Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 1, 2016. A report published this weekend in The New York Times finds that the shift to genetically engineered (GE) crops in the United States and Canada over the past two decades has increased the use of pesticides in North America, and failed to produce any significant yield increases. When the technology was first introduced, multinational agrichemical companies claimed just the opposite would occur- yields would spike and pesticide use would be minimized. As far back as 1998, Beyond Pesticides asked, “Is the failed pesticide paradigm being genetically engineered?” As the Times and numerous other publications before it have found, the answer was and still is yes.
The far-ranging expose by the Times on the state of the GE industry used publicly available data from the United Nations to compare yields between that of Europe and North America. Their data show “no discernible advantage in yields – food per acre” for the United States and Canada over Western Europe during the time of GE crop adoption. A comparison between rapeseed yields in Canada and Western Europe shows increases in both regions, with Europe’s yields consistently higher, independent of the use of GE crops. For corn, gains in food per acre were found to be roughly equal between the U.S. and Western Europe, with both rising from roughly 50,000 hectograms per hectare (hph) in 1985 to 100,000 hph in 2014. Sugar beets, for which GE varieties have been increasingly planted in the U.S. over the last decade, tell a different story. While yields in Europe have risen over 100,000 hph without genetic modification, American beet field harvests have remained relatively flat.
Differences in yields tell an important story, but understanding increases in pesticide use helps underscore the ecological and public health dangers of GE crops. As crop yields in Europe increased, pesticide use (fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides) decreased dramatically. As yields in the U.S. remained flat, insecticide use has remained the same, while the spread of herbicide-tolerant weeds has caused use of these chemicals to skyrocket. Much of this can be attributed specifically to traits within GE crops that allow plants to tolerate repeated spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Again, as we wrote in 1998, “It is well documented that when a single herbicide is used repeatedly on a crop, the chances of herbicide resistance developing in weed populations greatly increases.”
Increased use of pesticides has important public health and environmental implications. Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that the herbicide glyphosate is human carcinogen based on laboratory animal studies. Other recent research finds the chemical interferes with proper DNA functioning, correlating with the onset of numerous common diseases.
In addition to impacts on human health, glyphosate has been linked to adverse effects on earthworms and other soil biota, as well as shape changes in amphibians. The widespread use of the chemical on glyphosate-tolerant GE crops has led it to be implicated in the decline of monarch butterflies, whose sole source to lay their eggs, milkweed plants, are being devastated as a result of incessant use of glyphosate.
Although insecticide incorporated GE crops, for which genes have been edited to incorporate the active delta toxin produced by the soil organism bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), have not yet led to significant insecticide increases, there is some indication that current spates of resistance in target pests is now trending use upwards. In attempts to avoid or slow resistance, GE companies have begun to “stack” multiple strains of the Bt delta toxin. However, research is finding that once a pest is resistant to one strain of Bt, it is likely to be cross-resistant to other varieties.
In response to the Times’ report, industry appeared to flatly deny that GE crops do not confer benefits. “Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously,” Monsanto chief technology officer Robert Fraley, PhD, told The New York Times. Despite the professings of chemical company executives, the Times revealed the true benefit conferred by this technology: “The industry is winning on both ends — because the same companies make and sell both the genetically modified plants and the poisons. Driven by these sales, the combined market capitalizations of Monsanto, the largest seed company, and Syngenta, the Swiss pesticide giant, have grown more than sixfold in the last decade and a half.”
German chemical company Bayer, which is currently working on a deal to buy U.S-based Monsanto, has pledged not to push GE crops on Europe. While this is a smart move for their business in Europe, given the overwhelming data on the failure of GE technology, it would be prudent for the company to make the same pledge for the United States and Canada. Moving beyond GE agriculture and the failed pesticide paradigm will provide farmers across the continent with an opportunity to implement safer practices that are in line with natural systems.
Concerned consumers in the U.S. can help support a transition to safer, successful agricultural practices today by buying organic whenever possible. A study published earlier this year by researchers at Washington State University found that organic agriculture can help feed the world into the future, with yields on par with conventional systems. Organic is not only beneficial in the long run; it provides tangible benefits to farmers and farming communities. A White Paper published in June of this year found that U.S. counties with high levels of organic crop production boost average incomes by $2,000. By law, food certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not allowed to be genetically engineered, and no toxic synthetic pesticides are permitted to be used on organic crops. Instead of gaming nature in a bid to sell more chemicals, organic crop production works with nature, producing healthier food with less risk to public health, wildlife, water quality and the wider environment.
For more information on why organic is the right choice, see Beyond Pesticides’ program page. And for more information about the failed promises of GE agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Genetic Engineering webpage.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.