RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chuck Hassebrook's War on Biotechnology II: "Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest"

It is hard to believe that a major-party candidate for the governorship, in a rural state like Nebraska, tried to suppress the development and use of the biotechnology that more than 90% of our farmers depend on. It is hard to believe that instead of trying to help sell our ag produce overseas, as our governors have historically done, the candidate told other countries not to buy our produce, and asked the UN to ban their export. Unfortunately, Chuck Hassebrook did both.

Chuck Hassebrook started with the Center for Rural Affairs, a left-leaning non-profit, in the 1970s, while in college. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t ever done paid work anywhere else.

From the beginning, he displayed deeply anti-free-market attitudes, castigating corporate farming and vertical integration of hog operations. CRA was largely responsible for passing the unconstitutional Initiative-300, which banned corporate ownership of farms in Nebraska. His commitment seems to be to a long-gone system of rural development, based on uncompetitive small farms, using obsolete technology, and propped up by government subsidies.

When GM crop development seriously started in the mid-1980s, Chuck saw everything he didn’t like; corporate profits for companies like Monsanto, increased efficiency, and an abandonment of the non-viable ‘sustainable agriculture model’ he had invested so heavily in. So of course he set out to oppose it. His attempt to crush biotech agriculture came in the publication (with three environmentalist coauthors) of Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest, a document that aimed at stopping the development of genetically modified crops at every stage: research and development, use, and sale. You can still find BBH on line, still being pushed approvingly by groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

BBH is first of all a profoundly dishonest document. One of its favorite tricks is to lump all herbicides together, sometimes even with other pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, etc.). So, for example, it discussed herbicide dangers by referencing the relatively toxic bromoxynil, even while it provides data that by far and away the most prevalent herbicide used in GM crop development is glyphosate (which, as we’ve seen, has very low toxicity). While the authors were forced to admit

many herbicides are not acutely toxic to humans and wild animals
…they then proceeded to recite a litany of largely speculative or preliminary reports about chronic toxicity of herbicides, (but not glyphosate.)

There is other wildly speculative stuff

It cannot be assumed that the transferred genetic material will produce substances safe for human consumption

…but is there any evidence all it might be unsafe? No, and plenty of reason to believe it incorrect!

And there was plenty more unsubstantiated speculation about what negative effects GM crops might have on farm economics.

It’s clear reading the report that while all the nebulous dangers are cited, Hassebrook and his co-authors’ main problem is that Monsanto and other manufacturers might make money by selling GM seed/herbicide combinations. The authors also complained at length about US and State government funding of GM research.

Their alternatives? Generally tedious and back-breaking, such as mechanical tilling hoeing and intercropping. Mostly ineffective. And sometimes noxious, such as the introduction of alien species to prey on weeds.

The recommendations were draconian. Here they are in full.

  1. End federal and state support for developing herbicide-tolerant plants
  2. Increase federal and state funding for non-chemical methods of pest control
  3. Target the federal research and experimentation tax credit for corporate research toward socially and environmentally beneficial research and deny the credit for expenditures to develop herbicide-tolerant crops and trees;
  4. Change federal farm policy to discourage the use of environmentally damaging agricultural practices;
  5. Regulate genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant plants as pesticides;
  6. Prohibit the introduction of trees genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant into our national forests and other government lands; and
  7. Fully inform Third World countries of the potential negative impacts of herbicide-tolerant crops and trees and urge the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to develop restrictions on the export of herbicide-tolerant plants.
1 – 6 are predictably leftist; shut down research they don’t like, fund pet projects they like, and regulate the heck out of everything. But 7 is particularly chilling. Hassebrook wanted the UN to restrict US exports of GM crops, and to tell third world governments not to import our produce. This proposal, if implemented, would have cost our state and our farmers billions.

BBH was popular in extreme environmentalist circles, but fortunately had almost no influence on government policy. As anyone who knows anything about agriculture is aware, GM crops now account for most US production (98% of the soybeans and 70% of the corn in Nebraska, for example). The predicted Armageddon never happened. Herbicide use has declined, especially use of pesiticides of questionable safety, such as atrazine. Farm incomes are way up, and GM has had the major effect of decreasing the workload of farmers. GM also makes more feasible carbon-conserving practices like no-till.

Chuck was dead wrong, but he has never admitted it. As an actual expert, Matin Qaim, wrote in 2009...

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been used commercially for more than 10 years. Available impact studies of insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops show that these technologies are beneficial to farmers and consumers, producing large aggregate welfare gains as well as positive effects for the environment and human health. The advantages of future applications could even be much bigger. Given a conducive institutional framework, GM crops can contribute significantly to global food security and poverty reduction.

And Hassebrook's War on Biotech continues. In 2005, as a University of Nebraska Regent, he ineffectually opposed a licensing agreement between UNL and Monsanto to bring to market other GM crops developed by our researchers. In 2010, he was the sole vote against Ronnie Green, the vice-chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as a futile and rather childish protest against ‘industrial agriculture’.

Given that Hassebrook abused his position as regent to try to discourange the University of Nebraska from commercial licensing agreements, and to hinder our engagement in biotech agriculture, it is almost certain he will abuse the governorship to try to force our farmers back into last-century’s methods, and to discourage agribusiness. His life so far has had a single, all-consuming mission; why would he abandon it now?

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