One tool for a complex problem

History is full of examples of heated, ideological and rhetorical public debates that somehow miss the point.

The controversy over genetically modified crops is such a case. The debate has generally fallen into two camps — the “Frankenfood” phenomenon, the question of whether we should be meddling with nature’s processes for genetic evolution and “feeding the world,” as in anyone who has issues with this approach to crop improvement favours starving innocent children in far-off corners of the world.

It’s often said that farmers vote with their seeders and that’s certainly been the case in North and South America. GM crops have now been grown in North America for more than 15 years, where farmers have willingly ceded their rights to produce their own seed for the simplicity and stability that herbicide resistance and built-in insecticides have brought to their fields.

But the EU has not yet allowed its farmers to grow GM crops and that’s providing an opportunity for comparisons. The results from just such a comparison in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability may come as a surprise to farmers here who have bought into the theory that GM technology is giving them a competitive edge in global markets.

The study team led by Jack A. Heinemann, a molecular biologist with the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, looked at long-term yield data from Western Europe and the U.S. and Canada with three questions in mind: whether GM technology is giving North America a yield advantage as is claimed, whether it lowers use of pesticides, and thirdly, whether GMs result in a more resilient cropping system.

“The U.S. (and Canadian) yields are falling behind economically and technologically equivalent agroecosystems matched for latitude, season and crop type; pesticide (both herbicide and insecticide) use is higher in the United States than in comparator Western European countries; the industries of all types that are supplying inputs to the farmer are becoming more concentrated and monopolistic, and these tendencies correlate with stagnation or declines in germplasm diversity,” they report.

When these researchers compared canola yields between Canada and Europe, they found that while Canadian average canola yields have always lagged European yields (currently more than 40 per cent higher), they have fallen further behind since the introduction of GM varieties.

Just for kicks, they also looked at wheat yield gains in both regions, even though neither currently use GM wheat. Again, they found the annual yield gain was higher in Western Europe, which indicates that yield gains are not dependent on GM biotechnologies “and that the combination of biotechnologies used by Western Europe is demonstrating greater productivity than the combination used by the United States.”

That tells us that GM isn’t the reason why yields are increasing.

And those productivity gains in Europe are taking place while the continent is simultaneously ratcheting down its use of pesticides. For example, in France, insecticide use in 2007 had dropped to just 12 per cent of the 1995 levels. Similar trends were seen in Germany and Switzerland.

Bt crops have indeed resulted in less commercial insecticides used in countries growing these crops. But Bt is still an insecticide, albeit a natural one. And the reliance on herbicides in GM cropping has actually risen significantly. As well, both insects and weeds are developing resistance to these production systems, prompting farmers to revert to older, and in some cases, more environmentally damaging chemistries.

Declining biodiversity is an issue in both farming systems. “Most major crops are impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable,” the report says.

One of the triggers of a global food scare in the early 1970s was an outbreak of southern corn leaf blight that chopped 20 per cent off U.S. corn yields and resulted in a 21-million-tonne smaller crop than projected. If the U.S. corn crop suffers, global markets respond. The corn crop was largely based on genetically uniform hybrids that proved highly susceptible to that pathogen. Could history repeat itself?

The cost of innovation by focusing on GM crops has rapidly consolidated the seed business. The use of patents, either contractual or biological, as in the case of hybrids, to prevent farmers from developing their own seed, is seen by these researchers as increasing the food system’s vulnerability, rather than stabilizing it.

Europe and North America have taken two very different approaches to the linked problems of increasing yields and controlling pests in crop production. The question we need to be asking ourselves in North America is whether our focus on one shiny tool has blinded us to all our options.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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