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Genetically modified cotton helps farmers escape malnutrition

People opposed to genetically modified organisms often insist that the plants are no good for anyone except the companies, like Monsanto Co., that sell GMO seeds. A new study may force them to come to terms with the idea that GM crops can benefit regular people too -- even farmers in developing countries like India.

The study, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, tracked the fortunes of 533 cotton farms in India over eight years. These farming families were poor -- on average, family members consumed no more than $500 worth of goods each year. The typical farm was about 12 acres, with about half the area used to grow cotton. (Wheat, millet, sorghum, rice and other crops were grown on the rest of the land.)

In 2002, 38% of the farms planted cotton that was genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis, making it able to ward off insect pests like cotton bollworms without needing extra pesticides. Researchers checked in with farmers every other year. By 2008, 99% of the farms were planting Bt cotton.

Previous studies have found that farms using Bt crops earned more money -- they get higher yields while spending less money on chemical pesticides. The authors of the new study found the same thing in India -- farming families that planted Bt cotton were able to grow or buy more food, and they were less likely to be classified as “food insecure,” consuming fewer calories per day than the World Health Organization deems safe. (The researchers estimated that threshold to be 2,300 calories per day for an adult male farmer in India.)

The differences weren’t trivial. Adult male farmers who planted Bt cotton consumed an average of 3,329 calories per day and those who planted regular cotton consumed an average of 2,830 calories. That works out to 18% more calories every single day for farmers growing genetically modified cotton.

Put another way: For every additional 2.5 acres of Bt cotton that are planted, each adult male farmer consumed an extra 74 calories per day.

The researchers also looked at calories from “more nutritious foods,” including legumes, fruits, vegetables and animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. The adult male farmers who planted Bt cotton got 704 of these calories per day, while those who planted regular cotton consumed 639 such calories. That amounts to a 10% advantage for farmers using Bt cotton.

(The calorie counts were based on detailed questionnaires about what families ate. They may not be totally reliable, but there’s no reason to think they’re any more or less reliable for farmers who plant Bt crops.)

If all farmers who were growing conventional cotton when they were interviewed by the researchers had planted Bt cotton instead, the proportion of households considered “food insecure” would fall by 15% to 20%, the researchers calculated. Fortunately, “most of these nutritional benefits have materialized already” since Bt cotton is now widely used, they added.

“GM crops are not a panacea for the problems of hunger and malnutrition,” the researchers concluded. “But the evidence suggests that GM crops can be an important component in a broader food security strategy. ... The nutritional benefits could further increase with more GM crops and traits becoming available in the future.”

You can read the full study online here.

If you are a GMO skeptic, you are probably wondering whether the study authors work for Monsanto or another biotech company producing so-called “frankenfoods.” The answer is no. The researchers, Matin Qaim and Shahzad Kouser, are professors in the department of agricultural economics and rural development at Georg-August University of Goettingen in Germany. They told editors at PLOS ONE that they have no conflicts of interest that could influence the outcome of their study.

Scientists -- and many scientifically minded people -- are often puzzled by public resistance to genetically modified crops. Fear of GMOs in the food supply spurred California’s Proposition 37, the 2012 ballot initiative that would have required many such foods to be labeled. (It failed by a narrow margin.)

Last month, hundreds of protesters in downtown Los Angeles joined others around the world in a global protest dubbed March Against Monsanto.

The genetic modifications made to crops like cotton, corn and canola make it easier for farmers to control weeds and insect pests with fewer chemicals. As Rosie Mestel explained in the Los Angeles Times, the genes that make this possible are spliced into the plants from sources like Bt (a soil bacterium that makes proteins that kill flies, moths and other insects) and Agrobacterium (another soil bacterium that allows plants to make a key enzyme that can withstand the pesticide Roundup).

As Mestel wrote:

Among scientists, there is widespread agreement that such crops aren't dangerous. The plants, they say, are as safe as those generated for centuries by conventional breeding and, in the 20th century, by irradiating plant material, exposing it to chemical mutagens or fusing cells together to produce plants with higher grain yields, resistance to frost and other desirable properties. Now they want to insert other genes into plants to make them more nutritious, resistant to drought or able to capture nitrogen from the air so they require less fertilizer, among other useful traits.

"There's no mystery here," said UCLA plant geneticist Bob Goldberg. "When you put a gene into a plant ... it behaves exactly like any other gene."

One longtime anti-GMO activist who has come around to embrace the benefits of the technology is Mark Lynas. In a speech delivered at the Oxford Farming Conference in England in January, he apologized for his efforts to undermine GM crops.

“I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment,” he said. “As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

Perhaps studies like the PLOS ONE report will encourage more people to reconsider their blanket opposition to GMOs as well.

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