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April 18, 2004

European Anti-GM Scientists Outsmarted By Plant

This was kind of interesting. Today's UK Telegraph refutes yesterday's UK Guardian on the issue of GM soybeans in Argentina. Or more accurately, the scientists in Argentina slam the snot out of the paranoid Green scientists in Europe for printing a load of natural fertilizer. So I commented on the first article and Fisked the second.

Headlines in Britain last week claimed that genetically modified crops were proving disastrous in South America - but local farmers say they have transformed their lives.

And we all know exactly how trustworthy British headlines can be when they're based on stories told about science that relates to socialism.

Ricardo Martinez smiled with pride as he looked over the thriving fields of genetically modified soya and then denounced critics who claimed last week that such crops had been a "disaster" for his country, Argentina.

I've read some eco-freak sites that describe these rolling fields as a "desert of green". Talk about blindness. I'll bet people in an actual desert would use a different characterization of mile after mile of food.

"Back in the 1980s we had a lot of trouble with flooding, soil erosion and ever-present weeds," said Mr Martinez, who has been growing soya for seven years on his 3,200-acre farm 190 miles from the capital, Buenos Aires.

Now according to the left they're all going to starve because they're being overrun by out of control crops. How does the left manage to stay alive and still be that stupid?

"When Monsanto introduced GM soya to Argentina it was something of a miracle. It allowed us to increase production and manage our land far more effectively," he added, stressing that the crop had been of "huge benefit" to Argentina's economy.

Well, show me a "huge benefit" to an economy and I'll point to a bunch of European socialists who oppose it.

Mr Martinez's remarks were prompted by an article in New Scientist magazine claiming that the introduction of GM crops in Argentina was proving an economic and environmental failure. The article, published in Britain last week, made national headlines when it said that Argentina's pioneering use of GM soya since 1997 had caused "superweeds" to overrun the country and had led to health problems.

Yet these "superweeds" have yet to be seen. Maybe they're even more insidious than we thought. They're not only resistant to a single herbicide, they're invisible too. Must be an outbreak of Ninjaweed.

The claims have prompted an angry reaction in the South American country, where GM crops have been embraced enthusiastically. Argenbio, Argentina's council for biotechnology, led the protests, arguing that GM soya had enabled farmers to avoid a cocktail of chemicals that threatened the crop and, in some cases, damaged the health of farm workers and livestock, causing skin rashes and respiratory problems.

Get that European Greens? The people who actually use the new crops say that they reduce the use of chemicals, and associated health problems.

GM soya is engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, so that farmers can use just that one product to control weeds without damaging their crops. "That combination of glyphosate and GM soya was a godsend to us," Mr Martinez said.

Glyphosate also takes less time to sink into the soil than the mix of chemicals used before, reducing the risk of its presence when the product is consumed.

So you have to use only one herbicide, which is safer than the previous mix. Now if they'd engineer the plant to produce the very same herbicide that it's resistant to and they'd be all set.

Since GM soya's introduction in 1996 its production in Argentina has grown by almost 75 per cent, while more traditional crops such as rice, maize and wheat have shown a steady decline. Today, 99 per cent of soya grown in Argentina is genetically modified and farmers cultivate 85.5 million acres of it.

When 99% or so of your farmers switch to a product, some still staunchly in favor of it seven years later, I'd say you have a winning product. That's certainly not a sign of rejection or failure.

New Scientist quoted experts who warned that GM crops could destroy the soil's natural micro-organisms and create "superweeds" - undesirable plants that mutate to be as resistant to herbicides as the main crop.

I'm sure there are some Argentinian farmers who sit up at night waiting to see these mutant superweeds. It's bound to be more fun than sitting around waiting on the Great Pumpkin.

Small farmers blamed glyphosate for crop failure and loss of livestock. Elsewhere, Adolfo Boy, an agronomist and spokesman for the GM-sceptic Group for Rural Reflection, was quoted as saying: "Let Argentina be a warning to others. We are going down the path of destruction."

Notice that even the opponents aren't blaming the GM soya. They're blaming "Round-up", a weed killer you can buy down in the home and garden section of your local hardware store.

Many involved directly in Argentine agriculture said last week that they disagreed with that analysis. Eduardo Trigo, an agricultural consultant who carried out a study in 2002, jointly funded by the Argentine government and an international research centre, said that crops would be damaged only if glyphosate were used "negligently". He accused New Scientist of making "very liberal use" of one such example to paint a misleading picture of Argentine agriculture.

Oh, I'd say the environmentalists will sieze on any example they can lay there hands on. If they can't find one then they'll just make stuff up. After all, they're in the struggle against "entrenched corporate interests" so they would resort to anything if they thought it would make their case. After all, these are the people who have no qualms about starving massive numbers of people in the developing world, as long as those people starve by not having enough of a natural harvest to feed them. So remember that you third world peoples. You're dying so a rich paranoid European socialist can feel good.

The study also found that the the expansion in soya growing had helped increase rural employment from 700,000 in 1995 to about 900,000 in the late 1990s and concluded that it had made Argentine farmers £4 billion a year richer.

That's coming to £4,444 per rural employee, on top of what they were already making, which is not a bit bad for a crop in Argentina.

Eugenio Cap, the co-author of the study, said: "It is highly irresponsible to write an article describing the soya programme as a disaster when in effect it saved a society from economic catastrophe."

Well, European science has lately become an exercise in mass-hysteria and high irresponsibility.

Carlitos Quattordio, an agronomist who works on the 5,000-acre Molinari farm, one of Buenos Aires province's largest soya estates, said: "I am in the fields every day and I have seen no evidence of these 'superweeds'.

That's because 'superweeds' are actually endemic to Brussels, not Buenos Aires. What the EU really needs is for Monsanto to develop a new herbicide that's effective against the infestation of Brussels sprouts.

"If the cultivation process is carried out conscientiously there appear to be no adverse effects on the soil or livestock. Glyphosate is simple to use and it kills only the plants on which it is directly placed. As aircraft are not used to spray these crops, it is hard to see how it could end up on other people's land. It certainly has no effect on any animals."

I've used plenty of "Round-Up" in my day, and it's about like using a .22 target rifle. You kill the weed that you spray, and not the one beside it.

Gabriela Levitus, the executive director of Argenbio, said that her council had studied the environmental consequences of using glyphosate and found it harmless to other plants, livestock and farm workers. She rejected claims that GM crops reduced the levels of bacteria and other micro-organisms in the soil as "a complete lie". GM soya was cultivated in such a way that the organic matter left after the harvest remained on the land, providing cover to maintain the soil's humidity and nutrient levels, she said.

Well, never let it be said that "complete lie" is something the European environmentalists are unfamiliar with.

Damage had been caused by some farmers' reluctance to practice crop rotation, but that would be true of any monoculture, whether the crop was genetically modified or not, she said.

Heck, if I was reaping part of that £4 billion a year I'd be a little more reluctant to rotate over to the money-losing crop too! As with all things, the farmers will strike a balance so they can maintain long term productivity. Occassionally one will guess wrong, and learn from it.

"We are not savages who do not look after the soil. Producers and exporters appreciate the risks and, for their own good, are not going to let that situation arise."

That darn marketplace again! Darn those wise capitalists! Darn them!

Now on to the original Guardian article.

Here's the Guardian article from yesterday. It must suck to have your Guardian article refuted by the UK Telegraph the very next day.

Seven years after GM soya was introduced to Argentina as an economic miracle for poor farmers, researchers claim it is causing an environmental crisis, damaging soil bacteria and allowing herbicide-resistant weeds to grow out of control.

If he'd make a phone call to some of those poor farmers, they'd still say "Es un milagro!"

Soya has become the cash crop for half of Argentina's arable land, more than 11m hectares (27m acres), most situated on fragile pampas lands on the vast plains. After Argentina's economic collapse, soya became a vital cash export providing cattle feed for Europe and elsewhere.

So the crop actually helped save Argentina during an economic collapse. Is that a bad thing?

Now researchers fear that the heavy reliance on one crop may bring economic ruin.

These researchers apparently didn't do much 'research' except for flipping through Corporate Paranoia for Dummies and jotting down some ill founded fantasies to keep their Green funding from drying up. After all, they've got a pretty good bankroll coming from a variety of European governments that want to oppose GM food, mostly because it's coming from America. And from what they actually report, the economic ruin would have to come from a stock bubble created by the massive profits pouring in from Argentina's GM crops.

The GM soya, grown and sold by Monsanto, is the company's great success story. Programmed to be resistant to Roundup, Monsanto's patented glyphosate herbicide, soya's production increased by 75% over five years to 2002 and yields increased by 173%, raising £3bn profits for farmers hard-hit financially.

That's growth like you'd normally see in the software industry, certainly not in the agriculture sector, unless your farms had switched over to growing poppies or coca or something. Maybe we should develop GM pot and see how the European left screams bloody murder, since that crop obviously represents a large part of their consumption of agricultural products.

However, a report in New Scientist magazine says that because of problems with the crops, farmers are now using twice as much herbicide as in conventional systems.

Why would they be using twice as much herbicide if there were problems with the crops as opposed to the weeds? The crops really wouldn't care, and the farmers can't be using twice as much Round-Up as they normally would, because Round-Up would kill normal crops. It's a wide spectrum herbicide. It kills just about every kind of plant there is.

Soya is so successful it can be viewed as a weed itself: soya "volunteer" plants, from seed split during harvesting, appear in the wrong place and at the wrong time and need to be controlled with powerful herbicides since they are already resistant to glyphosate.

So Argentina is having a plague of crops. Also note that to kill a GM soya plant the one herbicide you don't use is Round-up, since GM soya is designed to be resistant to it. Use any other herbacide, but not that one. Yet they say these errant plants have to be killed with "powerful" herbicides, which would imply that their normal Round-Up is less powerful than what they have to resort to. I'd also note that the Argentinian consultant says that the screw-up highlighted in the New Scientist report was a single incident.

The control of rogue soya has led to a number of disasters for neighbouring small farmers who have lost their own crops and livestock to the drift of herbicide spray.

Rogue soya. Is this a remake of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or what? How about just using a mower to kill off these rogue soybean plants? Oh, I know! How about letting the cows eat the unwanted crops?

So keen have big farmers been to cash in on the soya bonanza that 150,000 small farmers have been driven off the land so that more soya can be grown. Production of many staples such as milk, rice, maize, potatoes and lentils has fallen.

Hmm... So the overabundance of a crop that's used to feed cattle has resulted in decreased milk production. Who'd have guessed? And since Argentina says the soya has increased rural employment by 200,000, who are these small farmers than New Scientist speaks of? As for the rest, we should send them some GM corn, rice, and potato plants. Screw the lentils though. I've never been thrilled about lentils.

Monsanto says the crop is the victim of its own success. Colin Merritt, Monsanto's biotechnology manager in Britain, said that any problems with GM soya were to do with the crop as a monoculture, not because it was GM. "If you grow any crop to the exclusion of any other you are bound to get problems. What would be sensible would be to grow soya in rotation with corn or some other crop so the ground and the environment have time to recover," he said.

Well, Monsanto also is readying their Roundup Ready corn, cotton, sugar-beets, rapeseed, and canola.

One of the problems in Argentina is the rapid spread of weeds with natural resistance to Roundup. Such weeds, say opponents of GM, could develop into a generation of "superweeds" impossible to control. The chief of these is equisetum, known as marestail or horsetail, a plant which rapidly chokes fields of soya if not controlled.

Now wait a minute. Almost no Round-Up resistance has been found after seven years of this GM program. Yet the Greens still trot out some Frankenstein scare story of unkillable weeds, which of course would only be resistant to the one herbicide out of our vast arsenal. On top of that, these same Greens advocate completely organic farming, where all the weeds might as well be super-resistant to herbicide, since organic farming doesn't use any herbicides at all. Oops. There went that meme. If the herbicide resistant weeds completely took over we'd all starve because *gasp* we'd be as helpless as organic farmers.

But Mr Merritt said horsetail could be a troublesome weed in any crop. "I reject the notion that this is a superweed or that it will confer genetic resistance on other weeds and make them superweeds. It always has been a troublesome weed."

It's interesting that they mention horsetail, because about the only thing that will kill horsetail is Roundup™. If you've got a horsetail infestation about the only thing you could do is plant it full of GM Roundup-Ready™ soybeans and spray, spray, spray!

The soya was originally welcomed in Argentina partly because it helped to solve a problem of soil erosion on the pampas which had been caused by ploughing. Soya is planted by direct drilling into the soil.

Hold on. Argentina is still welcoming the soya. And if soya is planted by direct drilling into the soil, which saves the soil from constant plowing, then who's been secretly spreading all of that rogue soya?

Adolfo Boy, a member of the Grupo de Reflexion Rural, a group opposed to GM, said that the bacteria needed for breaking down vegetable matter so that the soil was fertilised were being wiped out by excessive use of Roundup. The soil was becoming inert, and so much so that dead weeds did not rot, he told New Scientist.

There's just one problem with that. Round-up is an herbicide, not an anti-bacterial agent. It does kill off some soil bacteria, but only if used pretty heavily. Yet if this were a serious problem, the Argentinian soybean production would have dropped, instead of skyrocketing like it did. That didn't happen, so all we have is the leader of an group opposed to GM crops claiming that a weed killer, which you'll note is not a GM crop, is harming the bacteria in the soil. Color me unimpressed.

Sue Mayer, of Genewatch in the UK, said: "These problems have been becoming evident in Argentina for some time. It gives a lie to the claim that GM is good for farmers in developing countries.

The farmers in developing countries say quite the opposite, and in fact are in many cases extremely angry with European environmentalists. What is it with these Greens? Do the insist on killing every last person in the third world, or just most of them? They bag about 4 million a year, almost all children, with their insistence on maintaining the DDT ban. Now they keep insisting that people in starving countries shouldn't have miracle crops.

"It shows it's an intensive form of agriculture that needs to be tightly controlled to prevent very undesirable environmental effects. It is not what small farmers in developing countries need."

Well thank you oh sanctimonious rich industrialized white city person. But the farmers and agriculture experts in the third world and America, where they grow all that cheap food that Europe can't compete with, completely disagree.

April 18, 2004 in Politics | Permalink


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ALL crops are geneticly modified. Some are done using modern technology, some done by the old fashioned way of manual selection. The results are the same, what is different is the time involved.

Posted by: ableiter at Apr 18, 2004 1:59:28 AM

True, and we shouldn't forget all the plants we modified by bombarding the snot out of the seeds with ionizing nuclear radiation, planting the seeds and seeing what sprouted. Talk about your random results....

Posted by: George Turner at Apr 18, 2004 2:03:04 AM

Not one single thing that we humans put in our bodies (or even ON them) is 'natural.' Every last plant we use has been 'genetically modified' by good old-fashioned artifical selection (same for animals) by farmers since the beginning of the argicultural revolution some six thousand years ago.

If the Greens want to go 'all natural' why don't we send European farmers those pathetic tenstil (I think that's the name) plants that corn descends from to grow? You don't get nearly enough out of it to feed a town on, let alone a city or country or continent, but it's not been 'altered' by man. It still grows in the wild in South America. Let's start up a collection to send them that and see them try to use it to feed their people.


Posted by: Phoenix at Apr 18, 2004 7:40:44 AM

I heard somewhere that the Greens (or some other bunch of dorks) has decided that anti-bacterial soaps are no good because they don't kill viruses!

Furthermore, even though antibaterical soap does not do any good (according to their studies), it will certainly create super bacteria (that will be resistant to the antibacterial soap that doesn't do anything accept increase costs in the first place).

What a bunch of illogical pap.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at Apr 18, 2004 10:14:59 AM


Ugh. You're describing crap I have to hear every day. I live in a student co-op in Berkeley, and a while ago there was a move to switch our house soap to this non-antibacterial hippie love cleanser shit. The justification was that we were going to create superbacteria by using the normal soap.

I asked what evidence there was for such a contention. I didn't get any answers.

Posted by: Russell at Apr 18, 2004 4:06:08 PM

I don't usually side with the Greens, but on the antibacterial soap they're absolutely right. The virus thing is kind of a tangent- of course it doesn't kill viruses, it's not supposed to, and doctors' offices have antiviral soap for the employees to use- but they are right: it does help create resistant strains.

How? Simple natural selection. The doses of antibiotic found in antibacterial soap are low; therefore they kill susceptible bacteria but *leave all bacteria with any resistance alive*. Then the resistant bacteria are the only ones that multiply, and selective pressure amplifies the trait from generation to generation, with the most resistant bacteria being the ones most successful at surviving and reproducing from round to round of washing. Since many bacteria have a generation time as low as a day, you quickly wind up with utterly useless antibacterial soap and more resistant bacteria to pass around.

As for evidence, low-dose antibiotics used in Petrie dishes over the course of a few days are a common college or high school biology lab practical. It works exactly as I described- the amount of bacteria killed by the antibiotic dose gets smaller and smaller until none are.

Posted by: LabRat at Apr 18, 2004 4:59:19 PM

As a side note, soap works by removing the film of oil from your hands, which is where the vast majority of the bacteria live, so it's not as if normal soap is ineffective in removing bacteria. The antibiotic dose is simply redundant and serves to strengthen those left behind.

Posted by: LabRat at Apr 18, 2004 5:01:26 PM

The antibacterial soap thing is really quite interesting: if I were to worry about its use, I would worry about the NATURALLY OCCURRING bacteria on my skin which serve many mutually beneficial purposes, some possibly as still unknown. AS to the GM crop business, greens have been religious zealots from the very beginning. None of their concerns have turned out to be true.

On the other hand, they have been right to point out that any environmental action may have unforseen consequences, but that should spur them to funding general ecological studies rather than the pap they do fund.

On the gripping hand, the Greens can be viewed as a new species trying to create and invade a new habitat. Their existence may make us stronger, if we can figure out how to control them.

Posted by: Oscar at Apr 18, 2004 7:22:44 PM


Anti-bacterial soap doesn't have antibiotics (i.e penicillin, amoxycilin) in it! In fact, most claims of soap manufacturers to have 'antibacterial' soap are completely spurious, and said soaps are no more 'antibiotic' than any other soap which works effectively. As said above, soap is an emulsifier that works to remove dirt and oil from the surface of the skin.

Since surface bacteria thrive and find food in this environment, nearly any soap will be effective in reducing the amount of bacteria on your skin. As for negative side effects, yes, using too much or too harsh of soaps can strip the skin of too much oil, removing the protective and beneficient effect said oil has.

As a complete side note, even in a population of bacteria that has been exopsed to and selected for antibiotic resistance, once the environmental anti-niotic factor is removed, after about the same time frame it took to become anti-biotic resistant, a similar portion of the population will once again be affected by the anti-biotic.

Again, the short time frame of bacterial reproduction (and thus evolution) will result in huge variances.

Posted by: Thebastidge at Apr 20, 2004 6:04:06 AM