By Wen Jiajun Source: Global Times Published: 2017-6-8
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) released its annual report earlier this year, which claimed there would be long-standing benefits from biotech crops for farmers in developing and industrialized countries. As a US-registered business interest NGO largely funded by big agri-businesses, the ISAAA has been active in promoting GM crops across the globe. As usual, the annual report painted a rosy picture about GM crop global expansion and its advantages.
There has been a 110-fold increase in the adoption rate of biotech crops globally in just 21 years of commercialization - growing from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185.1 million hectares in 2016. However, a closer examination shows that the rapid growth may have plateaued. The year-on-year growth from 2015 to 2016 was only 3 percent. Use of the crops is also limited to certain countries. Only seven developed countries - the US, Canada, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - grow GM crops on a commercial basis.
While the ISAAA continues to claim increased productivity and profitability for GM crops, such promises have been increasingly challenged by more vigorous studies. In 2013, Jack Heinemann, a professor of genetics, published a paper analyzing data on agricultural productivity in North America and western Europe over the last 50 years. The major difference between the two regions is that North America has adopted GM crops en masse while Western Europe has not. The paper found that the combination of non-GM seed and management practices used by Western Europe is increasing corn yields faster than the use of the GM-led approach chosen by the US. A similar trend was found while comparing canola yields in western Europe and Canada. While chemical herbicide use in the US has increased with GM use, chemical herbicide usage has decreased in Western Europe. Chemical pesticide usage has decreased for both regions, with Western Europe showing a larger decline. So the agriculture system in western Europe outperforms that of North America in both productivity and sustainability.
While this paper caused a global debate when it was first published in 2013, its conclusion has been increasingly accepted by the mainstream. In October 2016, the New York Times published an article comparing yields and chemical use in western Europe and North America. Despite rejecting GM crops, western Europe maintained a yield lead over Canada for rapeseed and over the US for sugar beet. For corn, there was barely any difference in yield between the US and western Europe. Since GM crops were introduced in the US two decades ago, the use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a third while herbicide use has risen by 21 percent, giving rise to glyphosate-resistant weeds. By contrast, in France, the use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by 65 percent alongside a drop of 36 percent in herbicide use.
Since big agri-businesses sell both GM seeds and agro-chemicals, they make a handsome profit at both ends. For example, Monsanto`s roundup-ready GM seeds have undoubtedly increased sales of its roundup herbicide. Its main ingredient, glyphosate, is the world`s most-used herbicide in history. Glyphosate was classified as a "probable human carcinogen" by the WHO`s International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015.
So far, commercially planted GM crops are dominated by three major traits: herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and stacked traits that combine the two. While they did offer convenience and often cost-savings for farmers when initially introduced, such benefits do not always last. For example, one reason for the recent acreage stagnation is that GM cotton acreage in China has decreased in recent years, largely due to lost efficiency. Development of resistance among target pests and outbursts of secondary pests force farmers to spray more pesticides in addition to the high cost of GM seeds they have to pay for. In the US, increased reliance on glyphosate for weed control in GM crops fields and a decline in the use of other weed management practices have contributed to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weed populations.
Unfortunately, the ISAAA annual report has turned a blind eye to all these studies and continued to paint a rosy but one-sided picture for GM crops. With the GM debate continuing, both the decision-makers and the general public need more balanced and impartial information.
The author is a visiting fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.