Biotech: Gagging on its Bragging

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It hasn’t been a good year for genetically modified crops. Or rather, it hasn’t been a good year for those who promote these crops as the best thing to happen to food production since Johann Gregor Mendel started messing with pea plants.

Studies released during 2009 have shown, among other things, that GMO crops have increased pesticide use, spawned superweeds, underperformed in the yield department and reduced the availability of diverse seed varieties. On the up side, biotech giant Monsanto has a really cool ad campaign on how GMOs are synonymous with sustainability.

When Monsanto introduced the first commercial strain of genetically engineered soybeans in 1996, biotech looked ready to take agriculture by storm. Indeed, over the years U.S. crop farmers have adopted the technology in overwhelming numbers. They’ve been particularly enamored of soybeans that are engineered to resist being killed by herbicides, and GMO corn that fights off insect pests.

Today, genetically engineered soybeans account for more than 90 percent of all soybean acres planted in this country, and GMO corn makes up over 60 percent of our annual maize crop.

When biotech firms were trying to get federal approval for their technology back in the 1990s, they were very mindful of public relations. They convinced farmers that such technology was critical to the success of production agriculture by promising huge yield increases (and thus greater profits).

And biotech’s boosters worked to put the general public’s fears to rest by promising that GMO crops would be a boon to the environment by reducing the need for repeated sprayings of toxic pesticides. In addition, a technology like Roundup Ready soybeans can save soil by reducing the amount of tillage needed to control weeds.

Well, now that we are more than a dozen years into this experiment, here’s where we stand:

Disappointing yields
A study released in March by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that corn and soybeans genetically engineered to resist herbicide have not increased yields any more than conventionally-bred plant varieties. GMO corn that resists insect pests has produced a yield advantage of 3 to 4 percent, compared to conventional varieries.

But since the mid-1990s, non-GMO plant breeding and farming methods have increased yields for crops like corn and soybeans by 13-25 percent, according to the study, which is based on a review of two dozen academic studies.

More chemicals
Have biotech crops reduced pesticide use in this country? No, says scientist Charles Benbrook. In an extensive analysis of USDA chemical use statistics released last month, Benbrook found that genetically modified crops have increased pesticide use by 318 million pounds since 1996, compared to what would have probably been used in the absence of GMO varieties. Herbicide use on crops genetically engineered to resist weed killers rose over 31 percent from 2007 to 2008 alone.

That makes the overall chemical footprint of GMO crops “decidedly negative,” concludes Benbrook. One main reason is that the overwhelming popularity of glyphosate, the herbicide crops like corn and soybeans are engineered to resist, has meant a whole lot of weeds are getting exposed to that chemical. And just as overuse of an antibiotic can spawn superbugs, exposing weeds to the same kind of chemical time-after-time is producing mutant plants that can take a spraying and keep on playing.

As Benbrook points out, glyphosate-resistant weeds were practically unknown in this country before the introduction of Roundup Ready crops 13 years ago. Today at least nine such superweeds infest millions of acres of cropland in this country. As we’ve highlighted in this blog before, herbicide-resistant weeds are popping up as far north as Minnesota.

Defenders of biotech argue, somewhat rightly, that more of glyphosate is better than less of some of the nastier herbicides that were used in the old days. Glyphosate doesn’t stick around long in the environment, making it less of a long-term threat.

However, their argument is losing steam as more resistant weeds pop up. What are chemical company agronomists recommending farmers do to deal with these superweeds? Spray more of the nasty pre-emergent chemicals glyphosate was supposed to help us avoid in the first place.

Now, it should be pointed out that products like Roundup Ready soybeans have probably helped reduce soil erosion. Farmers utilizing conservation tillage systems like ridge-till and no-till have found this technology to be a godsend—spraying weed-infested rows of soybeans can not only kill the plant pests without disturbing the soil, but can provide a mulch that further protects the land from erosion.

Unfortunately, herbicide-resistant weeds don’t care if the fields they pop in are being farmed in a manner that is kind to the soil.

No nitrogen silver bullet
Among the many promises made by the biotech industry is that it would develop crops that could make more efficient use of nitrogen, a key source of fertility for plants like corn. Such a trick would be a significant boost to the environment. Excess nitrogen fertilizer is finding its way into our water far too often, creating dead zones in the world’s oceans and posing a contamination threat in rural wells here at home. Agriculture is also a major source of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

But a report released Dec. 9 concludes that the biotechnology industry has yet to produce any commercial crops engineered to reduce nitrogen fertilizer pollution. Meanwhile, during the past dozen years or so, traditional breeding and other non-biotech methods have improved the nitrogen use efficiency of wheat, rice and corn by approximately 20 percent to 40 percent, according to the report, which was produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reducing seed choices
Whenever a new technology—whether it be cell phones or seed genetics—is introduced, invariably a key part of the marketing/PR campaign is the following argument: “It will provide more choices.” In the case of biotech crops, just the opposite appears to be true.

According to a new analysis from the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, as biotech seed giants like Monsanto take over the germplasm, crop farmers have fewer hybrids to choose from, and what is available is becoming increasingly expensive to purchase.

A Dec. 13 special investigation by the Associated Press found that Monsanto’s business strategy of inserting patented genes into virtually all soybean (approximately 95 percent) and corn (80 percent) seeds, has given it unprecedented control of the industry.

“We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics),” agricultural economist Neil Harl told the Associated Press. “This level of control is almost unbelievable.”

Whenever one firm has this much control over a key input like seed, whether it’s genetically engineered or conventionally bred, that firm can charge just about any price it sees fit. It’s why monopolies are bad news in a supposedly free market. Indeed, Monsanto increased some corn seed prices in 2008 by 25 percent, and plans on bumping prices up another 7 percent next year, according to the AP. Monsanto brand soybean seeds increased in price 28 percent last year. (It should be pointed out that over the years Monsanto has periodically instituted temporary price cuts on products like Roundup Ready soybeans in an attempt to increase market share).

Ask any farmer if the price they received for their corn or soybeans at the elevator this fall was 25 percent higher than last year. And when one considers that herbicide-resistant weeds are requiring more applications of expensive chemicals, it becomes clear who’s getting the raw end of the deal here.

No wonder the U.S. Department of Justice and the attorneys general in Iowa and Texas are investigating Monsanto’s business strategies and licensing agreements.

A black hole of resources
Is this to say biotech crops are a total bust? No. In the end GMO seed may prove to be a valuable tool in efficient, environmentally-friendly crop production. No-till farmers certainly would not like to see herbicide-resistant crops go away anytime soon. But as the biotech’s shine begins to tarnish, now’s the time to take a step back and put things in perspective. It’s time to relegate GMOs to the “one of many tools” category, rather than the end-all solution to carefree cropping.

That means more research into conventional plant breeding and alternative production systems like cover cropping. Unfortunately, during the past dozen years, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of public research resources poured into biotechnology.

As I reported in the Land Stewardship Letter almost a decade ago, the one problem with biotechnology is that it is incredibly expensive to research and develop. The cost of bringing a plant product to market through traditional breeding can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. The research and development price tag of a genetically modified plant is in the tens of millions of dollars. No wonder Monsanto plays hard ball with its patenting and licensing agreements. And no wonder once a land grant institution like the University of Minnesota gets involved with GMO plant research, it finds resources for traditional breeding science in short supply.

Universities also find  that the corporations which  play the role of sugar daddy in “public-private” relationships (such relationships exist because even a biotech giant like Monsanto needs access to all that public germplasm stored at places like the U of M) call the shots when it comes to determining what research is undertaken in the first place. This is a major concern for scientists doing breeding using publicly-owned seeds.

Rather than looking at ways to increase corn yields, why not research how to replace corn-fed livestock diets with grass? In an increasingly privatized, closed system, the answer is simple: because a better grazing system isn’t as patentable and marketable as a high tech corn plant.

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