It never fails to amaze me how much the anti-Genetic Modification (GM) crowd love to gloat at any problems (real or perceived) with GM crops. Reader Paul sent me a link to this Science Blogs Effect Measure article claiming GM cotton resistant to bollworm planted in China, is proving to be “a curse”, since other pests have grown stronger:
Genetically modified cotton resistant to bollworm is a reality and five million Chinese cotton farmers have embraced it. It works, too, killing bollworm larvae that used to kill their cotton. IN the late 1990s it looked like a miracle. Pesticide use was cut by 70%. After seven years, though, the miracle is looking more like a curse because new pests called mirids have rushed into the pest vacuum and taken up shop.
The writer quotes from this New Scientist article.
So, this must be a reason to ban all GM crops, right? That’s the obvious conclusion: any problem - ban it all. (It’s what Greenpeace wants.) Well, first perhaps we should look a little closer at what is actually happening. From China Economic Net (all quotes with my bold):
CCAP director Huang Jikun said the Cornell team's conclusions could be based on an incorrect reading of the data.
According to Huang, 2004 had particularly low summer temperatures and more precipitation, so the mirids affected not only cotton but also other conventional crops nearby.
CCAP interviews with the same farmers in 2005 and 2006 showed fewer mirids.
So perhaps things weren’t quite the “curse” they seemed? Still, I agree the growth of a different pest is a concern. So ban them then. End the experiment! Yes? Or perhaps a more scientific idea would be to manage them better. From CheckBiotech.org
Zhang Yongjun, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Plant Protection of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said the rise of the secondary insect problem was mainly due to the poor management of GM cotton growth in China.
Before planting anti-insect cotton, Chinese farmers widely used broad-spectrum pesticides, which killed both bollworms and mirids. But using the pesticides increased costs, caused pollution and harmed farmers’ health.
After planting anti-insect cotton, however, farmers use pesticides only in the final stage of the crop’s growth, when the Bt cotton’s resistance against bollworms is relatively reduced. “But in terms of preventing mirids, it’s too late,” said Zhang.
That situation, coupled with weather factors, eventually led to the outbreak of mirids across cotton-growing provinces in 2004, Zhang explained.
If the proper pesticide had been used at the right time, the mirids could have been controlled in 2004, he said.
And from Cornell University
When U.S. farmers plant Bt crops, they, unlike farmers in China, are required by contracts with seed producers to plant a refuge, a field of non-Bt crops, to maintain a bollworm population nearby to help prevent the pest from developing resistance to the Bt cotton. The pesticides used in these refuge fields help control secondary pest populations on the nearby Bt cotton fields.
GM crops are not perfect, but then no solution is without costs. For example, before GM cotton was introduced, 400 to 500 Chinese cotton farmers used to die every year from pesticide poisoning. Ban GMOs and you have to consider these costs (and others) that would increase. A better solution would seem to be learn from these developing problems and manage them better. As the Cornell article puts it:
"Research is urgently needed to develop and test solutions."
These include introducing natural predators to kill the secondary pests, developing Bt cotton that resists the secondary pests or enforcing the planting of refuge areas where broad-spectrum pesticides are used.
Of course science doesn’t always get it 100% right first time but that doesn’t mean you abandon a project at the first sign of a problem. And that’s especially true when there are potentially huge benefits to be gained. I realize Greenpeace and the like aren’t interested in scientific explanations and solutions, but I wouldn’t expect a real scientist to dismiss a whole field of science just because something didn’t work out perfectly first time. Which is why I am surprised and disappointed this supposed “Science Blogger” ends his article with the tart:
Maybe this is why the tag line of Pete Seeger's anti-war song, "Where have all the Flowers gone?" is "When will they ever learn?"
When will they ever learn? They? If he’s referring to the anti-GM gloaters, it seems only after “a long time passing”. When will they ever learn indeed.