USDA Report Exposes GM Crop
"Perhaps the biggest issue raised
by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial
impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."
'The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops'
US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002
"GE crops available for commercial
use do not increase the yield potential of a variety... the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans does
not have a statistically significant effect on net returns.... the soybean results appear to be inconsistent with the rapid adoption of
this [GE] technology....An analysis using
broader financial performance measures (including net farm income and return on assets) did not show GE crops to have a significant impact..... Perhaps the
biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops
when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.....Even more
puzzling, the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans and Bt corn has been rapid, even
though we could not find positive financial impacts in either the field-level nor the
whole-farm analysis.....the adoption of Bt
corn had a negative impact on the farm financial performance....the total herbicide pounds used on [GE] soybeans actually
increased as glyphosate was substituted for conventional herbicides... the data indicate that an estimated 13.4 million pounds of
glyphosate substituted for 11.1 million pounds of other synthetic herbicides..... Change in pesticide use from the adoption of
herbicide-tolerant cotton was not significant.....Availability, since the 1980s, of postemergent herbicides that could be
applied over a crop during the growing season has facilitated the use of no-till ... using herbicide tolerant seed did not significantly
affect no-till adoption. "
'The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops'
US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002
Updated 28 Feb 2010
There has been a widespread belief within sections of the UK farming community that the availability of GM (or 'GE') crops will enable British agriculture to compete in a cost efficient way in international markets - the so-called 'competitiveness' factor. This belief stems largely from the assumption that farmers in America are already enjoying such a competitive advantage (albeit a belief which seems to ignore the most important question as to how much of a market there is for GM produce outside of America).
Reinforcing this perception the UK's leading agricultural journal 'Farmers Weekly' published an article 12 July 2002 entitled "Data shows economic success for GM crops" based on a study produced by the US National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP). This report made some strong claims regarding the economic performance of GM crops.
However, agricultural journalists rarely have time to read such reports in detail, and often do not pay much attention to who has funded them - in this case the study was part financed by Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO). BIO's remit since 1993 has included responsibility for "Shaping political and public reaction to the genetically modified foods that were poised to enter supermarkets".
However, in the same month that the NCFAP report was published the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its own extensive analysis of the economic performance of GM crops in America. This revealed a completely different picture. Indeed, the USDA report goes so far as to conclude (page 24) that "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."
There have been significant reductions in pesticide use in some cases in America, but by 2008 this had been mostly confined to Bt Cotton, which is often planted where little integrated pest management is used (an alternative approach which limits the need for the use of insecticides).
However, the 2002 USDA report had already confirmed the following:
- "GE crops available for commercial use do not increase the yield potential of a variety." [p21]
- "... the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans does not have a statistically significant effect on net returns." [p23]
- "...the soybean results appear to be inconsistent with the rapid adoption of this [GE] technology." [p23]
- "An analysis using broader financial performance measures (including net farm income and return on assets) did not show GE crops to have a significant impact." [p23]
- "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative." [p24]
- "Even more puzzling, the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans and Bt corn has been rapid, even though we could not find positive financial impacts in either the field-level nor the whole-farm analysis." [p24]
- "..the adoption of Bt corn had a negative impact on the farm financial performance..." [p25]
- "...the total herbicide pounds used on [GE] soybeans actually increased as glyphosate was substituted for conventional herbicides... the data indicate that an estimated 13.4 million pounds of glyphosate substituted for 11.1 million pounds of other synthetic herbicides." [p27]
- "Change in pesticide use from the adoption of herbicide-tolerant cotton was not significant." [p28 - see note to graph]
- "Availability, since the 1980s, of postemergent herbicides that could be applied over a crop during the growing season has facilitated the use of no-till ... Adoption of conservation tillage for soybeans grew (at a decreasing rate) from about 25 percent of the soybean acreage in 1990 to 48 percent in 1995, the 5-year period previous to the introduction of herbicide-tolerant soybeans. Growth of conservation tillage increased further in 1996, but then appears to have stagnated between 50 and 60 percent in the following years... According to the econometric model results, using 1997 ARMS survey data, farmers using no-till for soybeans were found to have a higher probability of adopting herbicide-tolerant seed, but using herbicide tolerant seed did not significantly affect no-till adoption. This result seems to suggest that farmers already using no-till found herbicide-tolerant seeds to be an effective weed control mechanism that could be easily incorporated into their weed management program." [p28/29 - but see also footnote a) below]
Following the publication of the USDA report it was clear that British farmers could be confident that the proposed introduction of herbicide-tolerant GM crops in the UK would be unlikely to add to the profitability of their farms (although it would almost certainly alienate the general public who are both their customers and the funders of agricultural subsidies). As economics are the principal reason for farmers' interest in GM crops, it is important to recognise in these circumstances that British agriculture has little to lose and much to gain if the country as a whole decides to remain GM-free.
Quite apart from the issue of crop marketability (which it does not focus on) the detailed analysis of national farm data in the USDA report reveals that GM crops have not generally delivered economic competitive advantage to US farmers - even though that is what many farmers themselves believe.
This is a situation which has been reflected in extensive farming press and other reports originating from as far back as 1996 when GM crops were first introduced on widespread scale. However, it was the May 2002 USDA report which revealed for the first time from an official US government source using unequivocal language, that most of the basic economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect.
That the myth of such economic 'benefits' should have lasted so long says a great deal about the nature of modern agricultural science and the way it is communicated to farmers by vested interests.
There is one especially interesting aspect of the USDA report which had not received much previous attention. Based on its analysis of the most widely grown GM crop, soya, the report confirms that "Using herbicide-tolerant seed did not significantly affect no-till adoption". This finding sits in stark contrast to the claims of those who have attempted to promote GM crops on the back of rising economic and environmental interest in no-till crop husbandry.
As the USDA report points out, the no-till acreage in America had already been steadily rising before the introduction of GM crops. That prior trend has since simply continued. In fact to some degree it had subsequently stagnated according to the USDA analysis.
It has never been necessary to grow GM crops in order to carry out no-till agriculture. In fact by 2002 the countries that had been expanding no-till agriculture at the fastest rate in proportion to their total arable area were in Latin America, where only Argentina had been growing GM crops on a substantial commercial scale (no-till was introduced on tractor-mechanised and large farms in Paraguay in 1990 and by 1997 51% of its total cultivated area was 'no-tilled'. The relative figures in 2000/1 are for Paraguay 52%, Argentina 32%, Brazil 21%, and the United States 16%.).
In the end the 2002 USDA report struggled to explain why there had been such a rapid uptake of GM crops in the US, although it refers to a possible 'convenience' factor. However, a separate study funded by Iowa State University carried out in 1998 reveals that GM crop uptake can be driven as much by how well farmers believe the crops deliver, as by factual data on their real performance. In the world of commerce and marketing perception is, of course, everything.
The Iowa study confirmed that over half of farmers planting herbicide-tolerant GM soya did so because they believed that it gave them higher yields compared to conventional varieties. However, when the university analysed the harvest results of the farms concerned they found the opposite was true despite the belief of the farmers to the contrary (it is in fact now recognised that the 'glyphosate resistance' genetic modification introduced in the 1990s had actually reduced the yield potential of GM soya by inadvertently disturbing other aspects of the plant's functioning).
A subsequent study from the University looked in detail at the on-farm financial performance of soya crops in Iowa. It confirmed that after taking into account costs relating to seed, herbicides, fertiliser, all machinery operations, insurance, and a land charge "there is essentially no difference in costs between the tolerant and non-tolerant fields". However, because of their higher yields the non-GM crops made a profit for their growers, whereas the GM varieties did not.
The study suggested advertising pressure as one possible reason for the rise in the use of herbicide-tolerant soya beans despite their disappointing economic performance.
In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the US owes more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and agronomic delivery. This regrettable development has been apparent for some time. Professor Charles Hagedorn, an Extension specialist working in conjunction with Virginia State University and the US Department of Agriculture, characterised it in September 1998 as "a classic case of what has been described in the [scientific] literature as a situation where commercial development and marketing is way ahead of the science."
It is surely important that the future of world agriculture is developed on the basis of sound science, and not on the basis of those technologies which simply have the biggest PR and marketing budgets or on which the largest number of academic posts are perceived to depend (The potential loss of such posts as a result of public opposition to GM technology is a natural but misplaced fear of the scientific community. Other aspects of modern biotechnology are widely acceptable to the public and are in fact recognised even by industry as having greater long term potential than the incorporation of recombinant DNA into organisms. This area in fact offers a potential 'solution' to the GM debate where the aspirations of both the scientific community and the wider public can be simultaneously satisfied).
If the greatest public good is to be served by any new technology it is essential that the science on which it is based is subject to thorough analysis and scrutiny. In this respect it is worth examining a number of aspects of the NCFAP report prominently featured in Farmers Weekly in July 2002.
A large part of the report is in fact concerned with what it is hoped GM crops might do in the future as opposed to the known performance of currently approved varieties. In addition the NCFAP report indicates that in the process of producing the range of results presented it had changed the methodology used in its earlier studies (nonetheless the study does acknowledge that some results from others researchers which have previously suggested improved GM yields may be accounted for by higher fertiliser use).
Although the report cites various references, remarkably it ignores what is arguably the most rigorous scientific work ever completed in the discipline. This research carried out by the University of Nebraska confirmed the poor yield performance of the GM herbicide resistant soya introduced in the 1990s, which quickly became the world's biggest GM crop. In particular it concluded that the low yields appear to have been caused by the genetic modification itself and not by any adverse effect from the new herbicide to which it had been engineered to be resistant:
"Yields were suppressed with GR [glyphosate resistant] soybean cultivars.... The work reported here demonstrates that a 5% yield suppression was related to the gene or its insertion process and another 5% suppression was due to cultivar genetic differential. Producers should consider the potential for 5-10% yield differentials between GR and non-GR cultivars as they evaluate the overall profitability of producing soybean."
The NCFAP report's failure to acknowledge this study is all the more astonishing because it is one of the few tightly controlled agronomic trials of a GM herbicide resistant crop - using as near isogenic sister line controls as available - to have been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal (Agronomy Journal 93:408-412 (2001)). Few studies, if any, have been subjected to the same degree of scientific rigour in this field.
There is, however, general agreement amongst scientists that Bt insecticide cotton (a crop not relevant to the UK) has resulted in reduced insecticide applications. In the longer term, how sustainable this proves to be due to concerns over the development of insect resistance to any toxin based approach (whether dealing with chemical sprays or toxins genetically engineered into plants) time will tell.
Moreover Bt cotton has never eliminated the use of insecticides; and research on Bt cotton varieties in Australia had already shown insecticide applications steadily rising over the three years ending 1999 (such a phenomenon has also been taking place in China to the point where, by 2004, there were almost no overall savings in insecticide applications in the case of Bt cotton crops).
Even at that early stage 'Innovate Australia' (representing Australia's food, fibre and natural resources research and development corporations) reported that"Economic benefits for growers from the new [Bt cotton] technology have been variable but generally only small when compared to conventional cotton".
There were soon plans to phase out the first generation of Bt cotton varieties in Australia because of problems in this area. It remains to be seen if the relief offered by the replacement 'twin' toxin Bt varieties will prove a durable solution. According to an article published in Cotton World September 2001 the chief executive of the Australian Cotton Cooperative Research Centre, Dr Garry Fitt, warned that 'two gene' cotton would further alter the balance of insect pests, with possible increases in aphids and green vegetable bug populations (such secondary pest problems have since emerged in Bt Cotton crops in China).
Because it remains a toxin based approach, it seems unlikely that that the use of Bt based GM crops will provide a satisfactory long term alternative to insect predator based Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, which some Australian farmers have been developing with considerable success.
Interestingly the NCFAP report states that "Bt cotton is credited with saving the cotton industry in Alabama." By chance nlpwessex corresponded with an agricultural Extension specialist in Alabama from Auburn University in May 2000. He was a Bt cotton enthusiast. He responded to a number of questions related to cotton husbandry practices in Alabama and the use of IPM techniques.
One question was "How often is cotton grown in the same field?" to which the response was "in north Alabama there are fields that have not been out of cotton production since before the civil war (ours) about 150 years.... and some of those fields are down to nil in the organic matter department". More generally he advised that rotation practice varied from continuous cotton to - at best - cotton every other year and that "Most plant at least half [the farm in cotton]. Some all." This situation is not confined to Alabama. According to Professor Robert Hayes of the University of Tennessee: "Unfortunately, most cotton producers do not practice crop rotation, and if they do it is short rotation".
Meanwhile an article in New Scientist 17 August 2002 reported on new chemical patents secured by Monsanto which acknowledge that insect control through transgenic plants "may not be desirable in the long term" because it produces resistant strains and "numerous problems remain... under actual field conditions".
And it is not just Bt crops where the basic functionality of the technology is in danger of faltering. By 2009 the use of herbicide resistant GM varieties had lead to the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds across millions of acres in the United States. So severe had the problem become that in 13 states Monsanto began offering financial incentives to farmers to start using alternative herbicides.
Little of this sounds like significant progress towards sustainable agriculture, one simple test of which is to ask the question "can you keep doing it?".
A simplistic 'one size fits all' approach to farm management of the kind encouraged by the arrival of GM 'input trait' crops is always going to be at risk of creating agro-ecological problems that ultimately become a husbandry burden. Certainly in the case of GM herbicide resistant crops there have been a few years of supposedly trouble free production and then what amounts to technology breakdown.
These kinds of difficulties were not addressed in the 2002 NCFAP report despite Farmers Weekly describing it as "Considered to be the most comprehensive study to date on the economic and environmental benefits of biotech crops in the US".
a) p29 of USDA report. This relates to soya beans, the largest GM crop. Data is not provided for other crop types.
b) More details of the US National
Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy report ('Plant Biotechnology: Current and
Potential Impact For Improving Pest Management In US Agriculture'), part funded
by Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, can be downloaded from: http://www.ncfap.org/40CaseStudies.htm
. This report was publicly launched by press release
dated 10 June.
c) The USDA report ('The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops') is available from: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer810/ .Although dated May 2002 the USDA report appears not to have been publicly released until 28 June. The NCFAP report does not appear, therefore, to have been in a position to take this later governmental review of data into account in its examination of available research.
|Is Genetic Engineering
A Necessary Response To
Unsustainable Farming Practices Such As Have Caused The Soil Erosion Shown In The Photograph Above?
John Aeschliman (above) shows a spot where rain has washed soil from a neighbouring farmer's property onto the road. Aeschliman says his method of farming, in which plants are seeded directly into the remains of the previous crop without tilling, gives stability to the soil, enabling it to retain water and preserve the organic matter within it (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). He has been doing this for decades, long before the arrival of GM crops. By 2008 there were no genetically modified wheat varieties available anywhere in the world, but that did not stop Aeschliman successfully using no-till methods in his wheat fields.
"'Here, look at this stuff,'
Aeschliman said as he held up a handful of the fine brown silt that had eroded off his
neighbor's (cousin's) hillside. 'Now, look over here.' He walked across the road to his no-till wheat
field. Unlike the rolling hills of loose dirt on the
tilled field, Aeschliman's field looks more like a shag rug, with its rows of dead wheat
stubble. He reached down into the dirt and pulled out a coarsely textured, much darker
clump of dirt, roots and debris. 'This soil is full of worms, bacteria and all sorts of
life,' Aeschliman said. 'And it stays put. That stuff over there (waving his thick hand
back behind him) is just powder, brown dust. It's dead. There's no worms, no life in
it.'... Thirty years ago, Aeschliman was one of the first in the Palouse to grow his grains using
no-till farming methods. He's an ardent no-till proselytizer today, but he didn't abandon
tilling the fields based on some organic epiphany or desire to save the world. 'I just got
tired of all the mud,' Aeschliman said."
The lowdown on topsoil: It's disappearing
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 22 January 2008
"Contrary to the assertions made by
the CropLife guest commentator and others, GE crops have not significantly increased
dependence on no-till in America. No-till acreage
grew rapidly in America from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, before GE crops had
gained much market share. The percentage of corn acres planted using no-till rose from
8.5% in 1990 to 17% in 1996, but then to only 19% and 21% in 2002 and 2008."
Dr Charles Benbrook - The opposition's closing remarks
Online Biotechnology Debate
The Economist, 11 November 2010
GM Crop 'Reality Check' Archives
GM Crops Deliver Benefits To Farmers?'
Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth
USDA Data On Rising Pesticide Applications On GM Crops
|The Fundamental Scientific Error
Of Pursuing Transgenics Before Competency In Genomics
|Solution To The GM Debate? - 'The Acceptable Face Of Ag-biotech'
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