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USDA Report Admits GE
Crops Are Faltering

"The latest USDA report reveals for the first time from an official US
government source using unequivocal language, that most of the basic
economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect."
---
USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth
www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/usdagmeconomics.htm
------------------------------------------------------------------------
"Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the
rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be
mixed or even negative."
'The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops'
US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002

"In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the US owes
more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and
agronomic delivery."
'USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth'
nlpwessex, August 2002
------------------------------------------------------------------------

22 August 2002

The United Kingdom is about to embark on a national debate about whether
it should permit the commercial growing of GM crops. The Prime Minister
claims to want a scientific discussion. He thinks the introduction of
this technology will provide worthwhile economic benefits.

At the same time there is widespread belief within sections of the UK
farming community that the availability of GM crops will enable British
agriculture to compete in a cost efficient way in international markets
- the so-called 'competitiveness' factor. This belief stems largely from
the assumption that farmers in America are already enjoying such a
competitive advantage (albeit a belief which seems to ignore the most
important question as to how much of a market there is for GM produce
outside of America).

Reinforcing this perception the UK's leading agricultural journal
'Farmers Weekly' published an article 12 July entitled "Data shows
economic success for GM crops" based on a study produced by the US
National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP). This report
made some strong claims regarding the economic performance of GM crops.

However, agricultural journalists rarely have time to read such reports
in detail, and often do not pay much attention to who has funded them -
in this case the study was part financed by Monsanto and the
Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO). BIO's remit since 1993 has
included responsibility for "Shaping political and public reaction to
the genetically modified foods that were poised to enter supermarkets".

However, in the same month that the NCFAP report was published the
Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) released its own extensive analysis of the economic
performance of GM crops in America. This revealed a completely different
picture. Indeed, the USDA report goes so far as to conclude that
"Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the
rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be
mixed or even negative."

Mark Griffiths, the editor of the nlpwessex GM news service wrote to
Farmers Weekly on this subject. A copy of the letter providing a summary
of his analysis of the USDA report was printed in the 16 August edition
of the journal as reproduced below.

Following the publication of the USDA report it is clear that British
farmers can be confident that the proposed introduction of
herbicide-tolerant GM crops in the UK is unlikely to add to the
profitability of their farms (although it will almost certainly alienate
the general public who are both their customers and the funders of
agricultural subsidies). As economics are the principal reason for
farmers' interest in GM crops, it is important to recognise in these
circumstances that British agriculture has little to lose and much to
gain if the country as a whole decides to remain GM-free at the end of
the national debate .

Quite apart from the issue of crop marketability (which it does not
focus on) the USDA's latest detailed analysis of national farm data
reveals that GM crops have not generally delivered economic competitive
advantage to US farmers - even though that is what many farmers
themselves believe.

This is a situation which has been documented at length by nlpwessex on
its web site and which has been disseminated via its email news service
over a long period. It has collated and made available extensive
material originating from as far back as 1996 when GM crops were first
introduced on widespread scale.

However, the latest USDA report reveals for the first time from an
official US government source using unequivocal language, that most of
the basic economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect.

That the myth of such economic 'benefits' should have lasted so long
says a great deal about the nature of modern agricultural science and
the way it is communicated to farmers by vested interests.

Most of the points in the USDA report highlighting the disappointing
agronomic performance of GM crops will be familiar to regular readers of
nlpwessex bulletins. However, there is one aspect of the new report
which has not received much previous attention, but which is especially
interesting.

Based on its analysis of the most widely grown GM crop, soya, the report
confirms that "Using herbicide-tolerant seed did not significantly
affect no-till adoption". This finding sits in stark contrast to the
claims of those who have attempted to promote GM crops on the back of
rising economic and environmental interest in no-till crop husbandry.

As the USDA report points out, the no-till acreage in America had
already been steadily rising before the introduction of GM crops. That
prior trend has since simply continued. In fact to some degree it has
subsequently stagnated according to the USDA analysis.

It has never been necessary to grow GM crops in order to carry out
no-till agriculture. In fact the countries that have been expanding
no-till agriculture at the fastest rate in proportion to their total
arable area are in Latin America, where only Argentina grows GM crops on
a substantial commercial scale (no-till was introduced on
tractor-mechanised and large farms in Paraguay in 1990 and by 1997 51%
of its total cultivated area was 'no-tilled'. The relative figures in
2000/1 are for Paraquay 52%, Argentina 32%, Brazil 21%, and the United
States 16%.).

In the end the USDA report struggles to explain why there has been such
a rapid uptake of GM crops in the US, although it refers to a possible
'convenience' factor. However, a separate study funded by Iowa State
University carried out in 1998 reveals that GM crop uptake can be driven
as much by how well farmers believe the crops deliver, as it is by
factual data on their real performance. In the world of commerce and
marketing perception is, of course, everything.

The Iowa study confirmed that over half of farmers planting
herbicide-tolerant GM soya did so because they believed that it gave
them higher yields compared to conventional varieties. However, when the
university analysed the harvest results of the farms concerned they
found the opposite was true despite the belief of the farmers to the
contrary (it is in fact now recognised that genetic modification has
actually reduced the yield potential of GM soya by inadvertently
disturbing other aspects of the plant's functioning).

A subsequent study from the University looked in detail at the on-farm
financial performance of soya crops in Iowa. It confirmed that after
taking into account costs relating to seed, herbicides, fertiliser, all
machinery operations, insurance, and a land charge "there is essentially
no difference in costs between the tolerant and non-tolerant fields".
However, because of their higher yields the non-GM crops made a profit
for their growers, whereas the GM varieties did not.

The study suggests advertising pressure as one possible reason for the
rise in the use of herbicide-tolerant soya beans despite their
disappointing economic performance.

In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the US owes
more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and
agronomic delivery. This regrettable development has been apparent for
some time. Professor Charles Hagedorn, an Extension specialist working
in conjunction with Virginia State University and the US Department of
Agriculture, characterised it in September 1998 as "a classic case of
what has been described in the [scientific] literature as a situation
where commercial development and marketing is way ahead of the science."

It is surely important that the future of world agriculture is developed
on the basis of sound science, and not on the basis of those
technologies which simply have the biggest PR and marketing budgets or
on which the largest number of academic posts are perceived to depend
(the potential loss of such posts as a result of public opposition to GM
technology is a natural but misplaced fear of the scientific community.
Other aspects of modern biotechnology are widely acceptable to the
public and are in fact recognised even by industry as having greater
long term potential than the incorporation of recombinant DNA into
organisms. This area in fact offers a potential 'solution' to the GM
debate where the aspirations of both the scientific community and the
wider public can be simultaneously satisfied).

If the greatest public good is to be served by any new technology it is
essential that the science on which it is based is subject to thorough
analysis and scrutiny. In this respect it is worth examining a number of
aspects of the NCFAP report prominently featured in Farmers Weekly in
July.

A large part of the report is in fact concerned with what it is hoped GM
crops might do in the future as opposed to the known performance of
currently approved varieties. In addition the NCFAP report indicates
that in the process of producing the range of results presented it has
changed the methodology used in its earlier studies. It can be expected
that there will be some scientists who will seek to challenge a number
of the new assumptions deployed (nonetheless the study does acknowledge
that some results from others researchers which have previously
suggested improved GM yields may be accounted for by higher fertiliser
use).

Although the report cites various references, remarkably it ignores what
is arguably the most rigorous scientific work ever completed in the
discipline. This research carried out by the University of Nebraska has
confirmed the poor yield performance of GM herbicide resistant soya, the
world's biggest GM crop. In particular it concluded that the low yields
appear to have been caused by the genetic modification itself and not by
any adverse effect from the new herbicide to which it had been
engineered to be resistant:

"Yields were suppressed with GR [glyphosate resistant] soybean
cultivars.... The work reported here demonstrates that a 5% yield
suppression was related to the gene or its insertion process and another
5% suppression was due to cultivar genetic differential. Producers
should consider the potential for 5-10% yield differentials between GR
and non-GR cultivars as they evaluate the overall profitability of
producing soybean."

The NCFAP report's failure to acknowledge this study is all the more
astonishing because it is one of the few tightly controlled agronomic
trials of a GM herbicide resistant crop - using as near isogenic sister
line controls as available - to have been published in a peer reviewed
scientific journal (Agronomy Journal 93:408-412 (2001)). Few studies, if
any, have been subjected to the same degree of scientific rigour in this
field.

There is, however, general agreement amongst scientists that Bt
insecticide cotton (a crop not relevant to the UK) has resulted in
reduced insecticide applications. How sustainable this proves to be due
to concerns over the development of insect resistance to any toxin based
approach (whether dealing with chemical sprays or toxins genetically
engineered into plants) remains to be seen. Moreover Bt cotton has never
eliminated the use of insecticides; and research on Bt varieties in
Australia has showed insecticide applications steadily rising over the
three years ending 1999.

Even at this stage 'Innovate Australia' (representing Australia's food,
fibre and natural resources research and development corporations)
states "Economic benefits for growers from the new [Bt cotton]
technology have been variable but generally only small when compared to
conventional cotton".

Already there are plans to phase out the first generation of Bt cotton
varieties in Australia because of problems in this area. The relief
offered by the replacement 'twin' toxin Bt varieties due to be
introduced may be short lived. According to an article published in
Cotton World September 2001 the chief executive of the Australian Cotton
Cooperative Research Centre, Dr Garry Fitt, warned that 'two gene'
cotton will further alter the balance of insect pests, with possible
increases in aphids and green vegetable bug populations.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that this approach will provide a
satisfactory long term alternative to insect predator based Intregrated
Pest Management (IPM) techniques which the Australians are now
developing with some considerable success.

Interestingly the NCFAP report states that "Bt cotton is credited with
saving the cotton industry in Alabama." By chance nlpwessex corresponded
with an agricultural Extension specialist in Alabama from Auburn
University in May 2000. He was a Bt cotton enthusiast. Nlpwessex asked
him a number of questions related to cotton husbandry practices in
Alabama and the use of IPM techniques.

One question was "How often is cotton grown in the same field?" to which
the response was "in north Alabama there are fields that have not been
out of cotton production since before the civil war (ours) about 150
years.... and some of those fields are down to nil in the organic matter
department". More generally he advised that rotation practice varied
from continuous cotton to - at best - cotton every other year and that
"Most plant at least half [the farm in cotton]. Some all." This
situation is not confined to Alabama. According to Professor Robert
Hayes of the University of Tennessee: "Unfortunately, most cotton
producers do not practice crop rotation, and if they do it is short
rotation".

Nonetheless, the USDA report confirms that the majority of cotton
farmers (63%) did not plant Bt varieties in 2001 - presumably because
they considered it either unnecessary or uneconomic. Meanwhile an
article in New Scientist 17 August 2002 reported on new chemical patents
secured by Monsanto which acknowledge that insect control through
transgenic plants "may not be desirable in the long term" because it
produces resistant strains and "numerous problems remain... under actual
field conditions".

And it's not just Bt crops where the basic functionality of the
technology is in danger of faltering. University weed science
specialists reported at a meeting of a 'No-Till Field Day' earlier this
month that glyphosate-resistant 'marestail' is now a problem on around
200,000 acres of soya beans in west Tennessee. The same problem is
reported to be affecting 36 percent of all cotton acreage in the state.
Monsanto are now recommending changes in weed control practices for next
year (the prospect of post adoption changes in GM crop husbandry
practices as exemplified here is one which brings into further question
the usefulness of the UK's own GM farm scale trials).

Little of this sounds like significant progress towards sustainable
agriculture, one simple test of which is to ask the question "can you
keep doing it?". The latest situation in Tennessee also represents a
very rapid development as the first glyphosate-resistant marestail did
not arise until 1999.

A simplistic 'one size fits all' approach to farm management of the kind
encouraged by the arrival of GM 'input trait' crops is always going to
be at risk of creating agro-ecological problems that ultimately become a
husbandry burden. In this case there have been a few years of supposedly
trouble free production and then what amounts to technology breakdown.

Glyphosate-tolerant soya volunteers in follow-on 'Roundup Ready' cotton
crops are also becoming a problem which is "especially challenging"
according to Professor Hayes. To deal with this and other emerging weed
control failures in GM cotton crops increasingly the advice is to use
glyphosate in conjunction with additional herbicides. The same is
happening with other crop categories and with glufosinate-tolerant
varieties. A herbicide mixtures patent obtained by Monsanto in 2001
suggests that it expects this problem to become widespread.

These difficulties are not addressed in the NCFAP report despite the
Farmers Weekly article describing it as "Considered to be the most
comprehensive study to date on the economic and environmental benefits
of biotech crops in the US".

Fortunately, beyond cotton and the big animal feed sectors served by
soya and maize production, few US producers seem to be buying into the
technology. The NCFAP report confirms that Florida sweet corn growers
are not planting transgenic cultivars even though these have been
commercially registered since 1998. Packers do not wish to jeopardise
the market for US sweet corn which is used for direct human consumption.

For similar reasons GM sugar beet and potatoes, although also approved
for cultivation, are not being adopted by US farmers either. The NCAP
report confirms that processors have not been accepting these crops and
that Monsanto closed its potato division in 2001.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report
published in 2000 revealed that the world is able to more than
adequately feed itself decades into the future without recourse to GM
crops. It forecasts large increases in production in the developing
world using 'present-day' technical knowledge only.

Given the overall agronomic and market performance of GM crops in
practice, the increasing resistance to their introduction in the world's
poorer countries - much publicised in recent weeks - seems to be well
advised. However, it remains to be seen whether this view will be
allowed to prevail at next week's World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

If there is to be a genuinely scientific approach to the future
sustainability of global agriculture, then this view must not be
trampled on.
--

 

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