“I Believe in Science”

“I believe in science,” said Secretary Hillary Clinton, candidate for president of the United States, in her acceptance speech in late July before the national convention of members of the Democratic Party who had gathered to formally endorse her nomination. Secretary Clinton was paraphrasing President Barak Obama who wrote in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that he believes in “evolution, scientific inquiry and global warming, …”

Secretary Clinton and President Obama believe, that since a majority of scientists conclude that climate change is occurring, a belief in science requires agreement with them that climate change is occurring.

This article is not about climate change; it is about the application of science to agriculture. I use the example of Mrs. Clinton’s speech to highlight the nearly universal acknowledgement that “science” should serve as a foundation for evaluation of technologies and an understanding of empirical events.

We All “Believe in Science,” When it Suits Us

While there is no polling data to prove it, it is intuitively obvious that an overwhelming majority of environmentalists and advocates of organic production systems support Mrs. Clinton and president Obama in their position on global warming. And, while there is no data to prove this, I am willing to bet that the same environmentalists who criticize cotton production for being non-sustainable because yields are protected with pesticides, enhanced with fertilizer and boosted by irrigation, also claim to “believe in science. Likewise, the same enthusiasts for organic agriculture, who claim to “care for the land,” probably assert that they too “believe in science.” I am sure they agree in the abstract that an understanding of physical events and the concomitant policy choices of governments should be based on a study of empirical evidence and an application of the scientific method in the testing of that evidence and the acceptance or rejection of hypotheses.

At least, environmentalists and organic advocates would profess a belief in science as long as the topic is global warming. Once discussion shifts to cotton and agriculture, “belief in science” among environmentalists and those who support organic agriculture seems to end. Critics of modern agriculture believe in science, only as long as it supports their philosophical biases.

Example: Persistent Story of Failure of Bt Cotton in India

As an example, take a look at an article published by Ron Herring, Cornell University, in the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management and Economics, Volume 12, Number 1, Article 2, published August 4, 2016 (http://agbioforum.org/v12n1/v12n1a02-herring.htm).

Mr. Herring notes that the issue of the safety and efficacy of Bt technology in India was settled by 2008. By then Indian farmers had collectively decided that Bt technology in cotton was useful and that insecticide resistance was a valuable trait that provides some respite from the pesticide treadmill. He reports that by 2008, there was an empirical consensus that Bt technology works as predicted, with predictable results, increasingly understood by farmers and increasingly incorporated into their risk avoidance strategies.

(I am aware that Dr. Keshav Raj Karanthi advocates a return to “straight” cotton varieties and that bollworms are developing resistance to Bt hybrids in India. But, those problems are different from the various forms of demonization of transgenic technology itself.)

Dr. Herring finds it puzzling that reports of the “failure” of Bt cotton in and about India persist, including reports of suicides, livestock deaths, allergenicity, wholesale crop failure and other catastrophes.

As Dr. Herring’s article demonstrates, opponents of transgenic crops persist in ignoring empirical evidence of the success of biotechnology in cotton in India and instead seize on obscure and small-scale examples, allegations that cannot be verified or studies whose results cannot be replicated to continue to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of biotechnology. In other words, opponents of biotechnology in cotton reject scientific inquiry and substitute unverified anecdote in order to support their preferred policy outcome of a rejection of biotechnology. If environmentalists and advocates of organic cotton production truly “believe in science,” as they surely profess to do when the topic is global warming, shouldn’t they also “believe in science” when the topic is biotechnology?

Farmers as Victims

A recurrent theme of those who oppose transgenic technology is that small-scale farmers either must be so stupid and gullible that they don’t know their own self-interest, or that farmers are victims of greedy corporate interests and manipulative government officials beholden to those same greedy corporate interests.

As Herring points out, more than two-thirds of Indian farmers growing cotton have now adopted some Bt hybrid, a fraction that almost certainly understates reality because it is based only on adoption of approved varieties and ignores the profusion of stealth varieties in circulation within India.

So far, there is no evidence of dis-adoption of Bt technology by any group of farmers anywhere in India, although certain hybrids rise and fall in popularity. Since farmer experience with Bt started in 1999 with illegal varieties that proliferated because of farmer demand, wouldn’t farmers by now, even the most simple-minded and gullible among them, have caught on to the supposedly disastrous results of Bt cotton and be dis-adopting in droves? If opponents of biotechnology truly believed in scientific enquiry as a method of determining empirical fact, they would have to analyze why millions of farmer households in all states of India have adopted Bt hybrid varieties in overwhelming numbers. Rather than make such an analysis and confront such evidence, opponents of agricultural science prefer to dwell in an imaginary world of good versus evil, a world in which empirical study is useful only when results conform to belief.

Monopoly

Another theme of opposition to transgenic technology is that farmers are victimized by a monopoly over transgenic traits by Monsanto, who systematically charges monopoly rents and drives farmers into debt, despair and even suicide. However, as Herring reports, the number of genetic events, firms and seed companies supplying Bt varieties in India increases year-by-year. Monsanto gets all the press because it benefits the oppositional narrative to cultivate an image of an exploitative multinational monopoly. However, there were Bt cotton hybrids bred in cottage industry sites in Gujarat as early as 2001, and by 2007 there were more than 100 officially approved hybrid varieties involving four genetic events and dozens of firms, plus a pervasive market in stealth seeds grown by farmers illegally. Worldwide, as of 2016 there are six major companies providing biotech events in cotton, with more than 20 genes and gene combinations expressed in what is now probably thousands of straight and hybrid seed varieties approved for commercial use in 16 countries, and yet opponents of biotechnology still speak of Monsanto as a monopoly owner of transgenic technology. If there were a commitment to science and scientific inquiry, the shibboleth of Monsanto Monopoly would have been shelved more than a decade ago.

Biological Externalities

Dr. Herring notes that a third theme of opposition to transgenic technology is a profusion of “horror stories of biological externalities, from bizarre skin irritations to dead livestock.” The examples stretch from extraordinary to ridiculous to physically impossible, including claims of thousands of livestock deaths from severe toxicity, allergies among farm workers and among consumers wearing clothing made from Bt cotton, untimely deaths among humans, decreased milk production in livestock, allergies among workers in ginneries, and reproductive failures.

All of the reports of biological impacts stemming from the use of transgenic technology in cotton have been impossible to verify, and there are no biological modes of action to produce these outcomes. Bio-safety testing by the government of India has specifically ruled out mammalian impacts of the crystalline pro-toxin produced by Bt plants. As Herring points out, many things can kill sheep and goats, cause skin irritations, result in decreased milk production and cause other catastrophes, but Bt is not among them. If opponents of biotechnology truly “believe in science,” the demonization of cotton with claims of impossible biological externalities should have ended years ago.

Conclusion

We all “believe in science.” When it suits us.

Science has never claimed that biotechnology solves every agronomic issue affecting cotton, that it single-handedly controls all insects, that it intrinsically leads to higher yields, that it is without cost, and that it should be employed in all instances, by every farmer. What scientists, and the cotton industry have claimed, is that Bt is a proven tool of plant protection that can be both effective and safe. On that much, science is clear.