It is the prevailing wisdom pushed by the biotech agribusiness firms and their allies in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the only answer to world hunger is genetically engineered crops (GE), also called genetically modified organisms (GMO). Many people, especially in the US, buy into this, the propaganda is hard to avoid and is quite pervasive.
Despite proof that low input, sustainable, farming methods actually do dramatically increase yields, especially in the poorer, developing, countries, there is simply no profit in pursuing knowledge based versus technology based options, even for research universities dependent on corporate funding.
There are many reasons to be wary of GMOs unleashed in the environment (these are the known and unknown unknowns) and, frankly, yield is one of least concern regarding potential damage to biodiversity, the environment, long-term benefits (or, more likely, detriments) to farmers in both the developed and developing world, and human health. Yet, yield is currently a myth needing to be dispelled and this will be addressed here.
One thing about yield is there really isn’t a food shortage. This is another myth. In the US alone, there are
millions of agricultural acres intentionally unplanted (farmers being paid NOT to plant by the government) in order to ensure we do not get surpluses that would lower prices to the point that those family farmers not already bankrupt would go bankrupt themselves and even the huge agribusiness farms would be unprofitable. A case in point is the administration of extra rBGH (a growth hormone) to dairy cows, driving up production and putting some dairy farmers out of business due to lowered prices. Plus, there is no indication that the unneeded rBGH is safe for the cows or for humans or that extra milk from each cow is even needed (it isn’t).
Bottom line is, we don’t need increased production. What we need are distribution means to get the food where it is needed and encouragement for farmers in developing countries to use their tried and true methods to produce their own food. Dependence on external food supplies is really not a yield issue. Indeed, many of the so-called Green Revolution “modern” agricultural practices destroyed farming in poor countries. Yet, we still think modern agriculture is the shining knight that will save the world. Excuse me for barfing.
The immediate issue is distribution and availability of the surpluses we already have to those in poor countries who cannot feed themselves. Sure, it would be great if these countries could feed themselves, but GMOs aren’t going to solve that problem. They will exacerbate it, actually. The long term solution is letting these farmers return to their traditional methods and throw out the modern agriculture approach.
The main GMO crops currently grown are corn, soy, rape and cotton. They are genetically engineered for either herbicide resistance or pest resistance or both. The two approaches present an interesting conundrum.
Herbicide resistant crops, like RoundUp ready soy (Monsanto produces both RoundUp herbicide and the GE seed) actually encourage the use of more herbicides, both costly for farmers (seeds are more expensive, too) and the environment. This also contributes greatly to the development of “super” weeds, weeds that are resistant to RoundUp and require more powerful herbicides. So Monsanto makes money selling seed and increases sales of RoundUp. What a sweet deal and it has the US government pushing this technology down the throats of the rest of the world.
Pesticide resistant crops, on the other hand, actually do, in the short term, decrease the use of pesticides. That is good while it lasts, but the pests do develop their own resistance. Long term, both approaches are a disaster as more and more poison chemical inputs will be required. This is the story of chemical agriculture, not just related to GE, in a nutshell. It is a vicious circle that never ends. Traditional methods create a balance, “modern” scientific (boy, the word scientific conjures up great things, doesn’t it. What a crock) upset the balance and create a never ending cycle of more powerful chemicals.
So, the assumption that use of these GE seeds will increase yield since weeds and targeted pests can be more tightly controlled makes sense on the surface. But, studies have shown that it just isn’t so. Only in the extremely short term do they even approach this lie.
In July, 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists released an exhaustive study of research involving GE crop yields, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops and concluded,
Genetic engineering has been touted as a major solution to the global hunger problems that are expected to worsen as the world’s population grows. But a new analysis of this industry’s nearly 20-year record in the United States shows that, despite proponents’ claims, genetic engineering has actually done very little to increase the yields of food and feed crops. Given such a track record, it appears unlikely that this technology will play a leading role in helping the world feed itself in the foreseeable future.
The major findings were:
- Herbicide-tolerant (HT) GE soybeans and corn have not increased yields any more than conventional methods that rely on commonly available herbicides.
- Insect-resistant Bt corn varieties have provided an average yield advantage of just 3–4 percent compared to typical conventional practices, including synthetic insecticide use.
- Meanwhile, non-GE plant breeding and farming methods have increased yields of major grain crops by values ranging from 13–25 percent.
The key here is that yields can be increased, but by use of conventional methods, not by GE technology. This report doesn’t even address traditional agricultural methods, such as the Balinese Water Temple system, but does allude to the fact that such indigenous methods are likely to increase yield even more. The average western agricultural scientist cannot deal with these traditional methods, they are too complicated. Yield calculations by western scientists almost always understate actual yields of a given area using traditional methods because all they can see are monocultures and traditional methods are often so successful due to polyculture on the same land. It is just too hard to count all those crops to abtain an accurate yield, so they count one crop only. Of course, the data is going to show lower yield for the one crop. Duh.
There are a number of other peer reviewed studies that demonstrate the lack of increased yield in GE crops and, if one actually reads the studies and looks at the references, those demonstrating increased yields almost always have the imprint of biotech companies, governments and universities all with a stake in continuing to tout GE crops. This is especially true of studies on Indian GE cotton, where there have been literally thousands of farmer suicides blamed on GE cotton, yet “official” documents show all is well.
Tags: Balinese water temple, biodiversity, BT cotton, crop yield, Failure to yield, GE, genetically engineered food, genetically modified organisms, GMO, green revolution, Indian BT cotton suicide, modern agriculture, Monsanto, Roundup, super weeds, sustainable, sustainable agriculture, traditional farming, Union of Concerned Scientists