NOTE: A new study shows that GM farming as practiced in the US is being left behind by the mostly non-GM farming practiced in Europe. GMOs are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use in North American farming compared to mostly non-GM Western European farming.
The authors of the paper -- Jack A. Heinemann, Melanie Massaro, Dorien Coray, Sarah Agapito, and Dale Wen -- kindly agreed to answer GMWatch’s questions (see below).
EXCERPT: Since the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops in the US (e.g., maize and soybeans), herbicide use per arable hectare has marginally increased to 108% of pre-GM levels. Over this time, France, Germany and Switzerland reduced herbicide use to about 85-94% of mid-1990s levels. The non-GM biotechnologies in use in Western Europe are decreasing chemical herbicide use...
Since the adoption of insecticidal crops in the US, the use of additional chemical insecticides has fallen by only 15% compared to pre-GM levels, while by 2009 in France total insecticide use had fallen to 12%. Similar trends were seen in Germany and Switzerland. The biotechnologies in use in Western Europe show significantly greater reductions in chemical insecticide use.
Press release about the study:
Download full paper, “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest”, for free:
GMWatch Q&A with the authors of the study, "Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest”
18 June 2013
GMW: What is the paper about?
Authors: The central question addressed was: To what degree is the US (and the North American in general) agro-eco-system meeting the dual demands of production and sustainability? To answer the question, we compare the effects of agriculture biotechnology[1,2] innovation as applied to selected crops grown at significant scales in both the North American and Western European agroecosystems for the last 50 years. The outcome of the different innovation policies for producing high yield/low input and sustainable products is measured by the metrics: yield, pesticide use, and germplasm diversity.
Data mainly come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAOSTAT), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Monitoring Agricultural Resources Unit (MARs) of the European Union, but also from the Monsanto company.
GMW: Why North America and Western Europe?
Authors: The North American (US and Canada) and Western European (defined by FAOSTAT as Austria, Belgium-Luxembourg, France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland) agroecosystems are both modern and industrial and have equal access to their choice of science, technology, and a sophisticated labor force. They both receive significant public subsidies, reside in the same hemisphere, and range over approximately the same latitudes. In addition, they have in common significant interest in the growing, use, and export of rapeseed (Canada and Western Europe), maize and wheat (US and Western Europe). Therefore, these two agroecosystems make among the best possible matches over a range of relevant parameters. However, they differ in the adoption of GM crops and the management practices associated with GM crops. Rapeseed and maize (as well as soybeans and cotton) are effectively only GM in North America and effectively only conventional in Western Europe, and wheat is non-GM in both regions.
GMW: What were your findings?
1. Yield (Figure 1 of paper)
A. Over the 50 year period, annual maize yields increased significantly in both the US and Western Europe, however the rate of increase varied between the two agroecosystems. While average pre-1985 yields were lower in Western Europe than the US, since then yields in Western Europe have equaled or exceeded US yields. The annual yield increases are significantly greater in Western Europe than the US, and appear to be growing larger. This demonstrates that yield increases over time are not dependent on GM, and that the package of biotechnologies chosen by Western Europe to grow maize is out-producing the GM-led package chosen by the US [1,2].
B. While Western European yields of rapeseed have always been larger than Canada’s, since Canada adopted GM rapeseed the gap has only increased (Table 1 of paper). This demonstrates that yield increases over time are not dependent on GM, and that the package of biotechnologies chosen by Western Europe to grow rapeseed is out-producing the GM-led package chosen by Canada.
C. Western European yields of wheat have always been larger than the US’s, but the rate of increase in yields is larger for Western Europe (Figure 2 of paper). US yields are demonstrating stagnation while Western European yields continue to increase. This demonstrates that the biotechnologies used in Western Europe benefit all crop types while the biotechnologies chosen by the US are penalizing all crop types, GM and conventional.
The agricultural system (innovation and biotechnology choices) of Western Europe shows more promise of meeting future food needs than does the US system.
2. Pesticides (Figure 3 of paper)
A. The dominant trait in GM crops is herbicide tolerance. Since the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops in the US (e.g., maize and soybeans), herbicide use per arable hectare has marginally increased to 108% of pre-GM levels. Over this time, France, Germany, and Switzerland reduced herbicide use to about 85-94% of mid-1990s levels. The non-GM biotechnologies in use in Western Europe are decreasing chemical herbicide use.
B. The second most common GM crop trait is one that produces an insecticide within the plant. Since the adoption of insecticidal crops in the US, the use of additional chemical insecticides has fallen by only 15% compared to pre-GM levels, while by 2009 in France total insecticide use had fallen to 12%. Similar trends were seen in Germany and Switzerland. The biotechnologies in use in Western Europe show significantly greater reductions in chemical insecticide use.
The agricultural system of Western Europe appears to be reducing chemical inputs and thus is becoming more sustainable than the US, without sacrificing yield gains.
3. Germplasm diversity (Table 2 of paper)
We re-analysed data produced by Monsanto for the US Attorney General and found differentially large reductions in non-GM seed options for US maize, soybean and cotton farmers. While there is no consensus that germplasm diversity is too low, there is evidence that the concentration of the seed market is not arresting further declines in the germplasm diversity of either GM (maize, cotton, soybeans) or conventional (wheat) crops. Meanwhile, the USDA reported that seed prices – particularly GM crops - are the fastest growing expense for farmers, rising 140% since 1994 while in aggregate all other inputs have risen in cost by 80%.
The trends in germplasm parallel events prior to the 1970 Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic in the US which the US National Academies of Science concluded was a product of “powerful economic and legislative forces”, i.e., the outcome of innovation polices. These policies produced incentives for breeders to maximize control of the germplasm by narrowing genetic diversity in the seed supply.
The US agricultural system continues to decline in agricultural biodiversity of staple crop germplasm and in options for non-GM and GM farmers. (A similar trend was not detected in selected European countries.)
GMW: What were your conclusions?
Authors: Claims for benefits of GM crops are systematically evaluated and discredited using the most objective government sources of data.
*GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the US are poor in comparison to Europe.
*Meanwhile, both herbicide and insecticide use trends are increasing in the US relative to achievements in Western Europe.
*The innovation policies that make GM attractive to US seed producers are failing to increase, and may be causing a decrease, in germplasm diversity while increasing costs for farmers.
GMW: What should be done?
Authors: We make a few suggestions as part of a larger strategy to begin developing a high-yield, lower-input and sustainable agriculture in North America.
*Immediately introduce monitoring of on-farm germplasm and management diversity and institute landscape level programs to increase diversity at biologically relevant scales.
*Review prevailing intellectual property rights instruments that are core to innovation policies and revise, or invent, instruments that reward agroecosystem sustainability and resilience.
*In the short-term, re-direct government subsidies to promote sustainable agriculture. In the long-term, eliminate market distorting government subsidy programs for staple crops in the US.
GMW: But surely, the North American and Western European agroecosystems are too different to compare?
Authors: There will always be differences when comparing countries and regions. Nevertheless, the number of differences has been minimized in this comparison and it is arguably the best possible comparison that could be made for the type of crops, access to modern science and technology, history of production and geography of the comparators.
GMW: But Canada and the US are rain-fed agroecosystems and Europe relies on irrigation.
Authors: While this may be true in some places, it would still only reflect the difference in Europe’s priority in investment in water storage and delivery technologies instead of GM seed or other less effective technologies. The combination of management and germplasm used in Western Europe is superior to that chosen by Canada and the US.
GMW: Won’t critics of your paper say that the problems you identify in North America are not specific to GM?
Authors: In some cases, this is true. For example, germplasm reduction is not limited to GM crops. However, GM crops are compatible with dominating agricultural biotechnologies and innovation incentives that the US is using. In contrast, the combination of management and germplasm used in Western Europe are yield-enhancing and lowering inputs under policies that do not reward GM crops.
GMW: Critics might also say that pesticide use figures are due to decreasing agricultural areas in Europe and increasing area in the US.
Authors: We normalized pesticide use to production area, so the figures reflect actual use per arable hectare.
GMW: Won’t critics say you are just anti-GM activists/campaigners and that the journal is obscure?
Authors: The International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability is a Taylor and Francis journal ranked in the top 12% of agricultural journals by impact factor.
The authors are academics and researchers in good standing at recognised world-class public universities and other institutions. Collectively this team has an extensive and credible publication record in the peer-reviewed literature.
Dr. Jack A. Heinemann is professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the School of Biological Sciences, and Director of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Dr. Melanie Massaro is at the School of Environmental Sciences, Charles Sturt University in Australia.
Dorien Coray has a masters degree in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Canterbury and is currently a PhD student there.
Sarah Z. Agapito-Tenfen has a masters degree in Plant Genetic Resources from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil and is currently a PhD student there.
Dr. Jiajun Dale Wen is a researcher and consultant for Third World Network.
1. Agricultural biotechnologies from the Convention on Biodiversity (Biotechnology): “The term 'biotechnology' refers to any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for a specific use. Biotechnology, in the form of traditional fermentation techniques, has been used for decades to make bread, cheese or beer. It has also been the basis of traditional animal and plant breeding techniques, such as hybridization and the selection of plants and animals with specific characteristics to create, for example, crops which produce higher yields of grain…”
2. And the Cartagena Protocol (Modern Biotechnology) “‘Modern biotechnology’ means the application of:
a. In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
b. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family,
that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection”.
3. See Hilbeck, A., Lebrecht, T., Vogel, R., Heinemann, J.A. and Binimelis, R. Farmer’s choice of seeds in four EU countries under different levels of GM crop adoption. Environmental Sciences Europe 2013, 25:12.
Paper is open access: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tags20/current