False promise of genetically modified crops

The Times is more polite than I am; today it ran an article Doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops, by Danny Hakim. Well, I read the article and looked more closely at the supporting material, Broken promises of genetically modified crops, by Karl Russell and Danny Hakim, and I frankly have no doubts. As Mr. Hakim writes,

An analysis by The Times using United Nations data showed that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields — food per acre — when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany. Also, a recent National Academy of Sciences report found that “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.

At the same time, herbicide use has increased in the United States, even as major crops like corn, soybeans and cotton have been converted to modified varieties. And the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France, in reducing the overall use of pesticides, which includes both herbicides and insecticides.

In addition, Mr. Hakim notes that

the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent.

By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.

Monsanto said in a statement,

While overall herbicide use may be increasing in some areas where farmers are following best practices to manage emerging weed issues, farmers in other areas with different circumstances may have decreased or maintained their herbicide usage [my italics].

Or they may have increased or maintained their herbicide usage.

One of the striking features in the supporting information, which is all graphical, is the graph of “Sugar beet crop yield.” Sugar beet yield increased markedly more in Western Europe, where GMO’s are not used, than in the United States. Perhaps more strikingly, the graph shows not the slightest hint of an increase in yield in the United States after GMO’s were introduced.

I am by no means an expert, and i do not mind if they want to genetically modify a tomato so that it will grow in a desert. But I have always been suspicious of GMO’s such as Roundup Ready corn, largely because of the problem of resistant pests evolving, and indeed Mr. Hakim notes,

Growing resistance to Roundup is reviving old, and contentious, chemicals. One is 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, [whose] potential risks have long divided scientists and have alarmed advocacy groups.

Despite the gratuitous reference to Agent Orange, Mr. Hakim’s article is mostly dispassionate and very thorough, and I suggest you read it for yourself, and also look closely at the supporting information.