An open letter to the Center for Biological Diversity — re: March for Science


Your organization is part of what gives me hope for the future. Fighting climate change, and protecting biodiversity, should be one of humanity’s top priorities. We do need to “resist” politicians who seek to get in the way of that. Thank you.

Unfortunately, many were hesitant when the March for Science was announced. Conservative leaning science advocates were worried about it becoming too political. Even liberal leaning advocates were concerned about extreme Green groups.

When you were announced as a partner, I worried that some of these fears were justified. Your piece, “Busting myths about GMO crops”, is not based on the kind of evidence the march should promote.

Assuming your first point is 100% accurate, it is still not a statement about the technology. Many herbicides are used with crops in the same way as glyphosate. These include atrazine, which is more persistent in the soil and toxic.

Pesticide use has not skyrocketed, in fact it has remained level. Glyphosate use has certainly increased, but it replaced other herbicides.

The IARC has placed glyphosate in the same commercial use category as shift work and being a hairdresser. All pesticides, even organic, are a safety concern for farmers. There is no credible evidence that any remaining pesticide residue on organic or conventional food poses a risk to the consumer.

Organic cauliflower farmer taking precautions while spraying insecticide

Other breeding methods create herbicide resistance without the controversy. BASF’s Clearfield system is just one example. By its very definition, postemergence herbicides like atrazine are used because they do not kill the corn when sprayed. Atrazine is more persistent in the soil and more toxic than glyphosate. All corn, regardless of the breeding method, is atrazine tolerant.

The second most common GE trait is insect resistance with genes from bt, a common bacteria used as an insecticide in organic farming. At the end of Silent Spring Rachel Carson sung the praises of this bacteria as a natural solution for farmers to adopt. Independent research confirms that insecticide use has decreased in developing countries. Reduction in poverty with such tools, regardless of the use, can only help biodiversity.

Many GE crops, like papaya and squash, have nothing to do with glyphosate.

The National Academies of Science recently announced that there is little evidence that GMOs have affected monarch butterfly populations. Farmers spray milkweed with glyphosate to kill it. But without GMOs, farmers would still aim to kill milkweed. Whether it is a backyard gardener hand pulling weeds, or a large scale corn grower spraying atrazine, milkweed is going to be a concern. Deforestation in Mexico is a much more likely cause of the decline.

Increasing yields allow more food to be grown on less land. The United States has more trees now than at any point in the past 100 years. Biodiversity off of the farm is being preserved, and in some cases brought back, because one farm is able to feed so many.

According to the Chesapeake Stormwater Network, GE crops in Maryland benefit the environment.

Breast milk has been found to be free of the herbicide, and results about glyphosate residue in food are less than reliable.

Glyphosate, and the crops associated with it, is not perfect. The development of weed resistance is a growing concern for farmers and the environment. Relying on the herbicide too much can result in the return of more toxic herbicides. Making this about the technology, rather than the trait, is not an evidence based approach to addressing those concerns.

When it was announced that the Cornell Alliance for Science would also be partnering with the March for Science, my fears vanished. Clearly the organizers of the march were not trying to make this about one political group. I do look forward to marching with you to promote our common goals. Perhaps some from your organization would even be willing to speak with the Alliance, or my own group, about how we can work together moving forward.

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