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15Jun 2012

A note from the GM front

Cotton/Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, I noticed this tweet from Keith Kloor, one of my favorite reality-based environmental journalists (and bloggers):

@keithkloor I'm curious if enviros & env media types (on whole) are going to ignore this big story.

The story he linked to was a New Scientist piece by Andy Coghlan titled "GMO Crops Encourage Beneficial Bugs". The headline derived from a two-decade study in China of a type of GM cotton engineered to make its own chemical protection against cotton pests.

Because the cotton required far less use of insecticidal sprays, a healthy insect ecosystem began to thrive. And, as it turned out, the ladybugs and lacewings from the cotton fields migrated over to surrounding farms where they preyed on pest insects, like aphids, there. As a resulting, those farms started using lower amounts of pesticides also.

These findings are a reminder that years of planting GM crops has so far not led us to the once-predicted total disaster but to a host of complex effects and subtle changes. Some troubling. And as indicated here, some positive. Nothing yet apocalyptic.  As a result, there are signs of waning outrage regarding GM crops.  Or at least a more nuanced perspective. As James Randerson wrote recently in The Guardian, "The GMO Debate is Growing Up." Although in Slate this week, Jeremy Stohl's piece "Death of 'Frankenfood'" ponders whether the Europeans are growing up faster on this issue than here in the United States.

Which brings me back to Kloor's question of whether environmental journalists ignored this latest positive study. The answer appears to be yes,  mostly. Google News listed six stories only, including the New Scientist piece I cited above, one from Bloomberg, one from BBC, and one from China's Global Times. I found two or three others scattered about but no signs of large scale interest.

If the study had found the opposite effect - let's hypothesize a rise in "non-beneficial" insects - do I think it would have gotten more coverage? Absolutely.  I don't think that's necessarily anti-GM attitude  among journalists though. I suspect rather the natural way the news works with its tendency to fix on gone-wrong rather than gone-right.

I don't know either that this is necessarily a "big" story. But I do think it deserved more attention and I would hope it would fit into or inspire some more thoughtful look at GM research. If nothing else,  it's a reminder that complex subjects deserve correspondingly complex coverage.

UPDATE: I wanted to call your attention to a couple of other thoughtful pieces that followed the GM cotton story.  For instance, "In Defense of Genetically Modified Crops" by Sarah Zhang at Mother Jones.   And a Scientific American blog by David Biello, "GMO Bonus: Genetically Engineered Cotton Benefits Farmers, Predatory Insects." Both well researched and well worth reading. With thanks to Bora Zivkovic and Keith Kloor.

--- Deborah Blum






Thanks, Bora. I'm going to update the post and will flag it.

Just to comment on 'why so little attention to the big story' I'd have to point to the greenwire analysis and ask what is the 'big story'?

The story to watch is about resistance and whether, or when, it develops. The benefits of Bt are well known by anyone who has used it as an organic pesticide for targeting specific infestations. The question has always been whether the general and widespread presence of it will encourage development of resistance that will make even targeted and occasional use pointless. I don't think the halo effect is news to people who follow the issue. And so far, Bt is still working great when I use it in my garden!

Thanks, Keith. Those are.great.leads. And make the story better.

Thanks for the shout-out, Deborah.

Just wanted to flag a few stories that your google search didn't pick up: Guardian did a big write-up:

And Greenwire's Paul Voosen wrote what I thought was the most thoroughly reported and contextual piece:

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