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Points to Consider: GM Crops Have Provided Global Environmental Benefits

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Ideological opponents of innovations in agriculture are mounting a major campaign to denigrate and discredit crops improved through biotechnology. They face a tough challenge, as the economic and environmental benefits of such crops have, due to their undeniable virtues, been adopted by farmers around the world more rapidly than any other innovation in the history of agriculture. Opponents are often aided in their struggles by journalists who recycle their press releases rather than digging for the truth. We take a closer look at a recent example.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: U.S. GMO Crops Show Mix of Benefits, Concerns – USDA Report, Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/usda-gmo-report-idUSL1N0LT16M20140224

THE USDA REPORT: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err162.aspx#.Uwz0fPldWSo

PRIMARY CLAIM IN THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE:

  • “U.S. farmers are continuing to see an array of benefits, but the impacts on the environmental and on food production are mixed, and high farmer use of a popular herbicide on GMO crops is a cause for ongoing concern.”

SALIENT FACTS & CONTEXT:  

  • The reporter that wrote this piece, Cary Gilliam, has acquired a well-deserved reputation for finding the most negative way to convey even the most positive information about crops improved through biotechnology. This latest offering continues the pattern.
  • After reading the USDA report itself, one could be forgiven for wondering what the source was for the Reuters report, as many of the claims made for the study in the Reuters report are contradicted by or inconsistent with the report itself.
  • The USDA report leads with a discussion of the extensive R&D activities and investment by seed companies/technology providers, and a recounting of the significant and substantial benefits these value added seeds have delivered to farmers, consumers, and the environment, accounting for their unprecedented market penetration. The Reuters article alludes to these remarkable successes only in passing.
  • Reading the USDA report, or the separate summary, leaves one with a far more positive yet nuanced impression of the technology and its impacts than one could imagine from reading only the Reuters article.
  • A much more balanced interpretation (from a journalist who leans skeptical) can be found at Grist: http://grist.org/food/gmo-yeah-5-surprises-from-an-otherwise-boring-look-at-genetically-modified-crops/#.Uw4bby4DBkc.twitter.

ANALYSIS SPECIFIC CLAIMS:

  • The Reuters article states “the report, released online on Feb. 20, comes at a time when GMO crops are under intense scrutiny.”
    • Critique: These crops are today, in fact, under less scrutiny than they have been at almost any other time since their advent, in view of their impeccable record of safety and value delivered to farmers, consumers, and the environment.
    • These crops are, however, under attack, as part of a well-orchestrated campaign of disparagement by parties with vested competing interests.
    • No negative consequences for human or animal health or the environment have ever been shown to be due to the use of biotechnology to produce value added seeds.
    • Issues that have been identified are no different than those associated with similar conventional crop varieties.
  • “Consumer groups are calling for tighter regulation of crop research and production and seeking mandatory labeling of foods made with GMOs”
    • Critique: The campaigns cited are being driven by special interest groups like the grossly misnamed “Center for Food Safety” which pose as consumer groups but are in fact stalking horses for other vested and competing interests.
    • The labeling issue is a red herring here. It applies to processed foods sold by food companies in grocery stores. It is not germane to the sale of seeds, by seed companies, to farmers.
  • “Environmentalists are reporting increasing concerns about…insect resistance to the crops and the chemicals used on them”
    • Reuters’ coverage is so grossly slanted as to be dishonest, ignoring the first five points on insect resistance presented in the USDA report to focus solely, and misleadingly, on the final. The language of the USDA report is
      • Farmers generally use less insecticide when they plant Bt corn and Bt cotton.
      • Corn insecticide use by both GE seed adopters and nonadopters has decreased—only 9 percent of all U.S. corn farmers used insecticides in 2010.
      • Insecticide use on corn farms declined from 0.21 pound per planted acre in 1995 to 0.02 pound in 2010.
      • This is consistent with the steady decline in European corn borer populations over the last decade that has been shown to be a direct result of Bt adoption.
      • The establishment of minimum refuge requirements (planting sufficient acres of the non-Bt crop near the Bt crop) has helped delay the evolution of Bt resistance. [The report includes an extended discussion of the unprecedented example of good stewardship by seed companies in their refugia and resistance management efforts, entirely unmentioned by Reuters.]
      • However, there are some indications that insect resistance is developing to some Bt traits in some areas.
  • “…some scientific studies are reporting that the chemicals used on the crops are linked to disease and illness.”
    • Critique: The report states flatly that “The herbicide glyphosate is more environmentally benign than the herbicides that it replaces.”
    • The BT proteins used in insect control are the same proteins used by organic growers, with the same modes of action and identical activity spectra.
    • The handful of studies claiming to find “links” between these chemicals and disease or illness are inconsistent with thousands that have found no such links.
    • Those few studies claiming to detect such links have been subject to withering criticism for numerous flaws, culminating in wide condemnation from the regulatory and scientific community up to and including retraction.
    • The only mention of these studies in the report is in footnote 25, juxtaposed for completeness with a recounting of the global scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops. Reuters reporting on this point is grossly misleading and inaccurate.
  • “The seeds are patented and cost more than conventional seeds – the price of GMO soybean and corn seeds grew by about 50 percent between 2001 and 2010, according to the report. But the companies that sell them say they make weed and insect management easier for farmers and can help increase production.”
    • Critique: It is not just “the companies that sell them” that say the biotech improved seeds deliver the multiple benefits cited; it is the farmers who grow them.
    • These farmers have adopted biotech seeds at rates unprecedented in the history of agriculture. They have done so because of demonstrated value and performance delivered.
  • “…the ERS researchers said over the first 15 years of commercial use, GMO seeds have not been shown to definitively increase yield potentials, and “in fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties,” the ERS report states.”
    • Critique: The report actually states “The adoption of Bt crops increases yields by mitigating yield losses from insects. However, empirical evidence regarding the effect of HT crops on yields is mixed. Generally, stacked seeds (seeds with more than one GE trait) tend to have higher yields than conventional seeds or than seeds with only one GE trait. GE corn with stacked traits grew from 1 percent of corn acres in 2000 to 71 percent in 2013. Stacked seed varieties also accounted for 67 percent of cotton acres in 2013.”
    • In other words, while emphasizing that the biotech seeds increase yields, it notes that different varieties produce different yields. This is no surprise to anybody who has ever planted seeds.
  • “Several researchers have found “no significant differences” between the net returns to farmers who use GMO herbicide tolerant seeds and those who use non-GMO seeds, the report states.”
    • Critique: Net returns are critically dependent on the level of weed or insect pest pressure. Farmers who pay for elite seeds to mitigate those problems when the problems do not occur will see lower net returns than those who bought cheaper and less potent seed. This is entirely unsurprising.
  • “GMO crops that prevent yield losses to pests is more helpful to farmers financially, allowing crops more yield potential and higher monetary returns, the report states.”
    • Critique: This is true, and hardly a drawback.
  • “As well, insecticide use on corn farms was down to 0.02 pound per acre in 2010, down from 0.21 pound per acre in 1995, the report states.”
    • Critique: Again, true and not a drawback.
  • “But while insecticide use has gone down, herbicide use on GMO corn is rising, the report states. Herbicide use on GMO corn increased from around 1.5 pounds per planted acre in 2001 to more than 2.0 pounds per planted acre in 2010. Herbicide use on non-GMO corn has remained relatively level during that same time frame, the ERS said.”
    • Critique: This comment relies on the simplistic “pounds on the ground” measure, which completely ignores the relative environmental impact of different active ingredients.
    • Peer reviewed publications measuring environmental impact  have, in fact, found the average result from the use of biotech seeds is to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture by 17%.
  • “And the over reliance on glyphosate has translated to an increase in weed resistance, which makes crop production much harder. Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in Roundup herbicide sold by Monsanto, and its use has translated to the glyphosate resistance seen in 14 weed species and biotypes in the United States, according to ERS.”
    • Critique: The increase in weed resistance observed has come less from the pejoratively described “over reliance” on one of the safest and most environmentally beneficial herbicides on record, but from poor agronomic practice that failed to rotate control measures, as is standard operating procedure to forestall the evolution of resistance.
    • Some weed experts believe the reported glyphosate tolerance problems are less due to the evolution de novo of tolerance in weed populations than to the transformation of weed populations and the emergence of weeds previously known to be glyphosate tolerant.
    • In any case, the solution is obvious: good stewardship in weed control measures requires rotation of methods.
  • “Researchers have thousands of tests underway in U.S. fields for new crops, ERS reported. As of September 2013, about 7,800 releases have been approved for genetically engineered (GE) corn, more than 2,200 for GE soybeans, more than 1,100 for GE cotton, and about 900 for GE potatoes.”
    • Critique: These unquestioned data reveal an explosion of innovation and investment by seed companies in solutions to address the most urgent challenges faced by farmers: managing weeds, insect pests, and disease. At a time when public sector research investment has been in decline for decades, it is deserving of note and praise, though not to Reuters.

 

 

 

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About the author

L. Val Giddings is a senior fellow at ITIF with three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He is also president and CEO of PrometheusAB, Inc., providing consulting services on biotechnology issues to governments, multilateral organizations, and industry clients. Before founding PrometheusAB, he served eight years as vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization and a decade as a regulatory official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Giddings received his Ph.D. in genetics and evolutionary biology from the University of Hawaii in 1980.