2-Plants: GE crops - Unwelcome underperformers
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TITLE: Unwelcome underperformers
SOURCE: Guelph Mercury. Canada, Opinion, by Ann Clark
DATE: Aug 14, 2003
------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------
I have read with interest the dialogue surrounding the recent Guelph
visit of Michael Meacher, former Minister of the Environment in the UK.
In response to anecdotal evidence provided by Terry Daynard in "I have
sinned: I grow genetically modified crops" (The Guelph Mercury, Aug. 9)
on crop performance on his farm, I would offer information from the
United States Department of Agriculture (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride,
2002; www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer810/), from Charles Benbrook [1999
(www.biotech-info.net/RR_yield_drag_98.pdf) and 2001 (www.biotech-
info.net/troubledtimes.html)] -- former Chair of the Board on Agriculture
of the U.S. National Academy of Science -- and from the scientific
literature (Elmore et al., 2002a and b; Agron. J. 93(2):404-407 and 408-412).
Contrary to Daynard's favorable experience, independent analysts have not
found that Roundup Ready soybeans yield more, reduce herbicide use, or
increase farmer profits.
Roundup Ready (RR) soybean yield.
Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops, of which most are Roundup Ready, account
for about two-thirds of all genetically modified crops sown, of which the
remainder are Bt (insecticidal) crops. The United States Department of
Agriculture found that Roundup Ready soy yields would increase by a scant
0.3 per cent, if 10 per cent of U.S. soybean growers adopted the Roundup
Ready technology. In contrast, a range of industry, university, and
state-sponsored surveys summarized by Benbrook showed that Roundup Ready
soybean yields averaged five to 10 per cent less than conventional
soybeans. As shown by Elmore and colleagues, Roundup Ready soy yield is
reduced even between hand-weeded (unsprayed) lines differing only in the
presence of the Roundup Ready gene. So, the yield drag cannot be
explained as an artefact caused by the Roundup itself or from comparing
genetically different lines. Indeed, because they are not bred for higher
yield, the only way that Roundup Ready crops could "increase yield" would
be if other herbicides or approaches proved unequal to the task of
suppressing a heavy weed population.
Pesticide use reduction.
United States Department of Agriculture researchers reported that Roundup
Ready soy requires more, not less, active ingredients (a.i.) per acre
than competing herbicides, many of which are designed to act at very
small concentrations. Using typical U.S. tank mixes, herbicide rates on
farms range from 0.84 to 2.63 kg a.i./ha for Roundup Ready soybeans
versus 0.09 to 1.68 kg a.i./ha for conventional cultivars (Table 1.10;
Benbrook, 2001). The net effect is that Roundup Ready soybean growers are
now applying about 0.56 kg/ha more herbicide -- or nine million kg more
herbicide a year in the U.S.
While Roundup Ready soybeans don't reduce herbicide use, they have
allowed producers to replace more toxic herbicides with Roundup, which is
much less hazardous to human health. However, this benefit is short-
lived, because overuse of Roundup on Roundup Ready-crops has already
selected for resistance or tolerance to Roundup in several key weed
species, obliging producers to revert to additional herbicides or more
applications of Roundup.
U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers attributed a net reduction of
2.5 million pounds pesticide a.i. to the adoption of genetically modified
corn, soy, and cotton crops, primarily due to Bt-cotton in some states.
As calculated from ERS-USDA figures (www.ers.usda.gov/Data/
cropproductionpractices/ShowTables.asp), total pesticide use on corn,
soy, and cotton in 2000 was about 327 million lb. Thus, converting 68 per
cent of U.S. soybean acreage to HT soybean, 56 per cent of U.S. cotton
acreage to HT cotton, 19 per cent of U.S. corn acreage to Bt corn, and 37
per cent of U.S. cotton acreage to Bt cotton reduced pesticide use by 2.5
of 327 million lb or a barely distinguishable 0.7 per cent in pesticide
a.i.. The premise that Roundup Ready soy or Bt corn reduce pesticide use
The reference to the Wilson farm market study assessing preference for
Bt- versus non-genetically modified sweet corn warrants elaboration. In
particular, refer to Chapter 4 of a new text by Stuart Laidlaw of the
Toronto Star, entitled Secret Ingredients.
The tenor of the trial, which was run by Doug Powell, a risk communicator
at the University of Guelph, is reflected in a photo taken at the Wilson
farm market. Above the non-genetically modified sweet corn bin is a sign:
"Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?" Regular Sweet Corn: insecticides:
carbofuran sprayed 3X or Bt foliar spray sprayed 1X; Fungicide: Bravo
sprayed once; Herbicide and Fertilizer: 1 application of each".
In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into
Producing Quality Sweet Corn,"followed by a list of fertilizers, with the
fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign. Given the clear
experimental bias introduced by the label wording, Laidlaw's key finding
was that consumers were nonetheless willing to buy 5000 cobs of "wormy"
(versus 8000 cobs of "quality") sweet corn -- clearly indicating consumer
distrust of, rather than preference for, Bt sweet corn.
Net returns to farmers.
U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers stated: "Perhaps the biggest
issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE
(GM) 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
This does not mean that returns are always unfavorable, as shown by
Daynard's testimonial, but on average, genetically modified corn and
soybean have not paid for U.S. farmers.
In comparing the economic returns from Bt corn between 1996 and 2001,
Benbrook ( http://www.biotech-info.net/GMO_corn.pdf) calculated that U.S.
farmers paid at least $659 million in price premia to grow Bt corn, but
returned just $567 million, for a net loss of $92 million.
Likewise, Furtan et al. (2003; www.usask.ca/agriculture/agec/
publications/GM%20Canada%203.pdf) found that the proposed introduction of
Roundup Ready wheat in Canada would entail losses of $45.8 and $32.3
million annually to the adopters and non-adopters of the technology,
respectively, while bringing in a positive $156.6 million to Monsanto.
Farmers lose because 82 per cent of those who import Canadian wheat say
they won't accept genetically modified wheat, and it is not feasible to
segregate them. Because the price of genetically modified-contaminated
wheat is less, everybody loses except Monsanto.
Why do farmers continue to buy genetically modified seed?
If genetically modified crops do not perform as promised, then why do
farmers continue to buy the seed, and specifically the genetically
modified canola which so disturbed Meacher? Understanding that HT and
mostly Roundup Ready canola accounts for all the genetically modified
canola sold in western Canada, several reasons could be offered:
1) To make weed control more convenient, as suggested by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture researchers. This is particularly plausible
where ecologically unsound crop management practices have produced a
large population of intractable weeds;
2) To avoid the risk of a lawsuit. Percy Schmeiser, a 72 year old
Saskatchewan canola grower, was found guilty of patent infringement when
Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene was found in his canola, despite the fact
that the contamination was inadvertent, that he didn't benefit from it,
and that he couldn't have avoided it. His case, which has already cost
him hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be heard by the Supreme Court
of Canada in January 2004;
3) To access other desired traits, The same seed companies which offer
genetically modified cultivars also control the seed supply of non-
genetically modified cultivars. Seed of the best varieties may be in
limited supply, unless fitted with a genetically modified trait; or
4) To deal with the problem of contamination in non-genetically modified
seed. Seed companies no longer guarantee that non-genetically modified
seed is actually genetically modified free, for the same reasons that
Schmeiser's fields were contaminated.
In fact, considerable evidence has shown that the non-genetically
modified canola seed supply is already contaminated. Thus, buying
genetically modified seed which allows the spraying of Roundup may be the
only agronomically sound alternative to buying non-genetically modified
seed and then having to apply additional sprays to cope with in-crop
Roundup tolerant canola volunteers.
In sum, the concerns expressed by Michael Meacher about the impact of
genetically modified technology on Canadian farmers are fully supported
by authoritative evidence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and
others. Canadian data was not cited because comparable analyses have not
been forthcoming from the Canadian government.
The many promises made for genetically modified crops have not withstood
the test of time. Instead, genetically modified crops have served to
enrich biotech companies at the expense of financially strapped farmers,
expose non-adopters of GM to the unavoidable risk of lawsuits, eliminate
organic canola-growing in the west, contaminate the food supply with
genetically modified crops that consumers don't want, and compromise the
marketability of our crops to off-shore buyers.
Since when do consumers have to buy something just because we want to
grow it? Enough is enough. The government of Canada needs to rethink its
unqualified support for this underperforming and unwelcome technology.
E. Ann Clark, Ph.D. is an associate professor of plant agriculture at the
University of Guelph.
European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig