Biotech Agriculture Failed to Increase Crop Yields, but Increased Use of Herbicide

Monsanto’s pledge of benefits from genetically engineered/modified (GE, GM, GMO) crops:

Over the last decade, Monsanto’s innovative products have increased crop yield as well as reduced the use of pesticides…Farmers are seeing real economic benefits, with 10 to 18 percent average yield gains across the countries…biotech crops improve yield, cut costs, and reduce pesticide spraying…Our biotechnology products also bring environmental benefits such as reduced pesticide application…With these [GM] methods, corn yields have increased dramatically, often to 10 times previous levels.” (Facing Global Challenges: Monsanto’s Pledge Report, 2006)

The pledge and all the promised benefits proved false.  Most GE crops are either engineered to produce their own pesticide in the form of Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt) or they are designed to be resistant to herbicides, so that herbicides can be sprayed –even in massive quantities without harming the crops.  Monsanto’s RoundupReady seeds were genetically engineered so that the plants would withstand even large quantities of spraying with the company’s herbicide RoundUp.

“The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reported that genetically engineered (GE) crop acreage has expanded dramatically: in 2012, 420 million acres, that’s a combined landmass more than four times larger than California. “Yet, for all of that land devoted to GMOs, there are just two traits in wide use: herbicide resistance and pest resistance (Bt). Note… the percentage of all global GMO acres planted in crops that aren’t either herbicide- or pesticide-tolerant [is] less than 1 percent.” (“Crop Flops: GMOs Lead AG Down the Wrong Path,” Tom Philipott, Grist, 2014)

Rather than reducing pesticide spraying – as promised — the use of GE seeds has resulted in the massive increased spraying of herbicides. That outcome proved highly profitable for Monsanto whose herbicide, Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide. Was that profit-enhancing outcome not anticipated by Monsanto?

“For every application of genetic engineering in agriculture in developing countries, there are a number of less hazardous and more sustainable approaches and practices with hundreds, if not thousands, of years of safety record behind them. None of the GE applications in agriculture today are valuable enough to farmers in developing countries to make it reasonable to expose the environment, farmers and the consumers to even the slightest risk.”  Dr. Oscar Zamora, vice chancellor of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos (The Nation 2013)

Monsanto has earned a reputation as “the most evil company in the world.” It earned its bad reputation as a result of the company’s uninterrupted history of using massive amounts of toxic poisons that pollute the earth, the rivers and the environment; and its ruthless corporate tactics of intimidation and aggressive patent enforcement and anti-competitive takeovers.

Anti-Monsanto Global Protest

Anti-Monsanto Global Protest

Monsanto embarked on propaganda campaigns projecting an entirely fictional version of its mission, operations and the benefits to mankind.

“Monsanto’s reputation as a partner in agriculture and a no-till technology leader continues, strengthening our tradition of innovative technology and our partnership with farmers to promote sustainable food production around the world(Facing Global Challenges: Monsanto’s Pledge Report, 2006)

Last year, an article in Counter Punch assessing GM crops, concluded that there was no evidence to support the claim that GM agriculture improved crop yields and plenty of evidence that genetically engineered foods pose serious health and environmental risks:

“As of now, GMOs do nothing for society but enlarge the coffers of the billion-dollar agrichemical giants who produce them. They have not alleviated hunger, they have not increased environmental sustainability; their much-hyped public benefits have not yet materialized.” (“GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science,” by Kristine Mattis, PhD, Counter Punch October 2015)

The New York Times (October 30, 2016) confirms that verdict in front page reports: 5-gmo-crops
1. Genetically Modified Crops Have Failed to Lift Yields and Ease Pesticide Use and
2, Broken Promises of Genetically Modified Crops  

The reports are based on three decades of comparative data from the US and Canada — both having embraced GMO seeds; and data from Western Europe where farmers continue to breed and grow their crops the natural way. European countries rejected GMOs; and the evidence shows that by adhering to nature, Western European farmers did very well without the health and environmental risks posed by  artificial genetic engineering. GMO crop yields in the US and Canada have NOT increased; but they have caused the emergence of chemical resistant weeds requiring ever more use of poisonous chemicals. What’s more, non-GMO sugar beets in Western Europe have shown stronger yield growth than US GMO beet crops.

“a broad yield advantage has not emerged. The 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.”                The New York Times, October 30, 2016

GMOs have increased the cost of seeds: A bag of 50,000 GMO corn seeds costs $153; the same quantity bag of natural seeds costs $85. Furthermore, use of GMO seeds requires additional cost of increased use of herbicides.t” said Ohio State University researcher, Joseph Kovach.

Toward the end of the article, the Times notes the real reason for the frenzied mega mergers:

“Battered by falling crop prices and consumer resistance that has made it hard to win over new markets, the agrochemical industry has been swept by buyouts. Bayer recently announced a deal to acquire Monsanto. And the state-owned China National Chemical Corporation has received American regulatory approval to acquire Syngenta, though Syngenta later warned the takeover could be delayed by scrutiny from European authorities”  (Read more about the mergers here)

U.S. GMO corn crop yield no better than non-GMO Europe

NYT Graphic: U.S. GMO corn crop yield no better than non-GMO in Europe

“The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weedkillers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides…

“‘We’re certainly not encouraging farmers to use more chemicals,’ said a Monsanto executive in 1994. The next year, in a news release, the company said that its new gene for seeds, named Roundup Ready, ‘can reduce overall herbicide use.’  

The Times’ analysis of the real life scientific evidence — found in multiple authoritative sources, including the U.S. Geological Survey, United Nations data and the National Academy of Sciences — calls the lie of Monsanto’s claim and confirms what independent scientists have been reporting for several years; namely, that GMO crops require MORE pesticide/herbicide, not less.

U.S. herbicide use Up

NYT Graphic U.S. herbicide use Up

“Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture show herbicide use skyrocketing in soybeans, a leading G.M. crop, growing by two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. Use in corn was trending downward even before the introduction of G.M. crops, but then nearly doubled from 2002 to 2010, before leveling off. Weed resistance problems in such crops have pushed overall [herbicide] usage up… “weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides…the goal of herbicide-resistant seeds was to sell more product— more herbicide,”  said Ohio State University researcher, Joseph Kovach.  (The New York Times, October 30, 2016)

NYT graphic. Pesticide use in France Down

NYT graphic. Pesticide use in France Down

In France where crops are naturally grown, pesticide use is down; in the US and Canada where GMO crops are prevalent, Monsanto is profiting from increased sales of its chemical toxins.

Growing resistance to Roundup is also reviving old, and contentious, chemicals. One is 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, the infamous Vietnam War defoliant. Its potential risks have long divided scientists and have alarmed advocacy groupsIn Louisiana, Monsanto is spending nearly $1 billion to begin production of the chemical dicamba.” And even though Monsanto’s version [of dicamba] is not yet approved for use, the company is already selling seeds that are resistant to it — leading to reports that some farmers are damaging neighbors’ crops by illegally spraying older versions of the toxin.” (NY Times, 2016)

The Case against GE Crops; the case for Sustainable Farming
The negative impact of GM agriculture has been documented by independent scientists for several years, but their warnings have been largely dismissed:

  • In 2003, an international Independent Science Panel issued a report The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World.
  • In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that the results of several thousand field trials of GE seeds over the last 20 years aimed at increasing crop yield had failed: “none of these field trials have resulted in increased yield in commercialized major food/feed crops.” (Dan Gurain-Sherman, “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops”, 2009)
  • In 2012, a report by Washington State University scientist Dr. Charles Benbrook, published in Environmental Sciences Europe examined the use of GE herbicide-resistant crop seeds in the US, concluding that:

Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%. The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

  • In 2013, an article jointly published by The Nation and the think tank, Foreign Policy In Focus by Dr. Walden Bello, former official in Philippine government, currently senior researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, laid out five arguments against GMOs.
  1. Walden Bello

    Dr. Walden Bello

    Genetic engineering disrupts the precise sequence of a food’s genetic code and disturbs the functions of neighboring genes, which can give rise to potentially toxic or allergenic molecules or even alter the nutritional value of food produced. The Bt toxin used in GMO corn, for example, was recently detected in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, with possibly harmful consequences.

  2. A GMO crop, once released in the open, reproduces via pollination and interacts genetically with natural varieties of the same crop, producing what is called genetic contamination. According to a study published in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, Bt corn has contaminated indigenous varieties of corn tested in Oaxaca, Mexico.
  3. GMO, brought into natural surroundings, may have a toxic or lethal impact on other living things. Bt corn destroyed the larvae of the monarch butterfly, raising well grounded fears that many other natural plant and animal life may be impacted in the same way.
  4. Insects are fast developing resistance to Bt as well as to herbicides, resulting in even more massive infestation by the new superbugs. No substantial evidence exists that GM crops yield more than conventional crops. What genetically engineered crops definitely do lead to is greater use of pesticide, which is harmful both to humans and the environment.
  5. The World Future Council put it, “While profitable to the few companies producing them, GMO seeds reinforce a model of farming that undermines sustainability of cash-poor farmers, who make up most of the world’s hungry. GMO seeds continue farmers’ dependency on purchased seed and chemical inputs. The most dramatic impact of such dependency is in India, where 270,000 farmers, many trapped in debt for buying seeds and chemicals, committed suicide between 1995 and 2012.”
  • Dr. Bello noted that critics’ arguments against GMOs were making headway worldwide; as is evidenced by the increased number of total or partial bans against GMOs which had increased by 2013, to at least 26 with another sixty countries having imposed “significant restrictions on GMOs.” The reason is due to the growing concerns about the safety of GMOs which is being felt by American farmers. For example, strict limitations have been imposed on American rice farmers’ exports to the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and are banned altogether from Russia and Bulgaria.
  • In 2013, a peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability found that contrary to Monsanto’s claims, conventional plant breeding, not genetic engineering, is responsible for yield increases in major U.S. crops. Furthermore, GE crops failed to reduce the use of pesticides — it actually led to increased use of pesticides. This study compared North American crop yields for corn, soybean, and canola between 1985 and 2010. The study’s lead author, Professor Jack Heinemann, is a molecular biologist in New Zealand who suggests that:

Because Europe has had to innovate without using genetic engineering, [due to its laws that do not allow GE crops] it does so in a way that rewards the plants. They’re getting greater yield and using less pesticide to do it. But the way the US is innovating, it’s penalizing all plants whether they are genetically engineered or not…I’m a genetic engineer. But there is a difference between being a genetic engineer and selling a product that is genetically engineered.”

  • In 2013, an article jointly published by The Nation and the think tank, Foreign Policy In Focus noted that critics’ arguments against GMOs were making headway worldwide; as is evidenced by the increased number of total or partial bans against GMOs which had increased by 2013, to at least 26 with another sixty countries having imposed “significant restrictions on GMOs.” The reason is due to the growing concerns about the safety of GMOs which is being felt by American farmers. For example, strict limitations have been imposed on American rice farmers’ exports to the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and are banned altogether from Russia and Bulgaria.
  • In 2013, a report by Food & Water Watch examined the pesticide data compiled by the USDA and the EPA; it found a 10-fold increase in the use of the pesticide glyphosate:

“as weeds developed resistance to glyphosate, farmers applied more herbicides, and total herbicide use increased by 81.2 million pounds (26 percent) between 2001 and 2010. The total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.”

  • Three and a half years later, the USDA amplified that negative verdict:

“Genetically modified crops have failed to lift yields and ease pesticide use. “Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture show herbicide use skyrocketing in soybeans, a leading G.M. crop, growing by two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. Use in corn nearly doubled from 2002 to 2010…“weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup around the world — creating an opening  for the industry to sell more seeds and more pesticides.”  (The New York TimesOctober 30, 2016)

The power and weakness of Big Food / Big Agriculture
The Agriculture and processed food business has become reliant on chemical pollutants and GMO crops. Michael Pollan; a journalist and professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; the author of several books, and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, provides insight about the politics and propaganda which are the cornerstones of the business. In his Open Letter to [then] President-Elect Obama (2008) Polan identifies several problems emanating from the industrialization of agriculture and the massive reliance on GMO crops:

“The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.” (NYT)

Pollan posits that traditional agriculture based on multi-crop rotation is sustainable, whereas GM agriculture is not:

“The power of cleverly designed polycultures to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proved, not only by small-scale “alternative” farmers in the United States but also by large rice-and-fish farmers in China and giant-scale operations (up to 15,000 acres) in places like Argentina. There, in a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world’s best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary.

There is no reason — save current policy and custom — that American farmers couldn’t grow both high-quality grain and grass-fed beef under such a regime through much of the Midwest.” (Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take on Corporate Agriculture?  2016)

The shift to GE crop farming in the U.S. has definitely increased the use of chemical poisons — pesticides and herbicides — which are harmful to both humans and the environment — but highly profitable for industry.