1.Re: GM Crops Saving Farm Economy from Drought - Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman
2.GM Crops Saving Farm Economy from drought - Heartland Institute
GM WATCH COMMENT: You may have thought that the GM traits in commercial production in the US were simply for herbicide resistance and resistance to certain corn and cotton pests, but not according to the article below which topped the AgBioView list late last week.
The article claims GM crops are also drought resistant and that without them the Midwestern farm economy would have been devastated this year:
"An August 11 federal government crop report shows biotechnology is saving the Midwestern farm economy from devastation in the wake of this summer's prolonged drought." (item 2)
The impression that it is the federal government which is saying this is quickly dispelled when one looks at the 3 source articles given for this piece (see end of item 2), from which it is clear that the US Dept of Agriculture report referred to simply provides survey-based estimates of this year's production levels for various crops, and not an analysis of how those production levels were achieved.
So where does the claim that the "report shows biotechnology is saving the Midwestern farm economy from devastation" actually originate?
One of the 3 press pieces - the one which came out ahead of the USDA report - looks at the predictions and views of 20 analysts about what the USDA report will contain. Although this piece is headlined, "Biotech Seeds Helping U.S. Crops Survive Heat, Analysts Say," it in fact only quotes one of those analyst to that effect - Kevin Dahlman, president of Dahlco Seeds, a Minnesota based company that claims to be at the cutting edge: "Dahlco works with the best technology suppliers in the business to insure the flow of the best genetics with the latest technologies to our customers."
The other 2 articles, which came out after the USDA report, contain no references at all to biotech but simply express surprise at the projected corn yield being as high as it is in the USDA report. Although one of these pieces is headlined, "Corn, soybean production forecasts surprising," the surprise over the soybeans - the US's biggest GM crop - turns out to be because the projections are lower than might have been expected:
"Equally surprising for Kluis was the low projection for average soybean yield of 39.8 bushels per acre."
Kluis notes though that:
"Certainly the Delta crop has been damaged beyond repair and the crops in Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota have been hurt."
So where did AgBioView get this article about a government report showing biotech was saving US crop production? The answer is the Heartland Institute. Who they? A rightwing lobby group with Big Tobacco and Big Oil funding that campaigns for smokers' rights and free market solutions to social and environmental problems (ie pro-GM, anti-Kyoto, etc.).
The Heartland Institute piece, apart from reproducing the quote already mentioned from the president of Dahlco Seeds, only quotes one other expert in support of its claims - Greg Conko, from the Monsanto-backed Competitive Enterprise Institute - the co-founder of AgBioView!
But in case of any doubt, we asked the former biotech specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, how seriously we should take claims of drought resistance via GM crops never designed to deliver drought resistance - see his detailed comments in item 1 below.
1.Re: GM Crops Saving Farm Economy from drought
For corn, the traits that protect from corn rootworm (MON863 is the only one commercialized so far) are likely to have some benefit in drought conditions because the roots of the plant are more extensive when protected. But synthetic pyrethroid insecticide seed treatments do about as well in protecting the roots, and organic is very likely better. That's because corn rootworm, which is the major insect problem in the heart of the US corn belt, can be well controlled by adequate crop rotation, which is something that organic farming excels at. Corn rootworms can infest only a few types of plants, so if corn fields are rotated to several other crops for several years, the rootworms cannot thrive. In the US, rotations between corn and soybeans used to control rootworm, but in some areas the insects have evolved ways around this short rotation. Longer rotations common in organic farming can still work.
The better soil in organic farming also holds water better than the often compacted soil on industrial farms, and is better aerated (has better structure), so roots often grow better. In addition, traditional breeding can help. For example, Mary Eubank (Duke University) has crossed corn with a North American relative, eastern gamma grass. She gets extremely robust root systems that are reported to provide drought resistance and rootworm resistance (not surprisingly, she has had some trouble getting funding - despite starting with, I believe, a prestigious National Science Foundation grant to do her work).
As always, the standard of comparison in experiments evaluating GMOs is of critical importance, and greatly affects the results. Experiments with GE crops are almost never compared to organic cultivation (and even less frequently with long-standing organic farms where the soil has had a chance to build).
I can't think of any reason that GMO soybeans (Roundup Ready) would have any advantage in drought. Conservation tillage has advanced in soybeans over the last 15 years, and limiting tillage will allow the soil to retain more moisture and better structure. Proponents of biotech claim that a lot of the increase in conservation tillage acres in soybeans has been due to the introduction of the RR trait. But a study, by the USDA on that in 2002 says that there is no evidence supporting this contention. In fact, national statistics show that no-till and reduced tillage acres were expanding faster in soybeans for several years BEFORE RR soybeans than after. There also was a direct long-term experiment comparing organic soybeans and conventional (not GMO) done by the Rodale folks, and in drought years, the organic fields yielded substantially better.
In any case, your overall point that conventional traits and breeding may be behind possible drought improvements is probably correct. If there were not crop varieties with improved traits developed by conventional breeding to put GE traits into, those GE traits would be essentially useless. There were big gains in yield for decades in field crops like corn or soybeans due to conventional breeding and other changes before GMOs (along with this have come all of the problems with industrial agriculture - but yields have improved), and I have not seen evidence that GMOs have increased that improvement rate over the background of what would be expected without GMOs. In fact, with soybeans in the US, there has been some evidence of a fall-off in yield improvements since GMOs were introduced (but that has not yet been adequately confirmed).
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.
Center for Food Safety
660 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 302
Washington, D.C. 20003
2.GM Crops Saving Farm Economy from drought
Written By: James M. Taylor
The Heartland Institute, October 1 2006 Via AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=19740
An August 11 federal government crop report shows biotechnology is saving the Midwestern farm economy from devastation in the wake of this summer's prolonged drought.
The report projects 10.98 billion bushels of corn production this year, up from 10.74 billion bushels projected in the federal government's July forecast. The report also projects a soybean crop that will come within 5 percent of last year's record. The August forecast for the two crops is striking because severe drought ravaged the Midwest between the July and August forecasts.
"The biotechnology has improved corn and soybeans to be able to withstand some of the Mother Nature pressures that we have gotten," said Kevin Dahlman, president of Dahlco Seeds in Cokato, Minnesota. Crop losses due to a similar drought would have been substantial as recently as a decade ago, Dahlman added.
Genetically enhanced seeds account for 61 percent of this year's corn crop and 89 percent of this year's soybean crop.
"If we look at what scientists in the United States and elsewhere have already developed, and what they currently are developing in the research pipeline, it is genuinely remarkable," said Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"We have to be cautiously optimistic, though, since developing a product that works is only half the battle," Conko warned. "All around the world, important biotech advances are being stymied by bad regulation and opposition by radical greens."
James M. Taylor
For more information ...
"Crop report: Corn outlook improves despite heat, drought," Bismarck Tribune, August 12, 2006, href=
"Corn, soybean production forecasts surprising," Southeast Farm Press, August 18, 2006, http://southeastfarmpress.com/news/081806-corn-surprises/
"Biotech Seeds Helping U.S. Crops Survive Heat, Analysts Say," Bloomberg News, August 10, 2006