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October 29, 2010 

Monsanto Executive is Keynote Speaker at Tri-Societies Agricultural Conference Next Week

Scientists Questions Biotech Industry Claims about the Benefits of Genetically Engineered Crops

Monsanto CFO Carl Casale will be a featured speaker on Tuesday, November 2, at the annual joint meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America in Long Beach, California. His topic: how genetically engineered crops can improve yields and help feed hundreds of millions of hungry people around the world.

Monsanto’s claims about genetically engineered crops, however, are suspect, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). A clear-eyed look at the scientific evidence shows that these crops do not provide the benefits that Monsanto and other large corporations have promised. In recent months, for instance, Monsanto’s new genetically engineered corn, SmartStax, has produced lower-than-promised yields—and the seed costs significantly more than current strains. Meanwhile, Roundup herbicide, used with Monsanto’s genetically engineered soybean seed, Roundup Ready, is rapidly losing its effectiveness due to increasing resistance of weeds.

Last year UCS issued three reports that investigated the biotechnology industry’s claims. All three found that genetically engineered crops do not significantly increase crop yields or reduce farm pollution in the United States.

UCS’s April 2009 “Failure to Yield” report found that genetically engineering corn and soybeans to withstand herbicides has not increased U.S. yields. This is significant because corn and soybeans are the two main engineered crops grown in the United States. Meanwhile, genetically engineered, insect-resistant corn has improved yield, but only marginally. Both corn and soybeans did have yield increases over the last 13 years, but those gains were largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices—not genetic engineering.

“The biotech industry has spent billions on research and public relations, but genetically engineered food and feed crops haven't enabled American farmers to grow substantially more food,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report. “In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results.”
 
“Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use,” published in November 2009, found that over the last 13 years, American farmers applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides on genetically engineered seeds than they would have applied on conventional crops. This is significant, because Monsanto and other biotech companies argue that genetically engineered crops reduce pesticide use. The report found that in 2008 alone, genetically engineered crops required approximately 26 percent more pesticides per acre than conventional crops. The report was written by the Organic Center, a Colorado-based think tank, and was partly financed by UCS.

UCS’s December 2009 “No Sure Fix” report found that while the biotechnology industry has yet to produce any commercial crops engineered to reduce nitrogen fertilizer pollution, traditional breeding and other methods have improved the nitrogen use efficiency of wheat, rice and corn by 20 percent to 40 percent over the past several decades. This is significant because Monsanto claims that its products enable farmers to apply less nitrogen-based fertilizer. Agriculture is the largest source of nitrogen pollution, which contributes to “dead zones” in coastal waters, as well as to acid rain and climate change. Good use of cover crops and better timing of fertilizer applications—not engineered crops—can dramatically reduce nitrogen pollution from farm fields.

“Nitrogen pollution is among the world’s worst environmental problems,” said Gurian-Sherman, author of the report. “A number of very promising solutions have begun addressing the problem, but so far genetic engineering has yet to make a contribution.”

Monsanto and other large biotech companies are involved in conventional and improved crop breeding as well as genetic engineering. But genetic engineering is the industry’s core technology. And to be sure, the industry has had some genetic engineering successes. For example, it has been successful in reducing the amount of chemical insecticides used on cotton. Overall, however, genetically engineered crops have not provided tangible solutions to agriculture’s big problems.

Beyond the issues covered by the reports, there is the question of the industry’s undue influence over agricultural research. U.S. patent law allows the biotech industry to restrict scientists’ access to engineered seeds. This lack of availability thwarts independent research on the efficacy and safety of these crops, and threatens the open and unbiased scientific process. (See “Crop scientists say biotechnology seed companies are thwarting research,” New York Times, February 20, 2009.)

It is possible that genetic engineering may eventually help increase crop yields and reduce pollution. But there are proven, less expensive methods, such as crop breeding, to meet these goals. Recent studies have shown that farming methods based on agro-ecological principles that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can provide yields comparable to those of conventional monoculture, and often more than double crop yields, at little cost to poor farmers in developing regions.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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