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Canola field, FreeImages

GMO yields fall short of industry promise

Genetically modified crops are deemed unsafe to eat by many detractors, but that debate might have obscured yet another drawback indicating that the promised accelerated increases in crop yields or overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides have not materialised.

Published: October 31, 2016, 9:35 am

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    An extensive examination by The New York Times points to a more fundamental problem that genetic modification in the United States and Canada has fallen short of the promise.

    Crops immune to weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, were supposed to require fewer applications of sprayed pesticides.

    Europe largely rejected genetic modification twenty years ago, while the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data and academic and industry research, data showed that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage.

    Both a UN analysis in yields as well as a recent National Academy of Sciences report found “there was little evidence” that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops. Measuring food per acre against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany, the yields were similar.

    The use of herbicides have increased in the United States, even while major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton have been converted to modified varieties. Also the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes herbicides and insecticides.

    Harm from pesticides, which are toxic by design, are linked to cancer and developmental delays.

    Another measure, gleaned from data issued by the US Geological Survey, shows the difference in the use of pesticides. Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the US, toxins used to get rid of insects and fungi has fallen by a third, while the use of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

    In France, by contrast, the use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by an extraordinary 65 percent and herbicide use has plunged by 36 percent.

    Europeans have not warmed to idea of fooling around with nature and their fears have not been unfounded. David Bellinger, a professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, conducted research showing the loss of nearly 17 million IQ points among American children 5 and younger could be attributed one class of insecticides.

    “These chemicals are largely unknown,” Bellinger told the New York Times. “We do natural experiments on a population,” he said, referring to exposure to chemicals in agriculture, “and wait until it shows up as bad”.

    The same companies make and sell the genetically modified plants and the poisons, leading to the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto, the largest seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, to sixfold growth over 15 years.

    The two companies are currently involved in merger agreements of their own that would lift their new combined values to more than $100 billion each.

    Weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, farmers around the world are complaining, offering the industry new opportunities to sell even more seeds and more pesticides.

    Food production yields create concern as the world’s population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Monsanto has long held out its products as a way “to help meet the food demands of these added billions,” as it said in a 1995 statement. That remains a mantra for the industry, but a broad yield advantage has not emerged.

    The New York Times looked at regional data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, comparing main genetically modified crops in the United States and Canada with varieties grown in Western Europe, a grouping used by the agency that comprises seven nations, including the two largest agricultural producers, France and Germany.

    For rapeseed, used to produce canola oil, The Times compared Western Europe with Canada, the largest producer, over three decades, including a period well before the introduction of genetically modified crops and despite rejecting genetically modified crops, Western Europe maintained a lead over Canada in yields.

    Relative yields have not shifted in Canada’s favor since the introduction of genetically modified crops, the data show.

    For corn the yields between the two barely deviate and for sugar beets, a major source of sugar, Europe have shown stronger yield growth than the US, despite the dominance of genetically modified varieties in the past decade.

    Jack Heinemann, a pioneering researcher on GMO at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, says, “ Western Europe hasn’t been penalized in any way for not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices.”

    Michael Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, told the NYT that while the industry had long maintained that genetically modified crops would “save the world,” they still “haven’t found the mythical yield gene”.

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