Beyond Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO

My name is Tara Mittelberg, and this blog is about my adventures as I circumnavigate the globe studying the institutions that research transgenic crops (AKA “GMOs”). I developed an interest in food security, agriculture, and the environment in my high school AP Biology class. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the public conversation surrounding agricultural science, particularly biotechnology. This summer I will travel to Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, Malaysia, and the Philippines to visit a wide variety of scientists and farmers. The goal isn’t to prove that you should be pro-GMO or anti-GMO, but instead to show that biotechnology can mean a lot of different things depending on the gene, crop, and context. Tara was funded by the Circumnavigators Travel study Grant, jointly awarded by Northwestern's Office of Undergraduate Research and the Chicago Chapter of the Circumnavigators Club.  It provides funding for one student to travel around the world the summer before their senior year, stopping in at least five countries on at least three continents.

I’m Home.

Hi everyone and sorry for the long period of silence. I arrived back in the U.S. last Sunday and have had a really busy 10 days moving apartments, going to a wedding, and quickly pulling together a research grant application to return to my Brazil case study (cross your fingers for me!). The first day back was a really difficult jolt back to real life, but now I’m adjusted and kind of feel like the trip was a dream. I wrote a blog-post on the plane that I debated whether or not to post because it isn’t as professional as my others, but I think it offers a good glimpse of how I grew from the trip personally. Here it is:
By the time you’re reading this I’ll have arrived back to NU, finally done laundry, and had dinner at Mt. Everest (the best restaurant in Evanston if I must choose one). I’ll be an official circumnavigator! Currently I’m on the plane between Tokyo and Chicago. I just spent 10 days in the Philippines and had really incredible experiences speaking with scientists, farmers, Greenpeace anti-GMO activists, and regulators. I’ve been slow to come out with blog posts because I try to put a lot of time and thought into them – If I’m going to spew things about GMOs on the internet, I at least want to make sure I can support my claims with data or my experiences. I’ve created a placeholder Philippines post, so check back later this week once I’ve had time to think through my time there and organize a post.
In addition to the blog, I’ve also kept a personal handwritten journal that’s mostly just a day-by-day log of the people I meet and everyday (mostly non-research) experiences I have. It’s not very polished and is entirely to have a personal record of the trip, but I thought I’d share part of my final entry. On the blog I’ve focused a lot on the research, but hopefully you can see that this trip has been about a lot more than just GMOs. Please excuse that it’s not as polished as some of the other posts. Without further ado…
I haven’t been very excited to get home. I think this trip has brought out the very best version of myself – flexible, outgoing, intellectually engaged – that sometimes gets lost when I get too stressed or comfortable with a routine. I’ve grown so much over the past few months and know I will take certain lessons with me for the rest of my life.
Solo travel has made me more independent, which makes me more confident about my ability to tackle any situation, or at least “fake it till I make it”.
It’s forced me to confidently stand by my work and think on my feet in professional situations.
The trip has taught me to gracefully admit to not knowing what someone is talking about (which happened quite often when I visited biotech labs).
I feel much more likely to pursue an advanced degree in the natural sciences because I’ve seen the social impact that a biologist can have (and how good biologists can make it a positive impact).
It’s forced me to reflect on my role as a privileged white American traveler and how other people around the world see me (and hopefully be more sensitive to not fulfilling the worst of stereotypes).
After countless catcalls, not-so-subtle sexual advances, and warnings to “be careful” (which male white travelers don’t receive), I’ve become more conscious of how many of my daily experiences are shaped by the fact that I’m a woman. Sure we claim gender equality in the U.S., but I don’t think many men understand the feeling of constant hyperawareness of their surroundings that most women have to maintain when alone.
Most of all I’ve become much more comfortable with being out of my element, and am actually quite nervous about transitioning into the stress of NU academics and repetitiveness of routine. Three months ago I was absolutely terrified of the trip because of how huge and daunting it seemed. Now I’ve realized that the world is a pretty awesome place, and despite what the media and a certain U.S. presidential candidate will have you think, almost every person from every background, and every country is genuinely good at heart. And that’s the beauty of it – when you get to know amazing people, you realize that there are countless more amazing people out there to meet.
Very few individuals have the opportunity to travel around the world, particularly at age 21. Should it have to take such an adventure to become a better version of myself? I’m not sure. But so long as I had the opportunity, I’m grateful for every minute of it. Thank you to the Circumnavigators Club, the Office of Undergraduate Research, and WCAS for making this trip possible, and thank you to the incredible people I met along the way for making it so special

Malaysia: “comfortable” without GMOs (for now)

Hello! Apologies for the delay in blogging. I just arrived in the Philippines and since I’m a country behind, I’ll update you on what I was up to in Malaysia last week. I spent a total of 10 days in Kuala Lumpur, where I spoke with a variety of researchers and met some great people from around the world.
While in KL I visited the country’s main public research hub, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI). Here they have a few projects to insert transgenic traits into local varieties of papaya. The main project that I want to discuss is a papaya that MARDI scientists are engineering to ripen up to 10 days later than usual, which will hopefully give it a longer shelf life and reduce waste due to spoilage. This project interested me because in most cases, seed companies develop biotech traits such as resistance to drought, insects and herbicide in order to benefit farmers. Some people argue that one reason consumers are skeptical of GMOs is that they don’t witness the direct benefit of the technology besides possibly lower food prices. On the other hand, delayed ripening papaya would affect all members of the value chain. With delayed ripening, it would be possible to sell Malaysian papayas in more distant markets such as the US, which would improve the price that farmers could fetch. Consumers would also enjoy fresher fruits.
As an environmentalist I’m a bit skeptical of the carbon cost of a trait that would allow my food to come from even farther away. At the same time, we currently waste approximately a third of the food we produce globally, which is a complete loss of resources with no benefit. It’s interesting to see an example of biotechnology being researched to address this issue, and is intriguing to think of other possibilities.
The delayed ripening papaya project is currently in the glasshouse field trials, meaning that it has a long way to go before it reaches farmers or markets. Papaya production in general is currently down in Malaysia because of a bacterial disease. MARDI scientists are also researching a trait for disease resistance, but haven’t even reached the field trial stage yet. Unlike the Ghanaian Bt Cowpea which will almost certainly become commercial next year, it’s unclear what will happen with GM papaya in Malaysia. The country currently imports foods containing GMOs, but they haven’t yet allowed for the cultivation of GM crops. The scientists that I spoke with said for now the country is “comfortable” without the technology, so it isn’t their institute’s main priority. When I met random Malaysians in the hostel or restaurants and said I was researching GMOs, most hadn’t even heard of them.
So while my time in Malaysia didn’t generate as juicy of controversy as my time in Argentina, I think it was still an important research stop because it shows that transgenic crops aren’t essential everywhere. The scientists at MARDI said that they’re already looking beyond current transgenic breeding techniques towards the cutting edge CRISPR-Cas9 system (In case you’re wondering, here’s an article explaining CRISPR-Cas9 pretty well. You should definitely understand this technology because it’s very new, interesting and powerful – they’ve already shown that it would be biologically possible to edit human embryos). The scientists said that with climate change, it may be more important to have these biotech tools in the future, so for now they need to begin ensuring that the public is comfortable with them.
Well, I’m going to leave it at that for now. Sorry if there are sentences in the post that don’t make sense… I’m exhausted from travel and staying up late the night before being worried about travel (have I mentioned I’m afraid of flying?). Tomorrow I’m meeting with scientists in the Philippines who research Golden Rice, which has been fortified with Vitamin A. It’s the classic story of GMO failure or success, depending on how you look at it. This is one of the projects I’ve been most excited to visit, but I’m sad that the trip is coming to a close.

Africa Wrap-Up

Hello from Dubai! It’s currently Friday afternoon here. I just spent 10 days in Tamale, the capital of the Northern region of Ghana. On Tuesday I traveled to Accra, Ghana, where I spent the night before beginning my travels to Malaysia via Dubai (as someone afraid of flying it was just lovely waking up to news that an Emirates flight had crash-landed in Dubai hours before I was due to board an Emirates flight to Dubai. Of course everything was fine but our landing was a bit delayed because one of the runways was closed). I took yesterday afternoon to go to the beach and relax a bit and am spending today catching up on emails, background research, applications, and of course blogging. Tomorrow I have another long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The heat here is unfathomable: it’s like when you open an oven and it breaths dry burning air into your face, except there isn’t an oven and it’s just the wind breathing dry burning air everywhere. Yesterday the high was 117 F.

I’m going to do this post in two parts, so you can read whichever interests you most (or both!). Part 1 will be a wrap-up of GMOs in Africa and Part 2 will be a wrap-up of the other fun things I’ve done this month. So without further ado…

Part 1: GMOs in Africa

One could write entire books on each country alone (see Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science for an overview of GMOs on the continent), but here I’ll talk about my experiences in Ghana and South Africa.

Currently four African countries have produced GM crops (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan). The technology hasn’t been used commercially in the other 50 African countries because of a host of factors including lack of regulatory framework and public disapproval. However, in the past few years Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Malawi and Cameroon have begun research and field trials for a variety of crops and traits, many of which will likely be commercialized soon. Unlike the projects I visited in Brazil and Argentina that focused on improving output of soy – a large-scale commodity crop – the main goals of many of the African research projects are to improve smallholder income, food security, and resilience of staple crops such as bananas and legumes. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is a body that facilitates the public-private-philanthropic partnerships that allow many of the research activities to be not-for-profit. I would highly recommend browsing their website for more info.

In South Africa I visited with some of the leaders of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. As the name suggests, the goal of this project is to breed maize varieties that are resistant to drought using conventional breeding practices as well as a biotech trait. Eventually the varieties will be distributed to local seed companies to sell to smallholders in South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. Several large philanthropic organizations fund the research, which Monsanto and public research institutes in each country carry out. Because Monsanto donated the traits and research royalty-free, the seeds will sell at the competitive market price for maize in each locality.

During field trials the researchers realized that the drought resistance trait wouldn’t benefit smallholders if they lost all of their crops to insects. Hence, Monsanto also donated the Bt trait, a bacterial gene which makes the maize resistant to insects. This gene is the second most commonly used transgenic trait next to glyphosate resistance (which I discussed extensively while in South America). Bt crops can dramatically reduce insecticide sprayings and crop loss, which always made me feel as if it were somehow better than the glyphosate resistant trait, which requires the use of herbicides. This was why I was surprised at a backhanded comment made by a representative from the South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council: “Monsanto donated the Bt trait, but herbicide resistance would have been better.” Why? Smallholder farmers spend 40% of their time weeding their fields by hand. Sometimes the weeds get so bad that they’re forced to abandon their fields, resulting in 100% crop loss. So for improving quality of life and reducing loss, glyphosate resistance has its benefits. A Monsanto representative responded that they didn’t donate the trait because they couldn’t afford to lose out on royalties, and that it would cause a PR problem with people who were against the glyphosate resistant trait.

Ghana isn’t participating in WEMA, but has its own GM field trial of Bt Cowpea that is also under the AATF. Cowpea is staple food in Ghana and as a legume is high in protein and fiber. It’s also delicious, and I ate it almost every day while I was there. I spoke to smallholder farmers in the North of Ghana, who said that in the past an insect used to devastate their cowpea crop, causing up to 30-80% loss. They recently learned that this insect is called Maruca, and it infects the plants at the flowering stage, eventually making its way into the pod and eating the peas inside. Because Maruca lives inside the pod, once a field has been infected it can’t be treated with a topical insecticide. Instead, the farmers say they spray their field up to twice a week to try to kill the Maruca before it burrows into the pod. This practice reduces loss, but it’s extremely costly and limits farmers’ ability to manage more than a couple of acres of land.

The Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Tamale, Ghana is currently trying to address this issue with biotechnology. With funding from USAID, they bred a local variety of cowpea to contain the Bt trait, which Monsanto donated royalty-free. So far field trials have been successful and they’re expecting to distribute the seeds to farmers and seed companies next year. The scientists at SARI said that the Bt trait will lower insecticide application because it will kill the Maruca from inside the pod so farmers don’t have to continuously spray. Furthermore the Bt cowpea is not a hybrid, so the farmers will be able to save and reuse their seeds as they would for any other variety.


Non-Bt cowpeas affected by Maruca (above) vs. Bt cowpeas


Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Tamale, Ghana


Can you tell which are GMO? (The ones on the left)


Preparing the cowpea and plantain to make Red Red, a delicious Ghanaian dish

When I arrived home after interviews my AirBnB host was cooking with cowpea! Red Red is a delicious Ghanaian tomato and cowpea-based stew served with fried plantains


Red Red, me and Pobby (who was fantastic AirBnB host and chef!)

Finished Red Red, served with fried plantains and eaten with the hands

Finished Red Red. It’s typical to eat all foods – even soup – with the hand in Ghana. This new skill came in handy today when my Indian carry out did not come with a fork.

After hearing so much about herbicide resistant weeds and the regulatory roadblocks faced by small institutions, it was nice to hear stories about GMOs engineered specifically to address food insecurity. Of course the distribution of drought resistant maize and Maruca resistant cowpea can’t solve world hunger alone, even if the varieties are royalty-free. Nevertheless, these projects are one way to give smallholder farmers the option to use a technology if they see the benefits.

Part 2: Fun in Africa

Ah you made it this far? Sorry, I know I got your hopes up but but Part 1 took way too long to write and I need to get some other work done. Luckily I have a 7-hour daytime flight tomorrow. Check back soon!

An Afternoon at Monsanto (dun dun dun)

For most of this trip I have opted to visit small public research institutions because their work can reveal how local perceptions, challenges, and priorities differ around the world. However, to circumnavigate the world researching GMOs without talking about the dominant global force in transgenic seed production would be to leave out a huge part of the story. So today I’m going to talk about Monsanto.

Last week I visited with researchers and executives at Monsanto’s offices in Johannesburg, South Africa. Today I’ll discuss their for-profit work and next time I’ll talk about some of their not-for-profit projects here in Africa.

Before beginning my trip I conducted a focus group about Northwestern students’ perceptions on GMOs. The most memorable quote of the conversation: “when I hear the word Monsanto, I just think ughhh…. but I don’t really know why.” Even one of the Monsanto executives that I met in South Africa acknowledged the public’s Pavlov-like aversion to their brand. So why are people so turned off by this seed company? Well, for the strongly anti-GMO crowd, Monsanto is an easy scapegoat for all evils. They are also one of the largest seed companies in the world, so if you’re not into big corporations on principle then maybe that causes you unease (though they’re certainly not the largest company that touched your last meal – see Cargill, Walmart, Costco, Berkshire Hathaway, any oil company). They also enforce their patents, which I will discuss shortly. I don’t necessarily want to declare Monsanto good or bad, but I do want to discuss how my experiences meeting with them in Johannesburg differed from my experiences at other research institutes.

The most important way that Monsanto differed from the other institutes was how they view regulations. The scientists at INDEAR in Argentina, Embrapa in Brazil, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa each expressed how expensive GMO regulatory processes change or hinder their research. At Monsanto, the people I spoke with explicitly and implicitly described how heavy regulations can be to their benefit.

One Monsanto executive described how the Mad Cow Disease outbreak caused Europeans to lose faith in their food regulators. On the other hand, Americans generally have faith in their regulators, which means they are more comfortable consuming GMOs because they have been independently tested by a trusted government agency. Thus, applying for external regulatory approval can be expensive for Monsanto but it’s worth it if it helps gain public trust.

Another benefit has to do with patents. I didn’t completely understand how seed royalties and patents worked before someone at Monsanto explained them to me last week. Essentially Monsanto licences their transgenic traits to other seed companies, who incorporate the traits into their own seeds. Then Monsanto receives royalties for every bag of seed that company sells. When the transgenic patents expire, the seed company could use the trait without paying royalties, but someone has to maintain the regulatory approval in that country. This leaves the seed company with two options: go through the regulatory process themselves (a considerable expense), or continue paying royalties and allow Monsanto to deal with regulatory upkeep. Most of the time the seed company goes with the latter scenario, and come to a deal with Monsanto that involves lower royalties than before and is mutually beneficial from a business standpoint. In the end the expense of regulation is one factor that protects Monsanto’s royalties even after patents have expired.

While Monsanto’s work is on a much larger scale, it was similar to the other institutes in some ways. For one, it’s an enterprise that exists to serve farmers, who will only plant a transgenic seed if they find it beneficial. Second, the employees of Monsanto had the same goal as any Brazilian scientist, Argentine anti-GMO filmmaker, or Ghanaian farmer: put food on the table of their families. Naturally this goal will affect how each of these individuals view GMOs and prevent any group to be completely free of political or economic influence.

Monsanto focuses on commodity crops and traits that improve efficiency and are highly profitable. Scientists there pointed out that they have developed plenty of traits for added nutrition or for smaller-scale crops, but they don’t make it to the field because they don’t earn the company enough money. This was actually a common theme across all types of institutions – without philanthropic investment it’s impossible to develop GMOs or any crop for the sole purpose of benefiting society. It doesn’t mean that a profitable crop can’t be beneficial, but it means that a beneficial crop has to be profitable.

Of course that last statement seems obvious, but as a progressive 21-year-old with a lot of optimism for science, faith in humanity and a life goal of saving the world, it’s a good reality check to type it out. Here in Ghana I’m learning about a transgenic project funded by philanthropy. In my next post I’ll discuss my findings, as well as a bit on the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in South/East Africa.
Thanks for reading and as always feel free to comment. Bye for now!

(Also sorry for the lack of pictures – I have limited wifi now but will upload some next week!)

Solo travel: where the mundane is exciting

I’ve written a lot about my research and the special sites of the trip, but of course there’s more to travel than the picturesque moments. Overall I probably spend a third of my waking hours doing research and a third experiencing local sites and culture. So what happens during the last third of the time? Here, in honor of completing half of my countries I describe the daily life of a circumnavigator:

Surviving: When abroad, the everyday things are about twice as complicated as normal. The first ATM rarely works, so I have to go to two or three more. Finding the bus stop without Google navigation means having to ask directions from a lot of strangers who don’t speak English. Solving travel issues means seeking WiFi in order to make affordable international calls. The good part about all of the effort is that the smallest feats seem notable. Figure out how to send a postcard when I accidently bought the wrong stamp in Argentina? Success. Take a bus in Brazil that involves a transfer? Basically on top of the world.

Eating: In case you can’t tell from my research topic, food is important to me. Every week I have a few special meals, a few airplane meals, a few skipped meals, and when all else fails, a spoonful of peanut butter and a Clif bar. All of the others I cook in the hostel or pick up off the street or in a random cafe. In South Africa everything was in English so I didn’t have much of a problem ordering food. I spoke enough Spanish to get by in Argentina, but once ate cake for lunch when I confused the words torta and tarta. In Brazil I usually recognized half of the Portuguese words on menus, so I would order and then be surprised by some of the ingredients. Luckily I’m an adventurous eater and don’t have any dietary restrictions. The food highlights of the trip so far by country –

Argentina: a delicious fatty river fish in Rosario, and some awesome pizza in Buenos Aires

Brazil: Escondidinho – a casserole of mashed cassava and pulled beef, and sagu – a sort of pudding typical of Parana state which consists of tapioca balls cooked in red wine, grape juice, and spices

South Africa: An ostrich burger, which tastes like beef but is less greasy, and a Zimbabwean style peanut curry

Sleeping: I stayed with friends for part of my time in Argentina and Brazil, but otherwise I stay in hostel bunk rooms. Of course there’s the occasional snorer or person coming back late drunk, but overall the hostels are amazing for meeting cool people from all over the world. It can be strange though – you’ll meet someone, spend 12 hours getting to know them and touring the city, and then you say goodbye forever. It’s really mystifying how the lives of two random people in the world can come together and apart so rapidly.

Being alone: The biggest myths of solo travel are that you’re always alone and that you’re never alone. Most days I have a busy interview schedule or find people to hang out with, but sometimes everyone has something else going on. Before I began the trip I feared that these solo days would be depressing. In reality they’ve been quite the opposite. I’ve learned see these days as an opportunity to wander through cities without structure, incorporate a run into my sightseeing, and have time for a coffee and self reflection. I’m really thankful that this trip has forced me to see the world solo, because I don’t think I would have had the courage to do it without the push. Now I would take another solo trip in an instant.

Well, that’s my description of how exciting the mundane can be. Coming up will be a wrap-up of South Africa and updates from Ghana. In case you’re wondering, I’ve arrived and am staying with a family in an AirBnB that already feels like home.
Lastly, a special shoutout to my thesis advisor Dr. Amanda Logan, whose research was recognized by NPR last week. She studies the history of food security in Ghana to show that instability from slavery and colonialism – not just drought – is the reason for hunger today. You can check out the article here:

Why (some) GMO regulations don’t make sense

Hello from Cape Town, South Africa! I can’t believe that I’m already halfway through my time abroad and almost done with my third country. Last week I had one of the best research days of the trip so far when I visited the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria. While I was at FABI, I participated in a round-table discussion on the ethics of biotechnology research and science communication with a group of student scientists from the institution.

So far on this blog I’ve only discussed transgenic crops – those which contain a gene borrowed from another organism. I’ve been using multiple words synonymously including GMO and biotechnology as a way to keep my sentences from sounding repetitive and jargony. In reality, each of these words mean something a bit different, and I should be more careful. For example, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism which has had its DNA modified in any way. The category includes transgenic crops, but also crops that have modified through other means. During the round-table conversation the students emphasized how arbitrarily different breeding techniques and GMOs are regulated.

For example, it takes over a decade and millions of dollars to navigate the regulatory processes of approving a transgenic crop. On the other hand, a breeding process called mutagenesis is unregulated. With this technique, a scientist subjects a plant to UV radiation or chemicals to try to induce a random beneficial genetic mutation. The scientists agreed that this method was far more likely to cause environmental or human health problems because it’s impossible to understand the mechanism or side effects. Nevertheless, these crops are hardly regulated and can even be considered organic.

While it is important to ensure the safety of all things we eat, by disproportionately regulating transgenic crops we create a system where only certain farmers and companies have access to beneficial technologies. For example, this week I met with Dr. Jennifer Thomson, a biologist at the University of Cape Town. She has spent her career developing traits such as the one that makes African corn resistant to the devastating Maize streak virus. The trait is ready to go, but no private company is willing to invest in the regulatory approval process because the disease only affects African farmers, who don’t have enough market power to make the trait profitable. Thus, the only way this technology will reach rich and poor farmers in need is with a philanthropic investment. Dr. Thomson called this problem a disgrace and emphasized the need for a regulatory process proportionate to the risk associated with a technology.
Tomorrow I will go to Johannesburg, where I will meet with representatives of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program and Monsanto. Check back soon for another post (I promise – sorry I’ve been bad about writing this week).

Crossing the Pond

I’m currently in the São Paulo airport awaiting my flight to Johannesburg, and want to wrap up my time in South America with a post comparing my time in Rosario, Argentina and Londrina, Brazil. On the surface, the southwest of Brazil and northeast of Argentina seem similar – the regions have relatively temperate climates, produce a massive amount of soy, and have cultures heavily influenced by the U.S. and Europe. With all of these similarities it surprised me how much farmer and public opinion on GMOs differed in these two regions.

In Argentina, I spoke with Ricardo*, a man in his mid-20s who was raised in a farming family and is now an art student in Rosario. Ricardo said his family has planted glyphosate-resistant soy year after year because it affords the best profits and productivity. He generally supported the use of biotechnology until about a year ago, when he realized that he “had been spreading and believing lies about transgenics.” Specifically, he claimed that the technology is too new to know how it affects human and environmental health, and that higher yields means greater soil depletion.** Now Ricardo says he is against GMOs, but knows that they are impossible for farmers to avoid; if you don’t plant glyphosate-resistant soy but your neighbor does, then you will have less competitive yields and will risk crop loss from drifting herbicide.

In Brazil I spoke with Claudia, who is also in her mid-20s, raised in a farming family, and is now working toward a degree in agronomy. She said that genetic engineering is only problematic if farmers use the technology incorrectly. Farmers in her region struggle with Bt-resistant insects and glyphosate-resistant weeds due to years of relying on solely GMOs to manage pests. Claudia’s father attends soybean conferences to learn about integrated forms of pest control, but these practices are often more costly and inconvenient to implement than using transgenics. Claudia isn’t sure whether she’ll eventually take over her father’s soy and corn business, but she plans to build greenhouses soon to grow organic berries. Claudia and her father emphasized that GM crops are a powerful tool for improving yields and income, but must be used along with other tools. They said that 90% of everyday people in their region have favorable or neutral opinions of GMOs, and that public resistance isn’t common.

These farmer conversations reveal important differences in the Argentine and Brazilian rhetoric surrounding GM crops. Ricardo considered himself anti-GMO after realizing their drawbacks. Claudia doesn’t condemn biotechnology despite that she prefers organic strawberry farming and acknowledges challenges associated with transgenic crops. Ricardo’s strong stance and Claudia’s more fluid opinion illustrate that the conversation in Argentina is much more polarizing than in Brazil. Likewise, when I told the random people I met in Brazilian hostels or buses that I was conducting a study on transgenic crops, they smiled politely and the conversation moved on. In Argentina almost everyone had an opinion. I would be interested to know more about whether this difference is simply due to cultural conversational norms, or something more specific. A few of my theories include differences in the relative level of GMO use, the presence of visible GMO lawsuits in Argentina, or the greater American cultural influence in Brazil and European influence in Argentina.

*Names and identifying details have been changed

**I must note that as always it’s impossible to use interviews with a few people to generalize the opinions of huge countries, and Ricardo’s view was especially unique. The other farmers that I spoke with in Argentina said that GM crops are necessary to increase yields, and that anti-GMO activists focus too much on the politics of biotechnology without understanding the science.


This weekend I took a break from research (and blogging) for a few days to explore Curitiba, the capital of Paraná province and a quick bus ride from Londrina. Here are some highlights from my trip.

Curitiba University of the Environment - This was the first university in the world to be founded exclusively for environmental study. Its main structure is a multi-level treehouse with classrooms, a spiraling walkway, and a beautiful lake in the backyard. The goose started  chasing me immediately after I took the picture

Curitiba University of the Environment – This was the first university in the world to be founded exclusively for environmental study. Its main structure is a multi-level treehouse with classrooms, a spiraling walkway, and a beautiful lake in the backyard. The goose started chasing me immediately after I took the picture

Oscar Niemeyer Museum shaped like a giant eye (you can see some people to the left for scale)

Oscar Niemeyer Museum of Art shaped like a giant eye (you can barely see some people on the walkway to the right for scale)

The greenhouse of the Curitiba Botanical Gardens, which houses some of Brazil's tropical species. The architecture was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London.

The greenhouse of the Curitiba Botanical Gardens, which houses some of Brazil’s tropical species. The architecture was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London.

The French Gardens, view from inside the greenhouse. Regret = the photo being a tiny bit off-center

The French Gardens, view from inside the greenhouse. Regret = the photo being a tiny bit off-center

Paraná Pines, a famous species in this state

Paraná Pines, a famous species in this state

The central market of Curitiba with fruits, veggies, drinks, spices, and more from all over the world. As someone obsessed with food and farming, exploring the markets of different cities has been one of my favorite parts of my trip so far. In every one I've looked for one thing....

The central market of Curitiba with fruits, veggies, drinks, spices, and more from all over the world. As someone obsessed with food and farming, exploring the markets of different cities has been one of my favorite parts of my trip so far. In every one I’ve looked for one thing….

.....and I found it! This is a granadilla - it's a fruit that I loved when I studied abroad in Ecuador. It's common in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, but I haven't been able to find it during this trip. It was imported so it was $2 instead of $0.20 like it was in Ecuador, but was worth it.

…..and I finally found it in Curitiba! This is a granadilla – it’s a fruit that I loved when I studied abroad in Ecuador. It’s common in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, but I haven’t been able to find it during this trip. It was imported so it was $2 instead of $0.20 like it was in Ecuador, but was worth it.

The inside of the granadilla - the seeds are surrounded by a sweet jelly.

The inside of the granadilla – the seeds are surrounded by a sweet jelly.

Now I’m back in Londrina catching up on planning, and will hopefully interview some farmers tomorrow and Friday. Stay tuned!

Greetings from Brazil!

On Sunday I left Buenos Aires and arrived in São Paulo, Brazil. I still have to analyze my interviews with Argentine farmers and will write a post about my findings soon, but wanted to share what I’ve been doing for the past week.

On Monday I had time for a short walking tour of São Paulo before I had to catch a 6PM flight to the city of Londrina, Brazil. In 2013, I spent a summer in Londrina as a World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan International Intern at Embrapa-soja, a publicly owned research company that investigates soybean diseases, genetics, agronomy, and more. This week I got to return for a new research project. Here is a picture of me on my first day of work three years ago looking terrified to be abroad alone for the first time, and me on Tuesday ecstatic to return to my wonderful Brazilian friends and a fascinating research institution.

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I’ve spent this week catching up with friends and learning about Embrapa’s work with biotechnology. They recently commercialized a variety of soybean that is resistant to a new herbicide, which allows farmers to control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate. When I asked plant geneticists what they thought about the over-application of herbicide and the resistant weeds that result, they were quick to point out that it was the misuse of chemicals by farmers, and not transgenic technology that was the problem. They said agronomists, not crop breeders or geneticists should take the blame.

In case you’re not familiar with the different forms of agricultural science, breeders and geneticists are the people who create new seed varieties, normally in a lab. Agronomists are supposed to study how the different components of an agricultural system such as seeds, soil, insects, pesticides, and precipitation function together. Ideally, they would advise a farmer to use Herbicide A in 2016 and Herbicide B in 2017, so any weeds that developed resistance to A would be killed by B the next year. This action would reduce overall herbicide application because the weeds would be more sensitive to small doses. The Embrapa scientists say that most agronomists in Brazil work for private companies, so have an interest in selling particular herbicides instead of advising rotation with their competitor’s brand. This makes it easy and cheap for farmers to use glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant seeds every year. Thus, while Embrapa scientists’ claim sounds reasonable in theory, I think they underestimate the importance of viewing the technology within the context of an economic system that makes it so difficult for farmers to use herbicide-resistant seeds responsibly. I’m looking forward to meeting with farmers next week to hear their thoughts.

A biosafety sign in an Embrapa test field recently containing GM soy

A biosafety sign in an Embrapa test field recently containing GM soy

Outside of the lab, I’ve enjoyed spending time with friends and eating a lot of Brazilian food such as açaí and coxinha (a fried ball of chicken and breading). I took a Portuguese class for three months, so it’s also been fun to practice a new language. I thought it would be easy, but it turns out that not everyone speaks as slowly or clearly as my Portuguese teacher. So far I’ve understood enough to get by, but when it comes to speaking I can only nod and say “yes,” “no,” and “very good!” without taking three minutes to formulate a response. Luckily I can often speak a mix of Spanish, English, and broken Portuguese and still get by. In any case, I’m grateful to be back spending time with lovely friends, old and new.

Enjoying dinner and conversations in Portuñol-glish with my Brazilian friends Juliana and Douglas, and their Spanish friend Pablo

Enjoying dinner and conversations in Portuñol-glish with my Brazilian friends Juliana and Douglas, and their Spanish friend Pablo


Rosario, Argentina: the People’s Perspective

As I was planning for this research project, I wasn’t anticipating including public discourse in my analyses because I didn’t know how I would find sources of information. In Rosario, it turned out to be quite easy. In the five days that I was there, I stumbled upon many public examples of conversations about biotechnology, including anti-Monsanto graffiti, the premiere of a documentary criticizing the region’s soybean production, and a science museum with several mentions of GMOs.


Anti-Monsanto graffiti under a street sign in Rosario

A genetically modified soybean on display in the Natural Science Museum in Rosario

A genetically modified soybean on display in the Natural Science Museum in Rosario

Visiting INDEAR, which is housed on a CONICET research complex

Visiting INDEAR, which is housed on a CONICET research complex

I also ended up hearing a lot of random people’s opinions on the matter in an exchanges that usually went as follows:

The setting: Me, chilling in a [bus station/taxi/guided tour/…] reveling in the fact that I’m blending in so well compared to my time in other foreign countries because there are plenty of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Argentines.

Random Argentine [bus passenger/taxi driver/tourist/…]: Where are you from?

Me: (Dang, it must have been my comfortable walking shoes that gave me away) the United States, Chicago to be exact.

Argentine: What are you doing here?

Me: I’m doing a study about GMOs here in Argentina

Argentine (seeming a bit suspicious of me): And are you for them or against them?

Me: I don’t have a very strong opinion because there are so many different types. What do you think?

Argentine: Well, I don’t know much, but my [brother/daughter/friend] told me about a [neighbor/community/person in a news story] that [said studies show they’re safe/banned GMOs/got cancer from the use of agrochemicals]. In any case, I just don’t think we know enough about them to know they’re safe…

Me: Oh okay, could you expand on that?

Argentine: [Lengthy explanation on what they’ve heard]

I want to emphasize two main themes from my conversations: first, that everyone either took a positive or negative stance on GMOs, with more people leaning negative. Second, that many people were critical of GMOs because they didn’t think that we know enough about them.

On the first point, you may be thinking, of course they’re going to have a positive or negative opinion: what other type exists? With some issues, especially political ones, there is no way to have a middle ground. With GMOs on the other hand, there is no biological factor stopping a farmer from using organic soil conservation techniques and planting a seed that has been genetically modifed. Nonetheless, in today’s system, herbicide tolerance is the most common trait, so it isn’t surprising that people equate GMOs with industrial agriculture and chemical application.

At the natural science museum in Rosario, there was a video about agriculture in one of the exhibits. It showed two types of agriculture: agroecology, represented by hard-working farmers, chirping birds, and glistening strawberries; and conventional agriculture, represented by big machines, flashing red warning noises, and endless fields of soybeans. When I asked the director of the video about its purpose, he said that he wanted to present another side of the story because in Rosario, there is a great deal of pro-GMO sentiment. This observation was interesting because people who were “pro-GMO” often said that most people were anti-GMO. The division into these conflicting sides fascinated me, and made me doubt whether the consensus could move to the middle even if new traits such as drought tolerance reduce the amount resources required for food production.

On the second point: a conversation I had with one of the scientists at INDEAR perhaps explains why the public feels like we don’t know enough about GMOs. The scientist said that on average, the scientific and regulatory process for developing a GM crop takes 13 years. 13 years. During this time, they test the trait in every way imaginable for possible health and environmental risks. The average person, however, only reads about the “discovery” of a new GM trait once it’s released, making it seem like a sudden phenomenon. I’m not sure if there’s a solution to this problem, but I think it arises from the contrasting priorities of the press and science: the media operates around strict deadlines, confirmed facts, and definite events; on the other hand, the scientific world progresses gradually and is reluctant to declare anything with certainty. It would would be difficult to write an intriguing story about a drought-resistant soybean that might be released in five years, but might also fall into a black hole of regulatory chaos and be put on hold for another decade. Thus, the public only hears about biotechnology when it’s released, not the years of research behind it.

Thanks for getting through a long post – I hope you found it interesting. I’ll post more photos once I figure out some technical problems. In the meantime, I’m currently waiting in the Buenos Aires airport to go to São Paulo. Hasta luego, Argentina and Olá Brazil!