Am Journ of Plant Science – Botta G, et al Review


Botta G et al (2011) A research of the environmental and social effects of the adoption of biotechnological practices for soybean cultivation in Argentina, American Journal of Plant Sciences, 2011,2, 359-369

General

This paper largely discusses socio-economic changes in the Argentine agricultural sector that have resulted in reductions in rural employment levels and structural changes in favour of larger farms.  It also makes claims about negative health impacts of glyphosate use.  These changes, the authors claim, are caused by the widespread adoption of no tillage production systems and the use of GM herbicide tolerant soybeans.

The paper gives an impression that the authors have an anti market economy ideology, dislike agricultural biotechnology and therefore want to attribute changes in an agricultural sector that they perceive as bad, as being caused by the adoption of biotechnology.  To fulfil this goal, inaccurate claims are made, sometimes ‘supported’ by citations from like-minded writers, of largely subjective work in non peer reviewed articles and papers.

The text is largely a rambling discourse of unfounded and subjective opinion[1].  It contains inadequate and erroneous documentation.  Many of the claims made are, either not supported by references, or are based on non peer reviewed references, including press articles.

The major deficiencies identified in this paper lead us to question the thoroughness of the review process undertaken by the American Journal of Plant Sciences, as it is our professional assessment that this paper should not have been accepted for publication in any reputable peer review journal.

Some specific criticisms and observations

  1. The introduction makes a number of subjective interpretations about developments in the agricultural sector, sometimes ‘backed up’ by non peer reviewed journal articles (eg, references 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 13), many of which are subjective interpretations of developments by like minded authors.  The introduction sets the scene for the paper through a view that free market economic development is bad when it results in the agricultural sector making changes to the structure of production (fewer, small, family farms, in favour of larger farms).  The authors do not discuss why such economic changes occur per se or the factors that cause such change, and do not place in context the changes taking place in Argentina’s agricultural sector with the same processes occurring in other countries in South America.
  2. The paper claims to be based on a methodology of discussions/interviews with experts and undertaking field experiments.  It provides no detail on the number of interviews or who was interviewed.  The ‘field experiments (relating to soil compaction and machinery use)’, whilst producing results that are consistent with other experiments cited in peer review journals bear little resemblance to commercial farming practice (see below).
  3. In section 1.1 there is a claim that there has been an enormous increase in the use of ‘Monsanto herbicide’.  No evidence is provided to support this statement which is inaccurate.  Whilst there has been a substantial increase in the use of the herbicide active ingredient glyphosate since the adoption of GM herbicide tolerant soybeans in Argentina, the majority of this has been ‘generic’ glyphosate made and supplied by companies other than Monsanto (and most manufactured in China);
  4. For a paper that discusses the adoption of no and reduced tillage practices used in conjunction with GM herbicide tolerant technology, the authors appear to attribute a number of perceived socio-economic and environmental ‘negative impacts’ to this change in production practice.  The authors fail to discuss the literature (in peer reviewed journals) that examines the links between no/reduced tillage, weed control and the facilitating role of herbicide tolerant soybeans, the reasons for the widespread adoption of these technologies (mainly important economic gains) and the associated environmental benefits of improvements to the environmental profile of herbicide use on soybeans, together with tillage gains of reduced carbon emissions and less soil erosion[2].
  5. The authors claim that their ‘experiments on no tillage’ show that yield losses are within a range of 9%-38% because of compaction.  Whilst this is a plausible result from such an experiment and may be supported by other research, the authors fail to acknowledge or discuss common and good agricultural practices.  Most competent farmers are fully aware of the negative effects of soil compaction and therefore take actions to minimise its effect.  If Argentine soybean production experienced this level of yield loss from soil compaction, average yields in Argentina would have declined following the widespread adoption of no tillage practices with GM herbicide tolerant soybeans (or Argentine yields would have been consistently below the yields obtained in other leading soybean producing countries).  The evidence does not support the authors assertions because average soybean yields have not fallen since the mid 1990s, when no till and HT soybean adoption became widespread.  In fact, average yields for Argentine soybeans have increased by 28% between 1996 and 2010 (using 3 year rolling averages to smooth out annual fluctuations) due to the adoption of improved production practices and better seed.  In addition, average yields in Argentina are comparable to yields in other leading soybean producing countries such as Brazil and the USA.
  6. In section 5.1.2.1 a claim is made that there has been ‘a loss of buying power amongst farmers who depend on external inputs that are increasingly more expensive’.  This statement is inaccurate.  Three-quarters of GM soybean seed used in Argentina is farm saved so most Argentine farmers have avoided paying any royalties to seed companies.  In addition, the price of glyphosate fell by over a third in the late 1990s once the patent protection for the original Monsanto branded product ‘Roundup’ expired and other companies (other than Monsanto) entered the market.
  7. In section 5.1 a number of claims are made relating to adverse health impacts of glyphosate:
  • The authors fail to cite relevant literature on the relatively low toxicity of glyphosate (see for example: Williams et al. 2000) while stating ‘There is proven evidence of the risks that permanent and systematic application of glyphosate can have to human health and the environment’.  The authors claim that the major problem with glyphosate use is that the added surfactant, POEA, is three times more toxic than glyphosate and that it changes the toxicity of the product that is used in agriculture.  No references to peer-reviewed scientific literature are offered to support these claims.  Commercial preparations containing glyphosate are widely approved by government environmental regulatory authorities for use in agriculture around the globe.  Glyphosate-surfactant preparations are considered to be among the least toxic and safest herbicides available for weed control.  These preparations are not persistent in the environment and are considered safe for animals and humans;
  • The paper specifically claims that glyphosate ‘causes gastrointestinal pain, damage to the central nervous system, respiratory problems and the destruction of red blood cells in humans’ without offering either evidence or citations.  There is little doubt that exposure to almost any pure chemical at high enough levels of intake can cause harm.  Two teaspoons of common table salt can easily kill an infant.  Surfactants such as POEA are not unlike laundry detergents which can also be lethal if taken internally.  The relevant point is that glyphosate products are safe when used in agriculture as directed on the label.  This is evidenced by the fact that near 1,000 million ha of GM herbicide tolerant (to glyphosate) crops have been cultivated over the last 15 years with no scientifically documented cases of adverse effects to humans or animals having been reported;
  • The paper specifically claims that glyphosate preparations are contaminated with 1,4-dioxanes which they note can cause cancer and liver damage.  The reference for this claim is cited as: E. Goldsmith and Z. Goldsmith, “The Monsanto Files,” The Ecologist, Vol. 28, No. 5, 1998, p. 19.  The citation is unacceptable as a source of evidence for the claim about dioxane contamination of glyphosate.  The Ecologist is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal but is self-described as a platform for opinion on environmental affairs and politics.  The specific citation in question also appears to be incorrect in a number of ways.  The citation attributes authorship to E. Goldsmith and Z. Goldsmith who are the co-editors of The Ecologist, however, no articles in Issue No. 5 attribute authorship to them.  The citation points the reader to an article cited to appear on page 19 of Issue No. 5 of the Vol. 28 spanning pages 249-324 and does not contain a page numbered 19.  This issue is devoted to articles critical of Monsanto and Monsanto products.  An article that makes similar claims to those found in the Botta G et al paper appears on pp 270-275, however, the article does not mention 1,4-dioxane.  An article that appears on pp 264-265 discusses the use of ‘Agent Orange’ by the US in Vietnam.  Toxic effects of dioxane contamination of Agent Orange are discussed.  The words glyphosate and Roundup do not appear in the article and the presence of 1,4-dioxanes in Roundup or glyphosate does not appear anywhere in Vol. 28.  Reference 14 is obviously in error at two levels: 1) the citation is incorrect, 2) the claimed information does not appear in the cited issue of the magazine;
  • A little further on, the paper states ‘that many scientists explain that the ingestion of genetically engineered foods is not harmful. However, recent tests demonstrate that potential risks exist from eating such foods’.  No citations are provided to the large body of literature that documents the safety of glyphosate tolerant soybeans consumers (eg, Chassy, B.  Food Safety Risks and Consumer Health (2010) New Biotechnol., 27 (5): 534-544.doi:10.1016/j.nbt.2010.05.018.) and no citations are made to support the claim that GM crops are harmful to consumers;
  • The paper claims that GM soybeans contain fewer health protective isoflavones than conventional soybeans, again, without offering a citation to the scientific literature. The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans. (J. Nutr. 126:702–16).  No citation was given to support the claim that GM soybeans contain 15% less isoflavones than conventional soybeans, however, the paper to which the authors refer is most likely Lappé et al. (Lappe, M.A., Bailey, E.B., Childress, C., Setchell, K.D.R. 1999. Alterations in clinically important phytoestrogens in genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant soybeans. J Med Food, 1, 241–245). Although often cited by opponents of GM-technology, the paper: 1) has methodological flaws (comparison of dissimilar varieties and failure to grow samples using identical methods of cultivation among others), 2) fails to cite the existing literature which contradicts the claim and which demonstrates isoflavone content of soybeans can vary more than 3-fold between varieties of soybeans and between the same variety grown at different sites (see refs below), and 3) fails to cite more recent publications which demonstrate that soybean isoflavones can vary within a 10-fold range and that GM soybean isoflavone content falls within normal ranges.  In addition, a partial list of the literature not cited by either Lappé et al. in 1999 or Botta et al, which demonstrates that the isoflavone content of GM-soy is no different than that of conventional soy varieties[3], illustrates the poor knowledge of the scientific literature found in the Botta et al paper; alternatively it could be indicative of a bias and selective citation of the literature;
  • The paper describes a reported herbicide over-spray incident that took place in 2003 in Colonia Loma Sené, Formosa State, Argentina.  Whilst herbicide drift can have adverse effects on neighbouring farms and their inhabitants, the unusually extreme effects that were reported could only have occurred through a very direct application of large amounts herbicides.  Such practice is very unlikely to have occurred, if for no other reason than most farmers applying herbicide, regardless of their level of competence in spraying, will aim to apply the herbicide to their own fields rather than directly onto their neighbours.  Other factors (than the spraying of glyphosate on soybean crops) are likely to have caused the impacts reported.  Botta et al do not discuss such possibilities and do not indicate if any official investigations were conducted into this reported incident.
  1. The following detailed discussion illustrates the poor documentation and biased opinions that can be found throughout the paper:
  • The paper asserts that GM crops have had an adverse effect on biodiversity in the following words:  Up until not recently agrarian diversity had always been increasing. However, in industrialized countries, plant and animal genetic engineers, trading houses and governments themselves combined forces to supply new varieties and uniform breeds that would replace the tremendous heterogeneity already existing’. No evidence or citation is provided to support the claim that biodiversity has always been increasing.  From the very beginning of agriculture biodiversity of crops has, in fact, been continually contracting as farmers and breeders selected the most desirable crops (see for example, L.T. Evans. Feeding the 10 Billion, Cambridge University Press).  The authors fail to comprehend the nature of breeding modern crop varieties.  While a single or limited number of varieties may be grown in one region at a particular time, this does not mean biodiversity is being lost.  Quite the contrary, since modern varieties have complex combinations of parents this results in the incorporation of numerous diverse traits from many ancestors.  For example, the lineage of the rice strain IR64 includes many landraces as well as modern varieties (see Figure).
  • IR64 produces a uniformly high quality product from a plant that yields well under a variety of adverse conditions.  Heterogeneity does not correlate with biodiversity nor is it necessarily compatible with high yielding, efficient, sustainable agriculture.  Although farmers, communities and the environment have all benefited from uniform seed varieties the Botta et al paper seems to deny the value of modern varieties (Evans, L.T. op. cit.).  The authors also confuse planting many varieties of a crop with protecting biodiversity.  The extensive international network of germplasm collections is much more effective at preserving biodiversity as is modern high yield agriculture which reduces the amount of wild lands that must be brought under cultivation each year;
  • In Table 1 the paper highlights what it describes as agricultural ‘disasters’ for which reductions in ‘genetic variety’ are responsible.  The Irish potato famine was not due to a reduction in variety but the fact that the one variety of potato imported to Ireland less than 100 years prior was susceptible to late blight (it is interesting to note that it has also been argued that sufficient food was produced in Ireland during the famine to feed the entire population (Evans, L.T. op.cit.)).  Table 1 also refers to 1970 losses in the US corn harvest due to ‘fungal diseases’.  In 1970, all US corn had, what is known as N cytoplasm (a designation of the genotype of the mitochondria).  Around this time a second cytoplasm called T was introduced which facilitated male sterility for hybrid seed production.  Ironically, it was the introduction of new cytoplasm that was susceptible to blight.  So, in this case, it was a change to new sources of genetics which could be called expanding diversity that caused the problem.  More importantly, the agricultural field is not a germ-plasm collection whose purpose is to preserve biodiversity, its purpose is to produce food, feed and fiber. It makes little sense to bemoan the loss of biodiversity in a crop as many common crops are clonal monocultures (ie. bananas, apples, potatoes, etc.) that perform perfectly well even if they are not biodiverse. Table 1 also cites the Bengal famine of 1943 as being caused by reductions in genetic variety, when in reality this famine was caused by a number of factors including war time food shortages and under-production which were an on-going phenomenon, a cyclone and 3 tidal waves that caused extensive flooding and crop damage, highly stressed crops in wet conditions being susceptible to a variety of diseases which results in crop losses, and numerous failures occurred in the government response to the crisis including not supplying food aid which was available elsewhere in the country.  There is in fact no evidence that reduction in genetic diversity played a role in the Bengal famine of 1943;
  • Setting aside the obvious benefits to farmers of seeds that resist abiotic and biotic stresses and produce uniformly high yields, Botta et al assert that modern seed varieties make profits for trading houses as if this were somehow wrong.  They then directly attack high yields as an undesirable outcome of modern seeds.  They confuse uniformity with vulnerability.  Modern crop varieties may appear uniform, however, they incorporate diverse traits from many different parental lines in ways that allow them to perform better than traditional landraces.  That is perhaps why farmers all over the world are willing to buy improved seeds; farmers that buy improved seed almost always produce more and earn more than farmers that save seed;
  • In recent years, seeds with new traits introduced using the tools of modern biotechnology have entered the market.  Botta et al assert, without evidence or citation, that such seeds ‘…may result in serious and unimaginable consequences for public health, the environment, and the overall agricultural system…’ The authors ignore hundreds of scientific papers on various aspects of biosafety and crop performance that show there have been no new or unusual risks associated with GM technology and no adverse impacts on human health, animals or the environment.  Moreover, there is a body of evidence in the literature that quantifies the positive environmental benefits associated with the adoption of GM technology[4].

Graham Brookes, PG Economics, UK

Professor Bruce Chassy, University of Illinois


[1]See for example, the opening sentence of the abstract ‘the excessive and unregulated implementation of biotechnological practices…..’

[2] For example, Brookes G & Barfoot P (2010) Global impact of biotech crops: environmental effects 1996-2008, AgBioForum 2010, 13: 76-94, Fabrizzi K et al (2003) Soil carbon and nitrogen fractions in degraded vs non degraded mollisols in Argentina, Soil Sci Soc American Journal, 67: 1831-1841, Finger R et al (2009) Adoption patterns of herbicide-tolerant soybeans in Argentina AgBioForum, 12  (3&4): 404-411

[3] Eldridge, A. C. and Kwolek, W. F. (1983). Soybean isoflavones: Effect of environment and variety on composition. J. Agric. Food Chem. 31:394-396, Wang, H. and P.A. Murphy. (1994). Isoflavone composition of American and Japanese soybeans in Iowa: Effects of variety, crop year, and location. J. Agric. Food Chem. 42:1674-1677, Carrao-Panizzi, M. and Kitamura, K. (1995). Isoflavone content in Brazilian soybean cultivars. Breeding Science 45:295-300, Padgette, S.R. et al. (1996). The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans. J. of Nutr. 126:702-716, Taylor, N.B, et al. (1999) J. Compositional analysis of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans treated with glyphosate. J. Agric. Food Chem., 47:4469–4473

[4] For example, Brookes G & Barfoot P (2010) Global impact of biotech crops: environmental effects 1996-2008, AgBioForum 2010, 13: 76-94

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