Concerns have been raised that GMOs will cause genes to be transferred from our food into our bodies, thus “polluting” our genetic make-up. There is no logical reason why genes from genetically modified organisms should effect our genes any more than those from the trillions of bacteria and the plates full of food that pass through our system every day.
Having commented on these general concerns about GMOs, let me turn to the many benefits that will be available from a responsibly managed program of genetic modification.
From an environmental perspective there are three main areas of positive impact on ecosystems. First, genetically modified crops will generally result in a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. This will result in a dramatic reduction to the impact on non-target species. For example, when chemical or biological sprays are used to combat pests of the butterfly family (Lepidoptera), all species of butterfly and moth are killed. By contrast, when Bt cotton or Bt corn are grown, only those butterflies or moths that try to feed on the crop are severely impacted. Reducing chemical sprays also results in a cost saving to the farmer.
Second, and perhaps the most important environmental benefit of genetic modification, is the ability to increase the productivity of food crops. Along with other advances in technology, chemicals, and genetics, GMOs will often result in increased yields due to pest resistance, drought resistance, more efficient metabolism, and other genetic traits. It is a fact of arithmetic that the higher the yield of food per unit of land, the less land must be cleared to grow our food. Intensive agricultural production, much of which can be achieved through genetic modification, is a powerful tool to reduce the loss of the world’s natural ecosystems. The less land that is required to grow our food, the more that can be retained as forest and wilderness, where biodiversity can flourish. There is no doubt that when natural ecosystems such as forest are converted to agriculture there is a huge loss in biodiversity. Genetic modification could mitigate or even help reverse the continued loss of forest, particularly in the tropical developing countries where this trend is most severe.
Third, the development of herbicide tolerant varieties of food crops allows the adoption of low and zero tillage systems. This results in a considerable reduction in soil erosion, both conserving native soils and reducing the amount of chemical fertiliser inputs.
During a recent visit to Southeast Asia I took part in a seminar on biotechnology in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I met five farmers from South Sulawesi who had just completed a trial of Bt cotton on their farms. They reported that yields had risen from the normal 600 kilos per hectare to an average of 2500 kilos per hectare, a four times increase in yield. At the same time they had reduced pesticide applications from eight sprayings to one spraying, and the single spraying was for a secondary insect pest, not the bollworm that the cotton was now protected against. And yet, environmental NGOs, supported by the Indonesian Minister of the Environment, are trying hard to thwart the efforts of these farmers. Indonesia imports over $1 billion in cotton each year, mainly from Australia. Bt cotton could help Indonesia to be more self-sufficient in cotton production. It could also improve the lot of farmers, reduce chemical use, and result in reduced clearance of natural forestland for agriculture.
There is a tendency to treat medicine and nutrition as separate subjects when in fact food is simply our most important medicine. This is brought home by considering one of the recent advances in genetic modification, the golden rice. Whereas normal rice contains no carotene, by splicing a gene from daffodils into rice plants, it has been possible to produce rice that contains carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Vitamin A is necessary for eyesight and every year about 500,000 people, mainly children in India and Africa, go blind due to vitamin A deficiency. The golden rice has the potential to eliminate this human tragedy when it is introduced in a few years. At a recent conference on biotechnology in Bangkok, a Greenpeace spokesperson claimed that there was “zero benefit from GMOs”. How can anyone suggest that 500,000 children saved form blindness is a “zero benefit”.
Genetic modification promises to bring a wide range of advances in human health and nutrition. As summarised by Professor Philip Stott of the University of London these include:
Foods with increased digestibility, less saturated fats, cholesterol-reducing properties, and the potential for heart and cancer health benefits.
High-performance cooking oils that will maintain texture at raised temperatures, reduce processing needs, and create healthier products from peanuts, soybeans, and sunflowers.
Edible crops that carry vaccines against diseases such as cholera, hepatitis and malaria.
Crops with reduced allergenicity, e.g. peanuts.
Crops with better storage and transport characteristics through delayed ripening and fungus/pest protection. These include bananas, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries, and tomatoes.
New subsistence crops that will extend agriculture into marginal areas such as saline soils, soils poor in nutrients, and drought-affected regions.
How can a policy of zero-tolerance for genetic modification be justified in the face of these overwhelming benefits? The bankruptcy of the anti-biotech movement position is illustrated by the example of the so-called “Terminator seeds”. When Monsanto proposed to produce a genetically modified soybean variety that produced no viable seeds, environmental groups vilified the company for condemning farmers to dependence on corporate seeds. Yet, the same environmental groups raise fears that viable seed from genetically modified plants might be harmful to the environment if they spread into the wild. So its damned if you do and damned if you don’t. These groups have made it clear that they are against all genetic modification, and they will invent any argument to support that position, regardless of logical inconsistency or demonstrated fact.
Global climate change is another area where extreme statements are made, in this case on both sides of the debate, when there is little in science to defend them. Some things are quite certain. Carbon dioxide levels are rising and our consumption of fossil fuels and deforestation in the tropics are probably the main causes. There is a lot of evidence that the earth’s climate is warming: the glaciers in Alaska are retreating and great egrets are visiting northern Lake Huron. But here the consensus ends.
Climate change is a wonderful example to demonstrate the limitations of science. There are two fundamental characteristics of climate change that make it very difficult to use the empirical (scientific) method to predict the future. First there are simply too many uncontrollable variables — the empirical method works best when you can control all the variables except the one you are studying. Second, and even more significant, is the fact that we have only one planet to observe. If we had 50 planet Earths and increased the carbon dioxide levels on 25 of them, leaving the other 25 alone, we might be able to determine a statistical difference between the two samples. With only one Earth, we are reduced to complex computer models of questionable value, and a lot of guesswork.
Climate change is not about scientific certainty; it is about the evaluation and management of risk. I think it is fair to say that climate change poses a real risk, however small or large. When faced with the risk the logical thing to do is to buy and insurance policy. Unfortunately we have no actuarial science on which to base the size of the insurance premium; this is where the guesswork comes in. Is it worth reducing fossil fuel consumption by 60 percent to avoid global warming? Should we add the risk of massive nuclear energy construction to offset carbon dioxide emissions? What does “worth doing away” really mean? Is it possible that global warming might have more positive effects than negative ones?
Biodiversity and Forests
The Rainforest Action Network, an eco-political group based in San Francisco, recently published on their Web page that “the International Botanical Society recently released the results of an extensive study showing that, at current rates, two-thirds of the world’s plant and animal species will become extinct by the year 2100.” The International Botanical Society is nowhere to be found on the Internet.
More seriously, in March 1996, the World Wildlife Fund held a media conference in Geneva during the first meeting of the UN Panel on Forests. They stated that there are now 50,000 species going extinct every year due to human activity, more than at any time since the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Most significantly, WWF stated that the main cause of these extinctions is “commercial logging”. This was largely due, according to WWF director-general Claude Martin, to “massive deforestation in industrialized countries.” The statements made at the media conference were broadcast and printed around the world, giving millions of people the impression that forestry was the main cause of species extinction.
I have tried to determine the basis for this allegation, openly challenging the WWF to provide details of species extinctions caused by logging. To date it would appear that there is no scientific evidence on which to base such a claim. WWF has provided no list of species that have become extinct due to logging. In particular, the claim of “massive deforestation” in industrialized countries runs counter to information provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. According to the FAO, the area of forest in the industrialized world is actually growing by about 0.2% per year, due to the reforestation of land that was previously cleared for farming.
In May 1996, I wrote to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in his capacity as President of WWF. I stated in part:
“Myself and many colleagues who specialize in forest science are distressed at recent statements made by WWF regarding the environmental impact of forestry. These statements indicate a break with WWF’s strong tradition of basing their policies on science and reason. To the best of our knowledge, not a single species has become extinct in North America due to forestry.”
Prince Philip replied:
“I have to admit I did not see the draft of the statement that (WWF spokesperson) Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud was to make at the meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forestry in Geneva. The first two of his comments (50,000 species per year and the dinosaur comparison) are open to question, but they are not seriously relevant to the issue. However, I quite agree that his third statement (logging being the main cause of extinction) is certainly contentious and the points that you make are all good ones. All I can say is that he was probably thinking of tropical forests when he made the comment.”
Since this exchange of correspondence, WWF has changed the way they characterize the impact of forestry in relation to species extinction. At their “Forests for Life” conference in San Francisco in May 1997, there was no mention made of forestry being the main cause of species extinction. Instead, WWF unveiled a report stating that “three quarters of the continent’s forest ecoregions are threatened with extinction, showing for the first time that it is not just individual species but entire ecosystems that are at risk in North America.” The word ‘extinction’ is normally used to mean that something has been completely eliminated. It is entirely beyond reason to suggest that three quarters of the forested areas of North America will become ‘extinct’ yet this is what WWF is proclaiming to the public.
I have been a subscriber to National Geographic since my father first gave it to me as a gift when I was in school. I have always looked forward to the latest edition, with all the wonders of the world between its covers. Lately, however, even this stalwart of objective science has fallen prey to the prophets of doom who believe a human-caused “mass extinction” is already underway.
The February 1999 special edition on Biodiversity – The Fragile Web, contained a particularly unfortunate article titled “The Sixth Extinction”. This refers to the fact that there have been five main extinction events during the past 500 million years, the two most severe of which are believed to have been caused by meteor impacts. It may well be that all five were of extra-terrestrial origin. During the most recent mass extinction, 65 million years ago, 17 per cent of all the taxonomic families of life were lost, including the dinosaurs. An even greater extinction occurred 250 million years ago when 54 per cent of all families perished, including the trilobites. (family is a term used in taxonomy, two levels up from individual species, for example the cat family, the lily family, and the hummingbird family. Each family contains many, sometimes hundreds, of individual species).
The first two pages of the article contain a photo of Australian scientist, Dr. Tim Flannery, looking over a collection of stuffed and pickled small extinct mammals. The caption under the photo reads: “In the next century half of all species could be annihilated, as were these mammals seen in Tim Flannery’s lab at the Australian Museum. Unlike the past five, this mass extinction is being fueled by humans.” To be sure, mention is made later in the article that the Australian extinctions were caused by the introduction of cats and foxes when Europeans colonized the region over 200 years ago. This resulted in the loss of about 35 animal species, mainly of flightless birds and ground-dwelling marsupials that were not able to defend themselves against these new predators. This is hardly a “mass extinction” and the cause was a one-time introduction of exotic species. The rate of extinction of Australian mammals has slowed considerably in recent decades, partly because the most vulnerable species are already extinct, and partly because people started caring about endangered species and began working to prevent them from going extinct. In Australia today there are programs to control wild cats and foxes, some of which have resulted in the recovery of native animal populations.
The use of the Australian example to justify claims that we are experiencing a mass extinction is put into focus by Brian Groombridge, editor of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species when he states, “around 75% of recorded extinctions . . . have occurred on islands. Very few extinctions have been recorded in continental tropical forest habitat, where mass extinction events are predicted to be underway.” It is clearly misleading to point to the specific and exceptional case of extinctions caused by the introduction of new species to islands as evidence of a worldwide mass extinction. The National Geographic article goes on to quote biologist Stuart Pimm; “It’s not just species on islands or in rain forests or just birds or big charismatic mammals. It’s everything and it’s everywhere. It is a worldwide epidemic of extinctions.” Yet nearly every example used in the article involves islands such as Australia and Tasmania, Mauritius, Easter Island, and the many islands of the South Pacific.
On pages 48 and 49 of the Sixth Extinction article there is a graph depicting the number of taxonomic families that have existed on earth for the past 600 million years. The graph shows that despite the five great extinctions that have occurred during this period, the number of living families has risen steadily, from around 200 families 500 million years ago to over 1,000 families today. This tendency to diversify over time is one of the major features of evolution. The line of the graph is a thick, solid one until it reaches the present day whereupon it turns abruptly downward as if to indicate a loss of families due to the “mass extinction” now underway. But the line does not remain thick and solid; it turns fuzzy right at the point where it turns down. I wrote to National Geographic and asked, “Why does the line turn fuzzy? Is it because there are actually no known families that have become extinct in recent times? I do not know of any families of ‘beetles, amphibians, birds and large mammals’ that have become extinct as implied in the text.”
The reply to my inquiry came from Robin Adler, one of the researchers who worked on the article. She thanked me for “sharing my thoughts on this complicated and controversial issue” but offered no answer to my question about the graph. Instead she asked me to “Rest assured that . . . the many members of our editorial team . . .worked closely with numerous experts in conservation biology, paleobiology, and related fields. The concept of a “sixth extinction” is widely discussed and, for the most part, strongly supported by our consultants and other experts in these areas, although specific details such as the time frame in which it will occur and the number of species that will be affected continues to be debated.”
Nowhere in the National Geographic article is there any mention that the “sixth extinction” is a controversial subject; it is presented as if it is a known fact. It is clear from the reply that the “mass extinction” is actually in the future (“the time frame in which it will occur”). In other words there is no evidence that a mass extinction is actually occurring now, even though the article plainly implies that it is. The reply also refers to the sixth extinction as a “concept” implying that it is just an idea rather than a proven fact. Perhaps a better title for the article would have been “No Mass Extinction Yet, Maybe Someday.”
It is very frustrating when a trusted institution such as the National Geographic resorts to sensationalism, exaggeration, and misleading illustrations. There is enough bad science and misinformation in the popular press as it is. One can only hope that the present tendency to ignore science and logic, rightly referred to as a “bad intellectual climate” by environmental philosopher Henry H. Webster, will eventually come to an end.
Trees Are The Answer
If trees are the answer, you might ask, what is the question? I believe that trees are the answer to a lot of questions about our future. These include: How can we advance to a more sustainable economy based on renewable fuels and materials? How can we improve literacy and sanitation in developing countries while reversing deforestation and protecting wildlife at the same time? How can we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere, carbon dioxide in particular? How can we increase the amount of land that will support a greater diversity of species? How can we help prevent soil erosion and provide clean air and water? How can we make this world more beautiful and green? The answer is, by growing more trees and then using more wood, both as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels and materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, and as paper products for printing, packaging and sanitation.
When the world’s leaders met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 at the Earth Summit they agreed that three issues are at the top of the international environmental agenda. These are; climate change, biodiversity, and forests. Of course there are many other important issues, including toxic chemicals and nuclear waste, but they are secondary compared to these “Big Three”, all of which are global in nature. Unfortunately, most scientists, activists, and policy-makers have specialized in one or the other of these critical areas of concern, and have not focussed as strongly on the profound inter-relationships among them. This has resulted in a situation where most of the environmental movement has adopted a position on forests that is logically inconsistent with its positions on climate change and biodiversity. The risk of climate change is mainly due to fossil fuel consumption and the emission of CO2. The risk to biodiversity is mainly due to the loss of forests caused by clearing for agriculture and cities. A large part of the solution to both these issues involves growing more trees and using more wood. The environmental movement has adopted a policy that is the opposite of this approach.
By considering forests in isolation from the other major issues, it may seem logical that we can save them by reducing wood consumption, that is, by cutting fewer trees. Greenpeace has appealed to the members of the United Nations to reduce wood consumption and use “environmentally appropriate alternatives” instead. The Rainforest Action Network is campaigning for a 75% reduction in wood use in the United States through its “wood use reduction program.” The Sierra Club has adopted a formal policy called “zero cut” that would put an end to commercial forestry on federal public land. All these campaigns can be summed up as “cut fewer trees – use less wood.”
There are two problems with this approach. First, just because people stop using wood for fuel or building houses doesn’t mean they will not need warmth or shelter. The fact that 6 billion humans wake up every morning with real needs for energy, food and materials must be taken into account. All the likely substitutes for wood: steel, concrete, plastic and fossil fuels, have far higher emissions of CO2 associated with their production and use. Using less wood will automatically result in the use of more of these non-renewable resources, and an inevitable increase in CO2 emissions. Second, much of the land that is used to grow trees could just as well be cleared and used for grazing, farming, and housing. If there is less demand for wood there will be less economic incentive to grow trees and retain forests. It is unrealistic to expect people to retain vast areas of the landscape in forests if they cannot use them. The best way to encourage people to retain and expand forests is to make the resources they provide, including wood, more valuable.