Self-interest, the denial of climate change, and resistance to agricultural biotechnology

I first encountered the debate on climate change in the 1980s when I helped to organize a workshop at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Our aim was to discuss the findings and implications of emerging research on climate change. As I recall there was not yet a consensus among meteorologists and other scientists about interpreting observed changes, but by the early 1990s most scientists accepted that humans contributed significantly to global warming, and importantly, that it is a major risk to humanity and that it requires a managed, political response.


This emerging consensus resulted in the UN Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which led to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and signed by many nations, including the US in 1998 under Clinton but not ratified by the Senate. I was part of a White House taskforce that initiated research and education efforts that attempted to lead to ratification by the US senate. We organized workshops in Washington and elsewhere, met with staffers, legislators, lobbyists, and experts. Through these, I realized that representatives opposed Kyoto not because they didn’t believe in climate change, but because it is against the immediate self-interest of their voters. Most representatives and staffers recognized the key point that climate change poses risks to society but they felt that their constituents would not want to pay the price of mitigation. Furthermore, for representatives from some regions (e.g. the Dakotas) global warming seems like climate improvement. A key feature of the Kyoto Protocol was that developed countries would reduce emissions since they contribute a greater share to GHG emissions and subsidize reductions by developing countries (they still need to grow).

I knew of very few scientists that were skeptics (their number has declined over time), and some people denied climate change because of religious beliefs. One strategic approach of politicians who didn’t want the US and developed countries to pay the lion’s share of mitigation was to assume the role of skeptics, or even deniers of climate change. But my impression is that many of the deniers are not ignorant and do believe in science, but they do not want to pay. Someone once summarized it as “they are not stupid they are mean.”  I would not go that far though – they are driven by short term self-interest. This is not a unique situation. For example, in retrospect we have found that much of the denial of the health effects of cigarettes by tobacco companies used the same logic.


My interpretation of some of the resistance to GMOs is similar. I was introduced to agricultural biotechnology in the late 1980s, as some of the early researchers were on campus and I knew some of them. I worked on pesticides and realized that chemical pesticides provide significant value but are costly both economically and environmentally. Development of new crop varieties, by various means (including use of radiation to generate mutations) has been an effective way to develop pest and disease control. I knew that some of the developers of new pest controlling traits aimed to reduce or replace chemical pesticides and even expand the tools of organic agriculture. They also have other goals, such as reducing dependence on fertilizers (i.e., by enhancing nitrogen fixation), improving nutritional content of food, etc. I appreciate that biotechnology relies on basic understandings of processes inside the plant. I expect, as many others, that this knowledge and its applications will improve over time as we will have more knowledge and improved tools which will lead to more sustainable diverse and efficient agriculture, allowing to improve human well-being and environmental health.

However, understandable and exaggerated concern by activists has led to excessive and costly regulations that gave major companies like Monsanto an edge in developing new products. Companies that were threatened by new biotechnology products lobbied against it. I recall that in a hearing of the NRC committee on the future of pesticides, a presentation by a Bayer official stated that GMOs have limited potential to solve pesticide problems and they recommended larger investments in chemical pesticides. It is ironic because now Bayer is acquiring Monsanto, with its relative advantage in agricultural biotechnology. Herbicide manufacturers, like the American Cyanamid Company, were affected negatively by RoundUp Ready varieties. Most of the chemical companies that were negatively affected by biotechnology were European, and Monsanto, who kept tight control of IPR, was American, and that was one of the self-interest drivers to European opposition to biotechnology. And I suspect that it even led to implicit partnerships between environmental groups and companies. There are many other political economic reasons for opposing GMOs in Europe. The negative attitude towards GMOs spilled over to some of the public and increased the political power of the opposition. They also realized that by picketing near retailers, they could reduce the spread of the technology. This led to severe restriction on the use of GMOs in Europe, and utilization of the technology around the world. Even worse, it led to heavy restriction of the use of GMOs in developing countries, contributing to malnutrition in Africa and blindness in South Asia, among other problems. The recent letter by many Nobel Laureates and scientists bring these points home. This letter implicitly supports my argument that some opposition to GMOs doesn’t reflect ignorance about the benefit but rather self-interest of various groups. It is ironic that the potential of transgenics to contribute to adaptation to climate change has been ignored by the IPCC, which I believe reflects political economic considerations.


If self-interest plays an important role in the denial of climate change and opposition to GMOs, what can we do about it? First, we shouldn’t give up on the power of persuasion and information. We need to continue research documenting the likelihood and impact of climate change, and the benefits of GMOs and the costs of opposing it. The technology needs to be delinked from Monsanto and other companies. While they possess intellectual property rights on certain varieties and technical knowhow, they do not own this plant breeding technology. It is part of the shared human knowledge. Many politicians and people are on the fence about it, and might respond to additional information, which will affect the debate. It may be useful to connect real-world phenomenon to climate change and biotechnology delicately. For example, the strength and frequency of recent hurricanes may give people who oppose taking action against climate change to realize the cost of this strategy. Second, we need to recognize some of the reasons for the objection and accommodate them in developing policies. I am a big believer in carbon taxes to reduce GHG emissions. But once they are introduced, some of the proceeds should address coping with higher energy prices, especially by the poor. Transition from one form of energy to another may be associated with transfers that make the adjustment easier. In the case of biotechnology, developing and introducing traits that address major social concerns and clearly benefit consumers and the poor will make the technology more appealing.


I am not deluding myself, the denial of climate change and resistance to biotechnology will continue and society will pay the price. Our challenge is to develop research and educational efforts that will lead to faster change of mind, and better policies.


Links for pictures:

GMO picture

Climate change picture

New players and new tools in the bio-economy

Almost every year over the last 20 years, the International Consortium of Applied Bio-economy Research (ICABR), was meeting in beautiful Ravello in Italy to present new research results on the economics and policies of agricultural biotechnology, biofuels and the environment.

We enjoyed the wonderful views and food of the Amalfi Coast, and the meetings inspired publications and useful policy ideas, and led to lasting friendship. This year, we moved the ICABR meeting to Berkeley. We held them in the elegant Berkeley City Club to maintain the Ravello standard and we had a wonderful conference dinner on the San Francisco Bay.

[1]Our theme this year was “New Players and New Tools in the Bioeconomy,” and Berkeley was an appropriate location being the best place for gene-editing technology CRISPR and many synthetic biology innovations. Indeed, three leading Berkeley researchers provided an overview of frontier discoveries.

Much of the emphasis was on gene editing, which is easier to perform and much more difficult to detect than transgenic technologies. The technology is still in infancy and it is likely to be refined and improved, but its growth shouldn’t be impeded by the excessive regulations. Some of the presentations in the conference suggest that thousands of lives and millions of dollars will be lost under excessive regulation of transgenic technologies.

Brian Staskawicz reported on new genome editing strategies to (1) produce resistance to cassava brown streak virus, (2) protect against Downy mildew and other tomato diseases, (3) control severe fungal diseases in wheat and (4) find solutions to cacao swollen-shoot virus which threatens the cacao industry in West Africa.

Krishna Niyogi reported on discovery of transgenic traits that may increase crop yields by 15-30% by increasing the efficiency of utilizing solar energy by the plants. This discovery, once commercialized, has a potential to drastically increase the supply of food, reduce its price and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture.

Jay Keasling reported that while the development of second generation biofuels has been slower than expected, the cost per gallon is declining over time and within a decade, cellulosic biofuels are expected to be competitive with conventional fuels and generate only 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline per unit. This line of research is expected to lead to new aviation fuels and other fine chemicals. It is a part of larger research agenda on conversion of biomass to produce fuels. Biomass derivatives have the potential to replace liquid fuels, generate natural gas and provide feedstocks for power plants. The efficiency of conversion of biomass to fuels is low, the cost of conversion is high, and the assessment of impact of conversion of forest products to biofuels is challenging. The research on biofuels is in early stages. It is combining advances in microbiology, better understanding of forestry and ecology, and design of industrial processes and supply chains for renewable products.

In the past, much of the emphasis of ICABR was on crop biotechnology. But modern breeding has perhaps even more impact on animal agriculture, both with land and water animals. Alison Van Eenennaam emphasized that scientific progress leading to improved breeding of poultry and other livestock improves food security and contributes to environmental sustainability by reducing pressure on crop systems. Transgenics and gene editing are improvements on existing breeding varieties that improve the versatility and capability of scientists and farmers.

Perry Hackett showed how gene editing can improve the quality of livestock, in addition to reducing exposure to disease and accelerating animal growth. He emphasized that regulations are the key constraint for taking advantage of modern breeding which is much more accurate and precise than traditional breeding. New faster growing breeds of poultry, for example, makes protein available for hundreds of millions of people.

Another big challenge is to improve the availability of fish through aquaculture and mariculture. Faster growing fish in controlled environments combined with sound regulation will enable protection of natural fish populations from depletion and improve human nutrition.

Ronald Stotish from AquaBounty told the story of development of transgenic salmon that grows much faster than traditional salmon and can be commercially utilized within one season. It can be grown in ponds and it overcomes the transportation and freshness constraints and reduces the availability of fish in inland regions. After 25 years, transgenic salmon passed all the regulatory hurdles and is currently available in Canada. However, its future in the US is still uncertain.

The modern bio-economy takes advantage of both better genetic tools as well as improved information technologies. Giuseppe Novelli highlighted that we are approaching the era of personal treatment of humans as well as livestock and fields, by identifying precision technologies that enable monitoring performance at micro units and identifying challenges, for example, diseases and lack of nutrients. This allows for administering targeted solutions to improve livelihoods as well as improve food supplies and likely to reduce pressure on the environment and the challenge of climate change.

The development of this technology, of course, will take time and wouldn’t be immediately profitable. Therefore, continued support of public research will allow for new basic discoveries that can then be transferred to the private sector for commercialization. The recent past (in particular, the experience of medical biotechnology vs. agricultural biotechnology) also suggests that universities may aim to sell non-exclusive licenses to major process innovations, so that multiple companies can take advantage of these technologies rather than sell exclusive rights to few companies. The development of new technology will not be without glitches and therefore having a regulatory framework that both prevents mishaps and enable progress is essential.

The life sciences and other major sectors of the bio-economy are going through major transitions, including the proposed acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer, Syngenta by ChemChina, and Dupont by Dow Chemical. Robert Fraley of Monsanto suggested that the mergers are important, as companies need to develop integrated technologies to take advantage of new biological, chemical and informational knowledge.

Companies aim to develop complementary capabilities, achieve sufficient economies of scale and reduce transaction costs to develop better and cost-effective products. He suggested that we will end up with several major agribusiness companies that compete but share the rights to IPR to utilize advanced knowledge yet maintain unique offerings.

This perspective suggests that the structure of the agricultural life science sector is approaching the structure of major sectors like telecommunications, automobiles and pharmaceuticals with several major giants that control many of the new products complemented by numerous specialized local firms that serve specific needs of the consumers.

The discussion that followed suggested that there is a risk of abusing market power and therefore calls for effective regulatory oversight, which is a challenged to protect consumers and the environment while enabling the development and implementation of innovations and changes. Furthermore, it is important to have a structure that allows new innovations to be commercialized by startups which may challenge or lead to changes of the status quo.

Neal Gutterson from Pioneer suggested that informational and biological technologies are revolutionizing the agricultural input sector and will result in new products available to farmers and consumers. More powerful computing and improved microbiological methods, enable a much better understanding of the working of living systems. Combined with gene editing and other tools, the development of new solutions to address plant disease and improved productivity and performance is accelerated, but the capacity to bring it to market depend on regulatory constraints.

The performance of new biological solutions is enhanced by precision technologies that are able to adjust input use and crop treatment to differences at the field level. This will increase yields and reduce negative side effects of agricultural production, but it also requires a joint effort between seed companies and equipment manufacturers. These new developments are likely to occur first in developed countries, but it is essential to develop capacity to transfer them to developed countries that are more likely to be challenged by climate change and thus can gain more from these new capabilities.

Ronald Herring emphasized that the technological use patterns in agriculture are affected less by what is technically feasible but rather by regulatory and political considerations. Regulators enabled accelerated use of medical over agricultural GMOs due to urban bias and higher perceived benefit versus risk. Political economic considerations led to differences in regulation in the US versus Europe and Africa. Self-interest of activists and historical development fueled some of the resistance to GMOs.

But new technologies like CRISPR may have a cleaner slate. The introduction of CRISPR is likely to the emergence of new players and new regulatory environments. We may see smoother regulatory sailing, especially for gene editing applications that do not require transfer of gene between organisms.

The importance of strong public sector research capacity and openness to new technologies was emphasized by Dr. Lopes, the president of Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). Before the mid-20th century much of Brazil’s land wasn’t fertile but research by Embrapa and others transformed poor acidic soils into fertile lands and developed new crop and animal production system that are sustainable and appropriate to the climatic conditions of Brazil.

Brazil is now engaging in low to no tillage production methods and has permitted the use of transgenic crops. The use of Bt corn in particular has allowed Brazil to overcome the Fall Armyworm problem and enabled double cropping on much of the land. Brazil has become a powerhouse food producer. It is the largest producer of sugarcane, the second largest producer of soybeans and third largest producer of corn.

The presentations by Jennifer Thompson and Sylvester Oikehemphasized the waste and costs associated with excessive regulations. They noted that 500 million dollars were invested in development on transgenic varieties for sub-Saharan Africa, and that there are several crops in the pipeline. While the adoption of Bt corn in South Africa was successful and benefited the poor, regulations have blocked the adoption of other transgenic varieties. These varieties have been shown to reduce damage from pests and climatic changes in major staple crops (banana in Uganda, cowpea and corn in other countries,) but barring their use is costly in terms of human lives and income.

Pedro Sanchez, a World Food Prize winner, emphasized that improving productivity, through diversified approaches that include the use of fertilizers, better soil management, pest control and improved varieties are especially crucial for Africa. Africa has been making a lot of progress in terms of children’s education, ownership of appliances and livestock, and life expectancy. Yet yields are much lower than in other regions in the world. Changes in practices will require changes in policy, including reducing the cost of inputs, improving transportation and access to markets and infrastructure, farmers’ education and improved regulation.

Dr. Sanchez also highlighted the Fall Armyworm, a current pest that is spreading at unprecedented speed from East to West Africa, destroying maize fields, making it a clear and present danger for famine. He noted that it can be controlled by Bt corn varieties, as we saw in Brazil. However, Bt corn is banned in most of Africa today and now is the time to remove the ban and give it a chance.

The most rewarding aspect of being a member of ICABR is recognizing the improved capabilities of technologies based on modern biology and contributing to the challenge of developing policies that will allow us to take advantage of these technologies in a sustainable manner. This is an on-going process, but as we are challenged with addressing climate change, improving food security and preserving biodiversity, the value of the bioeconomy is becoming more transparent than ever.

[1] The conference was sponsored by the Giannini Foundation, Iowa State University, Innovative Genomics Institute, the College of Natural Resources of UC Berkeley, Monsanto and the Matthew Winkler Family Foundation. It was run by the International & Executive Programs of College of Natural Resources.

Is ‘Food Evolution’ propaganda? No! Just an accessible presentation of a tough topic

Food Evolution is a documentary about GMOs. It is an excellent film that mixes a few compelling stories with interesting interviews that inform viewers without losing their attention. As someone that has worked in agricultural biotechnology for 30 years, I find the contents accurate and insightful.

The lynchpin of the movie is the story of a public debate to ban GMOs in Hawaii, which illustrates how the opponents of the technology had good intentions and real concerns about the environment, but little information about what GMOs are all about. During the debate about the technology, we realize that the fear of the technology has no scientific basis and the benefits are underappreciated.


GMO papayas in Hawaii

Through this debate, we came to meet the real hero of the movie, Dennis Gonsalves, a scientist who used biotechnology to develop a virus-resistant papaya that would soon save the Hawaiian papaya industry. With this information, the legislators exempted papaya from the ban.

While the main applications of GMOs are sold by major corporations, like Monsanto, Gonsalves shows that GMOs are a product of public sector research that can be used for many uses, including “minor” crops. One of the ironies emphasized in the movie is that heavy regulation has advantaged major companies in utilizing the technology, reducing its use for less lucrative markets.

I found the appearance of Michael Pollan, a leading voice for alternative agriculture, refreshing as he states that GMO foods don’t present more risks than traditional foods and may increase yields. While clearly GMOs are not Pollan’s cup of tea, they is not the devil that opponents of the technology make it out to be. Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a couple who show that organic farming methods can be married with agricultural biotechnology to create healthier and more productive agriculture, and that the current ban of GMOs in organic agriculture is short-sighted.

One theme that becomes clear is that GMOs are an application of modern biology developed by people who care about humanity and aimed to solve real problems, address food security and improve the environment. The process is not a silver bullet, but one important part of the toolbox available to farmers within a diversified farming system.

Another theme is that opponents of the technology have been very successful in demonizing it. The exchanges of Alison Van Eenennaam with people on the street as well as a public debate clearly demonstrate that a little real information can change peoples’ perspective.

I am saddened to hear the criticism of the movie by some of my colleagues, as you can call any artistic effort that takes a position “propaganda.” Since English is my second language, I looked up the definition in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information. It presents researchers who discuss research findings that were applied and accepted by the scientific community, and different points of view of activists and researchers debating about policy. The presentations speak for themselves, and the viewer is likely to leave with a positive perspective about GMOs and their potential. The movie was respectful of the opponents of GMOs, gave critics like Pollan an opportunity to present their views, but most importantly it presented a compelling story about implementing a new technology.

I like also to note that while the criticism conveys the impression that Berkeley faculty as a whole hold a negative view of GMOs, this impression is wrong. One of the first applications of genetically modified organisms was performed here by Stephen Lindowin late 1970s. Berkeley boasts one of the world’s best life sciences departments, whose outstanding faculty members made breakthrough discoveries in biotechnology, both in terms of transgenics and now gene editing. I heard very positive responses to Food Evolution from numerous Berkeley students and faculty in recent screenings. So UC Berkeley faculty and students have diverse opinions, on GMOs as well as many topics — let a thousand flowers bloom.

Food Evolution was much softer than hard-hitting movies like Food Revolution and Food Inc. It didn’t emphasize that all the prominent academies of sciences have found GMOs acceptable and worthwhile to utilize, and that restrictions on its use harms the poor. It didn’t use the damning of Greenpeace by over 100 Nobel prize winners over its campaign against GMOs, in particular Golden Rice (they even end the letter saying “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”). It didn’t even use multiple findings that by increasing food supply and productivity, GMOs have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, made food and fiber more affordable, enhanced food security and helped poor farmers.

The movie presented a message of hope. Behind GMOs and many other applications of modern science, there are dedicated and caring scientists. Every new application is building and augmenting existing knowledge. Regulations are necessary to protect against mishaps and mismanagement and to enable utilization of the potential of technologies. Thus, new agricultural biotechnology products deserve a chance, and they will help humanity to address major challenges like food security, deforestation, and climate change.