Genetic Engineering of Major Crops: the Most Recent Depressing Episode

In May this year, a Research Entomologist with the USDA contacted me and shared this message:

I remember your full-page ad in the New Yorker several years ago when you predicted the disaster with dicamba-resistant transgenic soybeans. And guess what, it came true. And more to come:

He was highlighting that the next Bayer-Monsanto GMO crop in the regulatory pipeline to be approved is now “stacked” with five different herbicide-tolerant traits to deal with the rise of “superweeds” that are increasingly herbicide resistant. My ad he was referring to was an advertorial I had written in response to a clueless pro-GMO puff piece in the New Yorker in 2014. Scientific journalists are generally suckers for pesticide industry talking points on GMO crops, and repeatedly fail to inform the public about the actual story and commercial reality of GMO crops in U.S. soil. The agrochemical pesticide industry (Bayer-Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta) has bought the seed industry in this country in order to engineer resistance to the weed killers they sell. Every weed scientist who isn’t on the industry’s payroll has advised that there’s no way you can blast that much weed killer on GE crops without causing resistance and superweeds, which means even more toxic herbicides would eventually be needed. That of course was the exact business plan of the pesticide industry. I highlighted this in the New Yorker advertorial as well as in numerous blog posts, this one being probably the most exhaustive.

In addition to being engineered to survive huge doses of weed killer, the other main commercialized GMO trait is production of the Bt insecticide in every cell of crops. Similar to over-spraying weed killer, this effectively douses massive acreage of corn and soy with insecticide and has led to widespread resistance in target pest populations. This is the opposite of integrated pest management where just enough is used along with other non-chemical controls. Both of the main commercialized GMO traits are dramatically failing, and the EPA is moving to take most Bt GMO crops off the market.

Considering this, I was dismayed to read in July another puff piece in the New York Times Magazine (“Learning to Love GMOs”, July 20, 2021), again making the case for commercially non-existent GMO foods, while completely ignoring the actual commercial reality and failure of genetically engineered crops in U.S. soil. The article also failed to note that the next GMO crop slated to be approved in the regulatory pipeline is now engineered to withstand five different toxic herbicides. I wrote a letter to the editor, which I was told (by the New York Times editorial department) would be published but never was:

Jennifer Kahn’s article celebrates commercially insignificant examples of GMOs, and effectively ignores that most of the GMO acreage in the U.S. is engineered by chemical companies to survive huge doses of weed killers they sell. With the abundance of weed killer on crops genetically engineered to withstand them we have the rise of “superweeds.” Pesticide companies selling more and more weed killer is the GMO story, exemplified by Bayer-Monsanto’s newest five-way herbicide-tolerant corn now under review by USDA. This is the past, current, and future reality of GMOs in the U.S., and should be honestly discussed and presented, not swept under the rug.

Only a month later, the New York Times published a searing indictment of crops engineered to withstand herbicide, what should be exhibit A in any serious investigative article discussing GMOs in America. The article notes how weed killers are one after the other failing to work on crops engineered to resist them. First RoundUp Ready glyphosate-tolerant GMO corn and soy was going to be the salvation, paired with a supposedly relatively benign and non-toxic weed killer. But glyphosate turned out to be carcinogenic and blasting so much of it means weeds are resistant, such that older even more toxic herbicides are now again in widespread use: 2,4 D and Dicamba primarily, being sold alongside crops engineered to resist huge doses of these chemicals as well. And now weeds are also resistant to these herbicides.

But the impact and importance of that story was seriously blunted and diluted by Jennifer Kahn’s July 20 industry puff piece masquerading as scientific journalism. It’s not coincidence the industry mobilized its PR machine to get the Kahn article written in the magazine prior to the exposé. This timing reflects an editorial system at The New York Times that is consequently non-objective on this issue, or sadly asleep at the wheel.

With GMOs, we have a clear-cut case of regulatory capture by the pesticide industry, with academics right, left, and center shilling on their payroll, and a corporate-backed media system that allows the industry’s sophisticated PR machine to spin journalists and editorial departments like a top. This has even been the case at publications like the New Yorker and the New York Times (with notable exceptions).

Weighing the science all around, I personally believe the use of GE technology in the Covid-19 vaccine is worthy and acceptable, even necessary. Just as it’s worthy to deploy GE technology to cure Sickle Cell; vaccination is the best public health approach to the virus available to us at this time, given the scale and threat of the crisis. However, when it comes to GE technology and agriculture, we are rarely told the true story—instead, the negative impact and risk of how genetic engineering is deployed in agriculture is often woefully obscured.

It’s no wonder to me that people have a real tough time trusting our government, media, and major corporate players, be they agrochemical, pharma, or news outlets—a fact that has tragically hamstrung our nation’s response to the pandemic and the collective consensus about Covid-19 vaccines. It is critical that more journalists wake up from their pesticide industry-induced trance and report accurately on GMOs. This is one key step needed to restore faith in the mainstream media’s reporting on science-related issues.

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David Bronner

David Bronner is Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner’s, the grandson of company founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soap maker. He is a dedicated vegan and enjoys surfing and dancing late into the night.

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