Canadian crop yields and farm incomes have not increased significantly in the 20 years since the commercialization of the first genetically modified crop, according to a new report.
Biotechnology supporters counter that GM crops must be delivering tangible benefits because growers have embraced them in a big way.
In its fourth of six reports investigating the 20th year of GM crops in Canada, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) explores what has happened to yields and profits.
CBAN reports that canola yields have increased at the rate of 2.4 percent per year in the 20 years since the first GM canola crop was introduced in 1995. That compares to 0.7 percent per year in the 20 years preceding introduction.
That is an impressive improvement. However, the statistics are not much different for wheat, which is non-GM crop. The annual rate of increase was 2.1 percent after 1995 and .6 percent prior to that.
“We don’t have any evidence that GM varieties are yielding any better,” CBAN researcher Taarini Chopra said.
“Yields of crops that have GM and non-GM varieties have all increased at a similar rate.”
There is also not much difference between corn and canola yields in North America, where GM crops have been widely adopted and Europe where they have not.
“In fact, in the case of canola yields in Western Europe, they remain higher than in Canada and are increasing at a faster rate,” said Chopra.
Trish Jordan, spokesperson for Monsanto Canada, said people need to consider the source of this study.
“Let’s face it, CBAN is an anti-technology activist group and they have a long history of using fear mongering about plant biotechnology to raise funds,” she said.
Jordan said there are all sorts of studies that reach the opposite conclusion, such as a 2012 meta-analysis published in the science journal Nature.
That analysis determined that out of 168 peer reviewed studies comparing yields in 12 countries, GM crops had higher yields than conventional crops 124 times, no difference 32 times and poorer yields 13 times.
However, she believes farmer experience is the best indicator of whether the technology is delivering on the yield front.
“Growers will tell you that they have seen benefits on the farm. You only need to look at the adoption rates for biotechnology,” she said.
For instance, 95 percent of the canola grown in Canada is GM canola.
“Most of the farmers I know will make the decision that results in a net benefit for them,” said Jordan.
She said GM traits are just one of the factors behind improved yield performance in modern varieties. Others factors include advanced breeding techniques, hybrid vigour, agronomic recommendations and precision agriculture.
Chopra countered that farmers are choosing GM crops because there is not a whole lot of other options in today’s marketplace and there is a glaring lack of government research on the benefits and risks of GM crops to help inform their decisions.
CBAN believes it is becoming clear that GM crops have not lived up to their promise.
Inflation adjusted realized net farm income in Canada since 1990 has been lower than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.
“GM crops are not putting more money into the pockets of Canadian farmers,” said Chopra.
Increases in gross farm income have been offset by rising input costs resulting in stagnant farm income.
One of the expenses on the rise is seed cost, which accounted for 4.6 percent of total expenses in 2014, up from 2.5 percent in 1981. The cost of patented GM seed has climbed faster than non-GM seed.
“These costs are chipping away at farmers’ incomes,” she said.
Brian Innes, vice-president of government relations with the Canola Council of Canada, said several published peer-reviewed studies have come to the conclusion that GM canola has greatly improved farm profitability.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Manitoba and the University of Lethbridge determined that GM canola varieties generated an extra $726 million in net benefits to farmers over conventional varieties in 2012.
“Since the introduction of these technologies in 1996, the total benefit to growers has been about $30 billion,” said Innes.
A 2015 study by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot found an average farm benefit of $21 per acre from 1996 to 2013 for herbicide tolerant canola in Canada.
“It is a very successful innovation that has allowed us to be more profitable and more sustainable,” said Innes.
Jordan acknowledged that seed costs have risen because of advances in technology.
“It is often offset by other factors, such as reduction in chemistry, less use of fuel, less use of machinery and the time that the farmer puts into it,” she said.
Jordan said it is unfair to assume GM crops are to blame for stagnant farm income numbers because there is a multitude of factors on both the revenue and expense side of the equation.
Chopra agreed many variables are at work, but the GM trait variable doesn’t appear to have transformed agriculture.
“Some of those big promises that came with GM crops are clearly not playing out in the way that we had been told,” she said.