GM Free Cymru

GM Soy -- much hype, few benefits

A short extract from an interesting article by Craig Holdrege pointing out that GM soy farmers do not get better yields or make more money from GM soy crops than they did before. The only identifiable "benefits" appear to be an easier management regime, tidy weed-free fields (in theory) and the feel-good syndrome associated with "progress" and high technology ..............

Extract from Nature Institute website

Will Biotech Feed the World? The Broader Context

Craig Holdrege

Large-scale commercial farming of genetically modified (GM) crops began in 1996. The bulk of the GM crops are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola that have been manipulated with foreign genes either to be herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready crops) or to produce an insecticide (Bt crops). These crops are mostly grown on large industrial farms in the U.S. and Argentina.

In this present commercialized form, genetic engineering has been placed in the service of industrial agriculture, driven by the investments and marketing of large biotechnology corporations. In this respect, it is an extension of the industrial approach to agriculture and only adds a new dimension of dependence on external factors. For example, genetically modified (GM) seed is sold at a premium price, with farmers paying around $15 to $20 per acre as a “technology fee.” Farmers sign a contract in which they agree not to use the seeds produced by the gm-crops; they buy new seeds and pay fees year after year.

The largest-selling biotech seed today is a herbicide-resistant soybean. These plants have been manipulated to withstand spraying with the herbicide glyphosate—which the farmer buys from the same company that sells the seeds. So the farmers are doubly dependent on the companies. In the eight years since their cultivation began in 1996, the amount of glyphosate sprayed on soybean fields in the U.S. has increased by a total of 75 million pounds (Benbrook 2003).

With the increased use of this herbicide, herbicide-tolerant weeds have developed—an increasing number of weeds are no longer affected by the herbicide (see: GM soybean farmers can only hope that biotech companies have a new line of herbicides and herbicide-resistant crops in development to cope (temporarily) with the new generation of weeds their previous practices unintentionally brought forth. This is clearly not a sustainable practice.

One might expect that at least the soybeans would produce greater yields, but this is, at least to date, not the case. In the U.S. herbicide-resistant soybeans have on average produced five to ten percent fewer bushels per acre since 1996 (Benbrook 2002) and lower yields have also been found in Canada (Bohner 2003). This “yield drag” is probably due to a number of factors and may be due more to the increased use of glyphosate as an herbicide than to the transgenic plants themselves. Glyphosate may be dampening the plant’s ability to fix nitrogen (Benbrook 2002) or reducing its ability to utilize manganese, which is an essential micronutrient (, see there: ASA Leader Letter 10/19/03).

A 2002 study by U.S. Department of Agriculture economists found that U.S. farmers rapidly adopted herbicide resistant soybeans—“even though we could not find positive financial impacts in either field- level nor the whole-farm analysis” (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride 2002, p. 24). Agricultural economist Michael Duffy reached similar conclusions in a study comparing the yields and costs of GM crops compared to conventional crops in Iowa (Duffy 2001). So the most widely used GM-crop is not necessarily benefiting—in a narrow economic sense—the farmers who are using it. It may be that the desire to have a spotless, weed-free field and the ease of applying only one herbicide outweigh the lack of economic gain. We should not underestimate, in addition, the pull of “progress”—farmers are strongly invested in the industrial model of agriculture and biotech crops are viewed as the newest tool for advancement.

The example of GM soybeans illustrates how the dominant present-day application of genetic engineering in agriculture is essentially industry-driven. It has nothing to do with feeding the world and everything to do with company profits.