Brian Rossnagel is tired of proponents of genetically modified crops attributing all the yield increases in corn, soybeans and canola to GM

The plant breeder interviewed in the article below isn't the only one to express annoyance at GM wrongly being credited with yield increases in staple crops.

Earlier this year, a wheat breeder complained that GM is oversold as a plant development method.

The article below contains the misconception that GM is expensive because of regulatory costs. But in fact regulatory costs only amount to 25% of the cost of bringing a GMO trait to market – the rest is basic R&D cost.

Breeder annoyed GM given credit for yield hikes

Sean Pratt
The Western Producer, 13 Nov 2014

* Assumptions called misleading | Give ‘plain old plant breeding’ credit for corn yield increases, not GM technology: researcher

Brian Rossnagel is tired of proponents of genetically modified crops attributing all the yield increases in corn, soybeans and canola to biotechnology.

“They overstate the case,” said the retired University of Saskatchewan oat and barley breeder.

Groups such as the U.S. National Association of Wheat Growers are making the case for GM wheat by pointing out that wheat yields are lagging behind GM corn and soybean yields.

NAWG vice-president Brett Blankenship recently raised the issue in an op-ed piece published in the Des Moines Register.

“Since 1994, corn yields have in-creased approximately 67 percent in the United States alone, while spring and winter wheat yields have in-creased half that amount,” he wrote.

Blankenship implied that the “astounding” production lag with wheat is because the other crops embraced GM technology.

Rossnagel said that’s baloney. The major factor behind the big increase in corn yields is improved plant architecture, which came about through “plain old plant breeding.”

“The leaves are dramatically more upright on the corn plant,” he said.

That means growers can seed way more plants per acre, which results in more corncobs. GM traits have contributed to yield increases but the real driving force has been the more upright plant growth.

“The fact is that corn yields in Europe have gone up dramatically more than wheat yields in Europe [GMW: should be North America] and there sure as hell aren’t no GMOs involved in those European corn crops,” said Rossnagel.

He has nothing against GM crops. He thinks it is a superb technology that has delivered huge benefits for crops like corn.

The biggest benefit is that it has drastically expanded the region where corn can be planted. It used to be impossible to grow corn in colder areas such as North Dakota, northern Minnesota and the Canadian Prairies.

Corn plants were slow to emerge from the soil and when they did they were “wimpy” and couldn’t compete with the weeds. Herbicide tolerant corn changed all that. 

Rossnagel said GM crops have boosted revenues for seed companies, and a lot of it has been reinvested in conventional breeding programs such as the one he ran at the university.

However, he said he gets tired of hearing people like Bill Wilson, a professor at North Dakota State University, claim that GM wheat will immediately boost yields by 20 to 25 percent when it hits the market, based on Australian research.

Rossnagel said that assumption stems from one year of field trials, and it is highly unlikely the drought tolerant wheat would deliver anywhere near those kinds of yield increases under real world conditions.

On top of that, he believes the crop Wilson is referring to isn’t GM wheat but a drought tolerant variety made using other biotechnology techniques.

He said an agriculture minister from South Australia once said GM wheat would have saved farmers from the devastating effects of the drought of 2004.

“That’s just absolute bull…. The overzealous GM promoters keep bringing up these kinds of examples, and it’s just not realistic,” said Rossnagel.

It reminds him of some of the promotional material he has seen surrounding drought tolerant crops, which portray a cracked desert landscape.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of scientist you are, you can’t grow a crop without water,” he said.

Hugh Beckie, a weed scientist with Agriculture Canada, said seed technology companies are also guilty of overselling the environmental benefits of GM crops.

Contrary to what the companies say, today’s GM canola crops use more herbicides than the non-GM crops grown in the 1990s.

“Even though the promise of reduced herbicide use in GM crops was made by many, we just haven’t seen that in Canada and other countries,” said Beckie.

Rossnagel believes GM crop promoters are overselling the technology to sway public opinion in an attempt to fend off the unrelenting attack from anti-GM groups.

“It’s largely because of the stupid sociological negativity about GMOs.”

Anti-GM activists have created a costly regulatory system that is preventing small companies and public breeders from using a useful technology, he added.

“The cost of producing a GMO is dramatically lower than it used to be,” he said.
 “The cost of getting one into commerce is dramatically ridiculous.”