Saturday, February 8, 2014

Muddy dealings with transgenic wheat

My cousin recently shared with me this article by Jayson Lusk claiming that we in the US really need transgenic wheat, whether we know it or not.  Essentially the author, a respected economist, argues that wheat acreage is down and farmers are abandoning the crop because they don't have easy-to-manage transgenic seed varieties to compete with corn.  This is quite a precarious logical leap, and only the first intellectually dishonest thing the author does.  Other intellectual trickery involves implying that transgenic crops yield more than non-transgenics; they don't, and no company has ever claimed they do.  The appeal of transgenic corn and beans has always been the ease and cheapness of crop management, never an increased yield (which is only achieved through boring old conventional breeding techniques).  The author then goes on to specious appeals to a monolithic scientific consensus (only uninformed non-scientists every actually believe that there is a unified scientific "truth" to any question), game-changing genetic engineering breakthroughs that are always just on the cusp of happening (when the author should know well that demonstration of potential in the laboratory is a far cry from proving usefulness in farmers' fields), and subtly implying that the Western US's irresponsible use of groundwater is due mainly to a reluctance to embrace genetic engineering.  He finishes off by implying that it is onerous government regulation, as opposed to a generalized market rejection of GM wheat by the consuming public in the US and abroad, that is hindering the spread of transgenic wheat.

Wheat acreage is indeed down since 1990, but any good economist, Lusk certainly included, knows that you can't explain a massive economic trend with a simple one-to-one correlation.  Furthermore, the decrease in wheat acreage doesn't even correlate that well with the rise of transgenic corn and soybeans.  If you look either at the USDA data that the author cites (which is in the form of a somewhat-unwieldy Excel table) or at FAOSTAT's page (which you can manipulate to show you acreage harvested of any crop, in any country, over any years), you'll see that wheat acreage had a huge drop in 1998-2000, and has fluctuated around a new, lower "normal" since then.  This drop was at the very front end of the rise of transgenic corn and soybean varieties, so I don't imagine it's that likely that one thing had to do much with the other.  If you track corn acreage on FAOSTAT, it did indeed increase a lot after 2000 (after not having moved much from the 80s to 2000), but again, if wheat acreage was more or less stable during that post-2000 period, it would seem that corn is not expanding at the expense of wheat.

I can think of many other possible explanations for the drop in wheat acreage and the expansion in corn acreage.  Cotton acreage has decreased a lot since 2000, as has sorghum.  Apparently corn is expanding in former cotton areas.  Demand for corn has skyrocketed as more people in the world eat more meat, and the US consumes more corn ethanol fuel.  I also imagine that, since irrigation has expanded drastically since the 1980s, corn is being grown in areas that would normally be too dry for it.  Some of this may even be in the Midwestern wheat belt; FAOSTAT data doesn't show a big decrease in total wheat in the nation as corn has expanded, but maybe corn is being grown on former wheat land, and wheat is being pushed onto former barley land (barley has gone down a lot since 2000).  Who knows?  Another factor is that corn yields go up drastically every year thanks to intensive (non-transgenic) breeding efforts.  Corn and often even soybeans are more profitable per acre than is wheat; I mean just look at this chart of prices since 1990.  Soybeans yield about as much as wheat per acre, but get twice the price per bushel and don't require many inputs, while corn gets just a bit less per bushel than wheat and yield 2-4 times as much per acre on suitable land.  Traditionally in the US wheat was planted on land that was too dry or cold for these other crops.  But again, in the past twenty years irrigation has increased quite a bit, which means you can grow corn on a lot more land than you could before.  Or perhaps it's simply that wheat has a rather inelastic demand, meaning that people in the US and the world eat a set amount that does not change much due to price fluctuations.  If this is the case, higher yields today mean that we are producing roughly as much wheat as we did in the 90s with a fair amount less land (again, just check the USDA data), so maybe there's not much price incentive to plant any more land.

The bottom line is that I don't know if any of my possible explanations for wheat acreage's fall in the 1990s and stagnation thereafter, and corn's rise after 2000, are correct or incorrect.  What I do know is that cropping trends are complex and multicausal, so it's irresponsible of the economist author to blithely imply that the unavailability of transgenic wheat was a major or the major driving factor in the reduction in its acreage from 1990 to the present. This article from a farmer association in Minnesota gives a more nuanced, on-the-ground view of why wheat acreage is declining.  It includes the lack of availability of easy-to-manage transgenic wheat varieties as one factor influencing the trend, but by no means the principal factor.  Even in their analysis of the transgenics question, this article shows a lot more complexity than the NYT booster piece; the lack of market acceptance of transgenic wheat has meant that big private breeders shy away even from conventional wheat breeding, since these companies wouldn't be as readily able to monopolize their improved (but non-patented) seedstock.  This means that wheat yields don't grow as fast as corn yields, not because transgenics aren't employed for wheat, but because big seed companies don't give wheat much attention.

I am not in principle opposed to transgenics.  I remain open to the case that can be made for transgenics or any other technology as a real solution to insoluble problems.  For example, some of the work with virus-resistant cassava in Africa seems like a fitting application of the technology where conventional breeding hadn't been able to come up with a solution.

The problem is that few promoters of transgenic breeding have proven to me to be good-faith, honest dealers.  We see this with Lusk's article.  In this and countless other offerings, from countless other authors, to both the general public and the specialized press (science publications, development journals, etc.), we get half-truths, boosterism, specious claims, and faulty logic.  The net effect is to make me suspect the agenda driving so many people to be so monolithically deceptive in their promotion of transgenics.  Again, I am not opposed to the mere idea of transgenics, but when I feel like they're being shoved down my throat, I don't like it.  The fact that the half-honest, weaselly rhetoric promoting transgenics in general happens to align nicely with the bottom line of unethical, monopolistic rent-seeking corporations like Monsanto or Syngenta further weakens the impression that one is dealing with honest, transparent interlocutors.

In the case of Jayson Lusk, he has taken great pains to make clear that he receives no payouts from Monsanto or any other seed company for his transgenic advocacy, and I believe him.  But that doesn't make his logic any sounder; as with the promoters of neoliberal economic policies who do so out of conviction and not for personal profit, I feel that the arguments of such uncritical boosters of transgenics are both misplaced, and favorable to cynical companies that exploit these sincere intellectual allies.  Whether it's for money or dogma or contrarianism or true conviction, I feel that the transgenic promoters are pushing something else, beyond the merits of the technology itself.  They must be driven by some ulterior motive that I don't fully understand, and that I probably wouldn't agree with given their secrecy about it all.  I'm sure many of these boosters would claim that they're up against unfair, irrational fears and derision from the general public and anti-GMO civil society groups, but this is no excuse for a true scientist (or other intellectual) to be deceptive.  Science and all other academic inquiry is about integrity, about making only the claims that your evidence can back soundly.  Bombardment of the press and the public with hysterical, histrionic elegies to transgenics?  This has nothing to do with integrity.

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