Genetically modified (GM) crops haven’t increased yields or reduced pesticide use as promised by developers, according to a study conducted by the New York Times published Oct. 29.
But a Canadian study shows biotechnology, which includes genetic modification and new hybridization techniques in canola, boosted yields and put billions of extra dollars into farmers’ pockets.
“We calculated the cumulative benefit of this adoption at $30 billion from 1996 to 2012 and it has been on an upward trend for most of that period,” agricultural economists Stavroula Malla (University of Lethbridge) and Derek Brewin (University of Manitoba) wrote in a paper published last year in AgVio Forum.
“For the 2012 crop year, we estimated the net benefits at $726 million,” their paper reads.
Most of those benefits came from genetic modifications to different varieties of canola resistant to the herbicides glyphosate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty) as well as resistance to Clearfield herbicides developed through mutagenesis.
Farmers gain about $100 a hectare more with canolas developed through biotechnology versus conventional canola, Brewin said in an Oct. 21 interview.
“There are a lot of acres of this happening and that is why we are close to $1 billion in gain,” he said.
Brewin said there was only a brief period, right after the introduction of herbicide-tolerant canolas, when farmers were worse off because higher seed costs ate up all the gains.
He also said stronger plant breeders’ rights are helping farmers because some of what they pay for seed is being reinvested in new canola by private canola-developing companies.
“In the long run farmer-saved seed is undermining private sector investment (in new varieties),” he said.
The New York Times said it concluded GM crops haven’t boosted yields or reduced pesticide after comparing GM crop yields and pesticide use in Canada and the United States against those of conventional crops in Western Europe.
“An analysis by the Times using United Nations data showed that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany,” Danny Hakim wrote. “Also, a recent National Academy of Sciences report found that ‘there was little evidence’ that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops.
According to the New York Times pesticide use in the U.S. hasn’t fallen as much as in France.
“Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 per cent,” the New York Times story says. “By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 per cent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 per cent.”
The story triggered a lot of criticism on social media and charges of biased reporting.
Andrew R. Kniss, associate professor of weed biology and ecology at the University of Wyoming wrote on weedcontrolfreaks.com that in crops such as corn and soybeans, genetic modification hasn’t had a dramatic impact on yield because there are other ways to control pests. However, modifying sugar beets to be herbicide tolerant has boosted yields because weed control options were limited.
Although Kniss didn’t comment on canola, it probably applies there too.
Where the New York Times article falls short is on pesticide use, Kniss wrote.
“The NYT provides a few charts in the article, one of which supports the statement about France’s reduced pesticide use. But the figures used to compare pesticide use in France versus the U.S. are convoluted and misleading. First, the data is presented in different units (thousand metric tons for France, compared to million pounds in the U.S.), making a direct comparison nearly impossible. Second, the pesticide amounts are not standardized per unit area, which is critically important since the U.S. has over nine times the amount of farmland that France does. It would be shocking if the U.S. didn’t use far more pesticide when expressed this way.”
Kniss acknowledges GM crops may not have lived up to the hype, but wrote the debate is detracting from more important agricultural issues.
“GMOs have not and will not result in an agricultural panacea,” he wrote, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.”