Monsanto for allegedly tyrannizing American farmers then filing a lawsuit that would have forced GMO Alfalfa growers (representing at least 95% of all Alfalfa grown) to pull up their already planted crop, a crop that they had been growing for five seasons. The basis of the lawsuit was not any evidence of harm but on a technicality in the previous approval process. Fortunately, an Appeals court overturned the initial court decision ordering the uprooting of the plants.

This has become a common tactic of claiming to represent the “oppressed” farmers while working to impose restrictions on the choices of the vast majority of farmers. It should be noted that in the above cases, the organizations representing the majority of the affected farmers stood in opposition to the activist’s legal position. This is part of a larger narrative in economic development where NGOs claim to offer a bottom up process of development as opposed to the alleged traditional top down approach to development. Yet when those they presume to want to help fail to follow their development prescriptions, they inevitably turn to the UN or supporting governments or institutions in the developed world to try to impose their agenda.

In Brazil, it was Greenpeace that sued to block the planting of GMO soybeans. It was farmers illegally planting GMO soybeans smuggled in from Argentina that eventually forced the Lula government to reverse course and approve their use. In India, planting Bt. cotton was banned by the Government in spite of the fact the a 30 person panel of leading scientist tasked to study the issue and rule on it found them to be safe. Some farmers were illegally planting the Bt. cotton seeds anyway. When a devastating attack of the Asian Bollworm wiped out field after field of cotton in Gujarat, the largest cotton growing state in India, it was the fields of the illegally planted Bt. cotton that were left standing. After initially threatening to destroy the unaffected fields, the Government capitulated and approved the planting of Bt. cotton.

From 20,000 farmers growing Bt cotton in India the 1st year of approval, it grew to 7.4 million farmers growing it in a few years. It has continued at this level to the present as over 90% of cotton grown in India is GMO. India has gone from being the largest importer of cotton in the world to being one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton. The farmer’s real income is up which is reflected in a recent study by Matin Qaim and Shahzad Kouser finding improved health and nutrition among those growing Bt. cotton. Numerous other peer-reviewed studies including some by Qaim have found increased real income from growing Bt. cotton for farmers, for women and for field workers (Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security, PLOS/ONE, June 5, 2013,

If you can’t beat them then lie by claiming that farmers in India have been driven to suicide by the failure of transgenic cotton. This has been refuted by numerous careful studies such as one by IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute). More important, it is refuted by the fact that 7.4 million Indian farmers continue to grow it. Some of these are farmers who have switched to cotton from other crops because of the more reliable yields and higher income. Yet the myth of Bt. cotton leading to farmer’s suicides continues with some clever activists branding them as suicide seeds (Bt cotton failure and farmer suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence, The International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) IFPRI Discussion Paper 00808, October 2008, page or )

GMO soybeans in Brazil and Bt. cotton in India are only two of many instances where European and North American based ideological NGOs have worked to thwart the choice of farmers and others in the developing world while claiming to be defending them. In some areas, such as India, they frequently work with urban based elite groups. Not content to restrict themselves to a variety of propaganda and legal tactics, the anti-GMO activists have attacked research labs, slimeing transgenic plant researchers and going into the fields destroying crops in test plots. The most recent destructive rampage of a test plot of Golden Rice in the Philippines gave rise to a letter condemning it signed by over 6,000 scientists from around the world many of them being leaders in their field.

One can’t even begin to tell the story of Golden Rice and the 400 to 500 million children in the world who are Vitamin A deficient with horrendous consequences for life and for death. Opposing some forms of transgenic agriculture such as Golden Rice (Vitamin A enhanced – actually enhanced with Beta carotene the precursor of Vitamin A) has very serious consequences for poor children in developing countries. Those who engage in disruptive activities or support organizations that do, have to accept responsibility for the adverse consequences that flow from their actions. What we are talking about is children going blind and dying from Vitamin A deficiency.  Today over 1,000 children will directly die as a result of Vitamin A deficiency. Another 5,000 are estimated to die each day because their immune system was weakened  by Vitamin A deficiency for a total of 6,000 deaths each day. On an annual basis, this comes to 350, 000 children dying each year directly of Vitamin A deficiency while the best estimates are that the direct and indirect deaths from Vitamin A deficiency are 2 to 2 ½ million (some estimates run as high as 3 million)  deaths each year. A significant number of these are children of subsistence rice farmers and their deaths could have been prevented by Golden Rice. Will those opposed to Golden Rice accept responsibility for this outcome? The safety and potential benefit of Golden Rice has been demonstrated by multiple projects with their results being published in leading peer reviewed journals such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

See for example: Golden Rice – Lifesaver? By Amy Harmon, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

Golden Rice is an effective source of vitamin A1–4 by Guangwen Tang, Jian Qin, Gregory G Dolnikowski, Robert M Russell, and Michael A Grusak, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 89 no. 6, June 2009 , pp.  1776-1783; DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.27119

β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children,  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 96 no. 3, September 2012, 658-664

For some earlier articles see Stein A.J., Sachdev H.P.S., Qaim M. . “Potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice.” Nature Biotechnology 24(10),2006 1200-1201.  and


Genetic Engineering for the Poor: Golden Rice and Public Health in India by Alexander J. Stein, H.P.S. Sachdev and Matin Qaim 2008. World Development  36(1): 144-158, January 2008.

It is more than ironic that the list of organizations actively opposed to modern agricultural science such as transgenics are largely those who have never done anything, I mean never done anything to help poor people obtain the food they need or in any way contributed to the food production in general. Tragically, those they most often attack are they very persons and organizations that have done so much to reduce to help produce the food to feed the needy and who are working constantly to continue fight against hunger and malnutrition. For some inexplicable reason, much of the media and the public give credibility to ideological organizations whose main functions seems to be to disrupt the work of those seeking to solve problems.

What we are trying to show is that there are a multitude of very favorable trends in the world from declining infant, child and maternal mortality to increases in food supply and decreases in hunger and malnutrition. In agriculture, there are trends in efficiency in milk, meat and grain production including decreases in fertilizer and pesticide use per unit of output. As the UNDP report that I cited indicates, there are many more favorable trends then I can even begin to enumerate. These trends can neither be denied  or  ignored. They must be included and protected in solutions to problems that we face. In many respects, they are a vital part of the pathway to progress on our environmental problems. Unfortunately, too many activists see to condemn and eliminate the very important means necessary to solve our problems.

Let me close with a cogent statement by Rajiv Shah, Administrator, United States Agency
for International Development:

“What’s really at stake in the genetic engineering debate? Better nutrition and incomes for poor families everywhere.

“Throughout history, our greatest development advances have come from introducing safe, proven and appropriate technologies to the world’s most vulnerable people. That’s how we helped hundreds of millions of people avert starvation during the Green Revolution. Today, stresses from climate change, conflict and poverty make this approach more urgent than ever.

“It’s taken 25 years of ingenuity and perseverance to bring Golden Rice from vision to reality. Who will stand between it and millions of undernourished children?”

Are those members of or in any way supportive or connected to the organizations opposed to Golden Rice who read this or who hear my lecture willing to take responsibility for their actions? Are they willing to consider the possibility that their actions may be costing the lives of poor children around the world?

About the Author

Thomas R. DeGregori is Professor of Economics at the University of Houston.

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