New study sparks debate about yields from genetically engineered crops

(lady_lbrty/FLICKR)
(lady_lbrty/FLICKR)

 By Bridget Macdonald – MEDILL NEWS SERVICE

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report Wednesday questioning the link between agricultural biotechnology and crop yields in the United States. In addition to ruffling a few feathers, the report demonstrated that even in the data-driven world of science, semantics matter.

Pick the best statement (and record your answer in our poll on this site):

      I.     Biotechnology has played a key role in improving crop yields.

    II.     Biotechnology has significantly increased crop yields. Just ask a farmer.

  III.     Genetic engineering has not improved crop yields in the United States, but was never intended to do so.

 IV.     Despite the concerted efforts of the biotechnology industry, genetic engineering has not improved crop yields in the United States.

   V.     Yields or no yields, genetically engineered crops have no place in agriculture.

Answer?

Depends who you ask:

I. Biotechnology Industry Organization

Responding to the report in a press release, Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, listed “increased yield” as one of the many benefits of biotech crops.

 “It’s absurd to deny biotechnology’s contribution, among other factors, to increased crop production,” she said, adding, “Since the introduction of agricultural biotechnology in 1996, we have seen double-digit growth in corn and soybean yields.”

II. Illinois Corn Growers Association

“I’ll give you a hundred corn farmers in Illinois who will tell you they’ve seen increased yields,” said Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.

Weinzierl pointed out that even the U.S. Department of Agriculture endorses genetically engineered crops through a risk management program that provides discount crop insurance to farmers who plant 70 percent or more of a certain variety of corn. The government sees it as a safe bet, he said, because “if you plant biotechs, you’re less likely to have yield problems.”

III. University of Illinois, Extension Service

“Was there ever a statement that GM crops were designed to increase yield?” wondered agronomy professor Emerson Nafziger.

Genetically engineered crops, he explained, were developed to control other variables, not to increase yield. “Nobody made any pretense about it.”

For example, Nafziger said Bt corn varieties, such as Monsanto Co.’s MON 810, were bred to include a protein from a soil-born bacterium with insecticidal properties that are harmful to certain pests, but not the plant. The trait, however, did not intrinsically boost the plant’s productivity.

Genetically engineered crops may be moving in that direction, Nafziger said, but most everybody understands that improved yields mostly come from conventional breeding.

IV. Union of Concerned Scientists

If a crop is bred to be pest-resistant, said senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman, the implicit goal is to increase returns at harvest time.

He pointed out that increasing productivity has been the mandate of industrial agriculture since the early 20th century. “When you survey farmers, what is most important?” Higher yield, he said, and farmers want to buy a product that promises to deliver.

U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that more than 3,000 field trials have been conducted to test crops that were genetically engineered to resist drought and disease and to increase yield, yet “nothing has panned out.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists agreed that crop yields have improved since the mid-1990s, and acknowledged Bt corn provides certain benefits, but said the most substantial contributions to productivity have been advances in conventional breeding.

Researchers are now able to closely examine a plant’s genetic information in order to track certain traits, but, said Gurian-Sherman, “The point is, that is not genetic engineering.”

V.     Germany

Agriculture minister Ilse Aigner told reporters Tuesday: “I have come to the conclusion that genetically modified corn from the MON 810 strain constitutes a danger to the environment.”

Aigner said current studies do not provide enough convincing evidence that the genetically engineered seed is safe for use. As a result, Germany has imposed a ban on the corn, which is widely grown in Europe, effective immediately.

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