Bush Administration, Biotech Industry, Agribusiness
Overstate Genetically Engineered Crops' Potential to Solve World Food Crisis
News Media Report Unsupported Claims Uncritically, Science Group Finds
WASHINGTON - June 26 - A number of recent news stories on soaring food prices worldwide have uncritically cited unsubstantiated claims that genetically engineered crops are the solution to the problem. In fact, according to experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there is no evidence that currently available genetically engineered crops strengthen drought tolerance or reduce fertilizer use. Nor do they fundamentally increase crop yields.
"Increased energy prices, harsh weather, and trade policies are largely to blame for the recent spike in food prices, none of which have much to do with crop breeding technologies," said Margaret Mellon, director of UCS's Food and Environment Program. "The biotech industry's claims about genetically altered crops are perennially overstated. In truth, agricultural biotechnology has almost nothing to offer to the world food crisis in the short term.
"Today's high prices, however, do point to a future of increased demand for food, where the choice of plant breeding technologies and production methods will indeed play a large role," she added. "But it remains to be seen if biotech will be a significant part of the solution."
Regardless, Bush administration, biotechnology and agribusiness officials are trumpeting genetically engineered crops - and journalists largely have reported their statements without question. For example, a June 5 Los Angeles Times story on a U.N. emergency food summit ("U.S. defends food policies; At a summit in Rome, critics say biofuel production is driving up prices and adding to a global hunger crisis") reported that "American officials are also using the summit to promote genetic engineering as a way to boost food production by increasing crop yields, creating drought-resistant strains and fighting diseases such as stem rust in wheat."
Likewise, on May 14, a Chicago Tribune story ("U.S. using food crisis to boost bio-engineered crops") quoted Dan Price, identified as a food aid expert on the White House's National Security Council. "We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance," Price told the Tribune.
And, according to a May 20 Investor's Business Daily story, "Soaring world food prices appear to be chipping away at public and commercial objections to GM [genetically modified] crops that sharply raise yields and slash growing costs for corn, wheat and other staples.." (Never mind that there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market.) The story went on to quote the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, who said, "I think the debate about higher prices and being able to meet the demand of people in the world for food is a perfect opportunity to make the case [for GM crops]."
Biotechnology firms have been hyping genetically engineered crops for more than a decade. During that time, the commercially available crops have failed to exhibit the critical traits necessary to produce enough food to feed the world's population. Those traits include increases in maximum yields and improved drought and stress tolerance. In reality, most of these crops available today are engineered to withstand the application of glyphosate, a weedkiller. A much smaller portion of these crops are engineered to fight off certain pests. Neither of these traits is vital to increasing food production.
"Let's be clear: There are no crops on the market today genetically engineered to directly maximize yields," said Mellon, a molecular biologist. "There are no crops on the market engineered to resist drought. And there are no crops on the market engineered to reduce fertilizer use. Not one."
There are proven ways to increase yields and protect crops, Mellon pointed out. "Traditional plant breeding, crop rotation and marker-assisted breeding - which incorporates molecular biology to enhance traditional breeding -- and ecological farming systems that use such methods as crop rotation and cover crops, have a long history of boosting food crop yields. In places like Africa, fertilizer, better grain storage, and improved roads would be much better and more cost-effective options than expensive, patented, biotechnology seeds that so far offer so little.
"GE crops may have a role in helping the world feed itself in the future, but today it is still unproven. It is vital that we not let the overheated sales pitch for genetic engineering obscure the better, if less sexy, tools available to address this critical problem."
Formed in 1969, the Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, UCS also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C. For more information, go to www.ucsusa.org.