Ag Policy Blog

Just Another Piece on GMOs

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The American Soybean Association responded to Saturday's article in the New York Times on genetically engineered crops.

The article, "Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops," has done what it intended to do, which was stoke both sides of the GMO debate into one more rounds of salvos on social media.

ASA challenged the piece with a statement of Richard Wilkins, president of the soybean group and a farmer from Delaware. Wilkins said ASA had to confront some "inaccuracies and false conclusions in the article." With that, Wilkins noted the data comparing France and the U.S. was not standardized, for instance. Data in France was measured in metric tons, for instance, while U.S. data was measured in pounds. Further, the U.S. has nine times the arable land as France.

"Additionally, while he has no problem drawing sensational and plainly false links to sarin and Agent Orange, the author fails to distinguish between even the most basic types of chemicals used. For example, over the past two decades, farmers have excelled at replacing more toxic herbicides with less toxic ones, even when applied at a higher poundage," Wilkins stated.

ASA added from Wilkins, "While it is fair for the Times to point out that GMO technology is not a ‘silver bullet,’ it is important to remember that farmers are practical businesspeople. They look at what will give them the best total return, factoring in yield, seed price, input price and the price of practices like tillage. Farmers are not loyal to GMO technology based on principle, but rather on sound business logic, and overwhelmingly, these men and women have made the determination that GMO technologies make economic sense. The business judgements of millions of individual farmers – made each year for the past 20 years – provide a more complete picture about the benefits of GMOs than the New York Times’ cherry-picked data.”

The Gray Lady's article drew rave praise from the anti-GMO crowd. Mother Jones, a left-leaning publication, declared "The New York Times cuts through the hype on GMOs."…

Mother Jones stated, "They're likely safe to eat, but they sure haven't lived up to the high-yield, low pesticide promise." So the write grudgingly ackowledged GMOs are safe to eat.

The Genetic Literacy Project asked if the NYT was going to retract the botched article on GMOs. "Strawmen and selective statistics: Did the New York Times botch its critique of GMO crops?" Andrew Kniss, a plant scientist and weed specialist at the University of Wyoming, wrote on the Genetic Literacy Project column that the data used in the NYT piece comparing pesticide use in France to the U.S. is "convoluted and misleading."…

The NYT piece cites last spring's National Academy of Sciences report on GMOs in declaring that GMOs don’t produce better yields. The piece, however, missed a great deal from that National Academy report. For instance, the Times piece ignores farmer economics. As I noted in a piece when the NAS report first came out, researchers with the academy stated that data was spotty and not comprehensive, but the available evidence on economic return showed farmers benefit from herbicide-resistant soybeans, Bt corn, Bt cotton and both Bt and herbicide-resistant corn and cotton.

One meta-analysis of farmer income cited a collection of studies on herbicide-tolerant corn, cotton and soybeans as well as Bt corn and cotton. It showed profit increased an average of 69% for adopters of those crops because of a 21.5% increase in yields and a 39% decrease in insecticide costs.

Another study on the same crops in 16 countries showed higher costs for GE crops were offset by greater yields, translating into higher margins.

Taking herbicide-resistant corn, cotton and soybean together, one study found that profit increased 64% for farmers who use those herbicide-tolerant crops because of 9% higher yields and 25% lower herbicide costs.

A paragraph in that chapter on sugar beets may best sum up how a GE variety can change the dynamics for a farmer. A study looked at the early cost difference between GE seeds and non-GE seeds. While farmers buying glyphosate-resistant varieties paid $131 per hectare ($53 an acre) on royalties, other farmers spent more than $95 an acre paying people to hand weed fields. The net economic benefit to GE sugar beet growers was $576 per hectare ($233 an acre). Researchers could not repeat the study a second year because there weren't enough non-GE sugar beet fields left to make a comparison.…

On his Twitter feed, Danny Hakim, the lead writer of the NYT piece, responded with several tweets about the article and the criticism. @DannyHakim "You have two strong willed corners in this debate, who often see reporters as geniuses or dopes, depending on their perspective."

Follow me on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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11/1/2016 | 2:24 PM CDT
If non-gmo crops were truly 69% more profitable we would not have this discussion. Why this has become so important to farmers is beyond me. As an early adopter of GMO's their big advantage was management in a bottle. Weeds and insects could be controlled many other ways but required more scouting and more management. As resistance built up this changed. But the price only went up. And not only does the NYTimes have a story but so do many land grant agronomists and farmers. Corn yields in the US have increased 1.8 bu./A. annually for 40 years. No yield bump with GMO's. Yields are up with traditional genetics, no-till, better equipment, timeliness,etc. Why do our grower orgs. waste their time and our money supporting suppliers who over charge. Almost seems rigged.