Transgenic seeds are toast(ed): New report says GE crops have not increased yield

monsanto_ad1Couched deep within the earth-mother rhetoric of a recent Monsanto ad (which you can also see on the back cover of the current New Yorker issue, a $100K-plus ad buy) is a bold claim:

Providing abundant and accessible food means putting the latest science-based tools in farmers' hands, including advanced hybrid and biotech seeds. Monsanto's advanced seeds not only significantly increase crop yields, they use fewer key resources — like land and fuel — to do it. That's a win-win for people, and the earth itself.

Oh, really?

I'm not here to challenge their cheery scenario, though I could. And I'm not going to dig into the claim about using fewer resources. Nope, today I'm just tackling the assertion that "Monsanto's advanced seeds... significantly increase crop yields." Luckily, I have a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists to help me.

Released yesterday, the report, "Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops," was authored by Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathology and molecular biology PhD (who, it should be noted, works for a progressive nonprofit). Gurian-Sherman took two decades of peer-reviewed research on GE crops and analyzed how much the technology has actually increased yields over time. Then he compared those gains to the yield improvements that scientists have achieved using traditional crop breeding and other non-GE techniques.  The two dozen GE crop studies he analyzed, which covered herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans and Bt corn (which is engineered to be resistant to pests) showed pretty stunning results.

And by "stunning," I mean stunningly lame.

The studies found that the engineering of herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans has not increased yields at all for these crops. The yields of Bt corn, meanwhile, have increased by 3-4% over the 13 years the crop has been on the market, or between 0.2% and 0.3% per year.

I suppose you could look Bt's record and call it a "significant increase in crop yields," but only if you were living in a GE vacuum. When you compare Bt corn's record to the yield increases that we've seen in corn that has not been genetically engineered, things start looking a little different. Since the 1930s, corn yields have increased sixfold, says the UCS report, and improvements through conventional breeding account for about half of these increases (the rest is attributed to things like yield-boosting fertilizer). Over the past several decades, corn yields overall have steadily increased by about 1% per year, or five times the piddly 0.2%/year increase that Bt corn has seen since it first came on the market in 1996.

Why are GE crops performing so poorly? The report's press release takes a stab at an answer: "[N]ew yield genes often have much more complex genetic interactions with the plant genetic material... and therefore cause genetic side-effects that often lead to undesirable agricultural properties."

Those "undesirable properties" can wipe out any yield potential the crop might have. (More information on these side effects and other aspects of the report can be found in the FAQ section here.)

Here are the two main points I draw from the report, and I hope you'll add your own in the comments.

First: Monsanto's claim that its technology will be a major contributor to ending hunger and mitigating the impacts of climate change is just that — a claim that makes for great marketing. (Frankly, it hearkens back to another industry's marketing campaign, since discredited - see example at right. More such ads are conveniently archived here for your edification and amusement. But I digress.) Monsanto may be busy trying to figure out "how to squeeze more food from a raindrop," but based on its track record, I'm not holding my breath.

Even if you believe that genetic engineering is just another crop technology that can be used for good or ill, the peer-reviewed research shows that this technology is a lemon. Multiple well-funded companies have been working on the yield thing for twenty years. And it's gotten them nowhere.

Meanwhile, the UCS report documents the strong track record of traditional breeding and other non-GE methods we can use to increase crop yields. New studies also tout the potential of organic and other low-input production methods to outperform conventional ag in drought-prone areas.

As water becomes more scarce in many developing countries, don't you think it's worth putting our eggs in  the basket without all the holes?

So, take-home message No. 2: We're not going to be able to fight the coming agricultural apocalypse without serious investment in ag research, and we'd be stupid not to direct public research money to exploring the most promising approaches. Says the UCS report's press release:

The recent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)—supported by the World Bank, several United Nations (UN) agencies and numerous governments, and several hundred scientists and others—suggested that GE should play a secondary role to other investments deemed more productive. The IAASTD specifically cited farming methods based on agro-ecology (such as organic), as well as infrastructure improvements such as the building of new roads for market access. [emphasis added]

Too bad a powerful committee in our own Senate just added the promotion of GE technology to the agenda of its foreign ag research program. And too bad U.S. university researchers are under such pressure from the GE companies that provide the bulk of their funding that they can't carry out research that would give us — the public, policymakers, companies, whomever — a realistic picture of the potential of GE. (But don't despair entirely: we do have an opportunity to submit public comments and attend a meeting with the USDA on its proposed changes to GE regulations here at home.)

There's been a whole lot of blogosphere hubbub over the recent New York Times op-ed by a historian who made free-range pork out to be an unnatural, pathogen-laden scourge. I can only assume that the reason the Times chose to run such a piece was because it was provocative: it took a belief that many of us hold dear (pastured pork is better for the animals, the planet, AND us) and tried to turn it on its head. Here's a study that up-ends another widely held assumption: that transgenic engineering is the key tool with which we will fed the rapidly procreating, hungry world.

Too bad the media seems content to watch how Monsanto spins that raindrop.

3 Responsesto “Transgenic seeds are toast(ed): New report says GE crops have not increased yield”

  1. Rob Smart says:

    Thank you for this excellent post and your ability to sift through the GE BS.  Its always nice to have one more great reason to put GE back in its cage.


    Rob Smart

  2. 9 Billion is really not that impressive a population. Here is some interesting math for Monsanto:

    Surface area of Earth
    510,072,000 km²
    361,132,000 km² water (70.8%)
    148,940,000 km² land  (29.2%)
    14,894,000 km² for people  (10% of land) leaving rest alone (generous)
    3,680,381,870 acres for people
    1 acres needed to raise a family being efficient
    6 people per family
    22,082,291,220 easy minimum sustainable people
    3.29242787633 multiple of current population
    3.14159265358979 Pi
    95% Relationship between Pi and sustainable multiple of current population

    :) Sorry, I couldn't resist. It's better BS than Monstersanto serves!

  3. CHEESESLAVE says:

    Great article! I hate that they are advertising with the New Yorker. UGH!

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