New York Times ignored GM crop benefits

The New York Times claimed Oct. 29 that it had conducted an “extensive examination” of genetically modified crops and found their benefits to be lacking.

The use of the word “‘extensive” by the media is a bit of an oxymoron.

It is certainly the case in this situation because the Times would appear to have applied an environmental non-governmental organization filter to its examination.

Unfortunately, the research for this article was not extensive or balanced. It lacks discussion of immense literature on the benefits of GM crops in the United States and Canada. There have been substantial benefits for consumers, farmers, human health, the environment and sustainable development.

The biggest GM crop in Canada is canola, used both for consumer food and livestock feed.

My own research shows annual economic benefits to Canadians of $350 to $400 million per year.

Much of this has gone to farmers through higher yields and lower production costs, but consumers have also benefitted through low prices for margarine and healthier cooking oils.

The other huge beneficiary is the environment because of major reductions in pesticide use (35 percent), soil tillage, soil erosion, fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions — all directly related to GM canola.

As well, the environmental impact of canola production has dropped by 53 percent.

A study led by Hutchinson (2010) on the economic benefits of GM corn adoption in the U.S. found that GM corn created $6.8 billion in extra value with 60 percent going to non-adopters because of lower insect pressures.

This means non-GM corn farmers are making fewer pesticide applications to their corn fields because of the spill-over benefits from GM corn fields to non-GM corn fields.

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One GM crop that was completely ignored was the success of insect resistant GM papaya in Hawaii.

Ring spot virus had infected virtually all of Hawaii’s papaya production in the early 1990s, dropping from 58 million pounds in 1993 to 35 million lb. just five years later. This production decline was estimated to have been worth US$17 million per year.

GM virus resistant papaya allowed Hawaiian production to return to normal as nearly all producers adopted GM papaya.

The NY Times’ intrepid investigation failed to reveal how Europe’s rejection of biotechnology is having a devastating effect on GM crop adoption in developing countries.

One of the most significant economic benefits identified from GM crop commercialization has been the adoption of GM cotton in India. Farm families there, living on less than $2 per day, have seen their household incomes rise by a 134 percent.

In China, GM cotton increased farmers’ annual income by $200 per acre.

In Burkina Faso, GM cotton farmers received $30 per acre more than non-GM cotton farmers.

In the Philippines, GM corn farmers have annual net incomes of $600 versus $400 for non-GM corn farmers.

Environmental benefits from GM crops come from reduced chemical applications.

In India, cotton farmers lose 50 to 60 percent of yield because of insect infestations. Those growing GM cotton have reduced pesticides to control insects by 41 percent.

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Cotton farmers in China used to spray fields as often as 30 times per season to control insects. That use is down by about 90 percent with GM crops.

Human health has also experienced enormous benefits following the adoption of GM crops.

Most chemical applications in developing countries are done by farmers walking through fields with short sleeve shirts, sometimes barefoot, spraying chemicals from a backpack.

A study of chemical use with GM cotton farmers in India found that cases of pesticide poisoning dropped by 2.4 million cases to nine million cases per year.

Similar results were observed in Burkina Faso, where it is estimated that GM cotton results in 30,000 fewer cases of pesticide poisoning annually.

A study on GM corn adoption in South Africa found that female farmers are the dominant adopters: they spend 10 to 12 fewer days a season hoeing and hand weeding under the hot sun.

“Extensive examination”? Hardly.

It looks like the New York Times interviewed the leading European environmental NGOs and then followed their lead by ignoring all of the research highlighted above. However, headlines about the economic, environmental and human health benefits of GM crops don’t sell newspapers.

Stuart Smyth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, where he holds the Industry Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. His research focuses on sustainability, agriculture, innovation and food.

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  • RobertWager

    Fear sells is a bulls eye.

    • richard

      …..as does complicity.

    • Harold

      Yes, GM tried and true.

  • richard

    Funny how Smyth’s “extensive” analysis didnt uncover GM canola’s using double the fertilizer of conventional crops, four to six passes of agritoxins per year on top of the candy coated seed with neonic and fungicide…..and hexane, bleaching and deodorizing to make it edible…..And by the way Stuart “margarine” being hydrogenated, is a canola trans fat express and one of the leading causes of heart disease…. Its always curious when “experts” present themselves as the “truth” about anything……

    • Stuart Smyth

      All my research is backed up with quantified evidence. I wonder what the odds are that your stories will stand up to the same scrutiny?

      • richard

        Perhaps you should get out of your cube and visit a working farm one fine day….The thousand bushel air tank is not full of canola….its full of…..fertilizer! And the three thousand dollar tow behind sprayer from 1980 has been replaced with a three hundred thousand dollar high clearance behemoth, so we can apply LESS chemical??? I dont think so Stuart…..Herbicide Use Spikes in Alberta (Western Producer Sept. 29/2016)…..I know we dont want to contradict the various cults of mythologies. but you guys are forever letting the facts get in the way of your good stories…….

        • neil

          You oversimplify facts. The bigger sprayer wouldn’t have anything to do with bigger acres per farmer or the adoption of less tillage would it? Or agronomic research showing the benefits of controlling weeds and diseases for bigger yields and profits for farmers? No its just better to be anti modern farming practices and spread oversimplified fear.

          • richard

            Funny, my neighbours all own three hundred thousand dollar high speed discs now and make up to ten passes with various equipment each year……So much for zero till mythology…. so much for carbon footprint mythology………And your weed, disease and pest management is all turning into a biological nightmare with resistance (thirteen weed species on sixty million acres- USDA)… and at least a half dozen new fungal diseases in canola. The irony is of course that blind faith in technology at all costs is the very thing that drives both deeper agronomic distress, and the cognitive dissonance that drives industrial agriculture.

          • neil

            There is still lots of zero till in my area and the rest of western Canada. I agree there are definely challenges with herbicide weed resistance from relying on one form of weed control too much. The diseases are not new to canola but they are due to growing canola too often in the rotation. I agree blind faith in technology is not good but always being anti technology is not good either. We all love much easier lives compared to our ancestors because of technology.

    • Alex White

      Citation needed

    • neil

      If double the fertilizer were correct it is to get double the yield of pre 1995 canola yields of non GM canola. I don’t know where you get 4-6 passes because that is not true. You should also look into non hydrogenated canola oil and how it is one of the healthiest oils with very low trans fats and more monounsaturated fat(known as the good fats).

      • richard

        N, P, S total 150- 200 lbs/acre…..Glyphosate 2-3 passes pre-mid-end season, Fungicide-Insecticide 0-2 passes, conditions dependent. Seed enterically coated neonicotinoid and fungicide…..(Alberta Agriculture) …..double the yield, quadruple the costs, contaminate the environment, price stays the same……sustainable?…..pleeease.

        • neil

          again you exaggerate about costs. If it wasn’t profitable farmers would be out of business or not do it. Price has increased. I never mentioned sustainable because to be that all farmers should have perennial forages in their rotation.

  • Mike

    The hype of gmo’s is “old hat” if you will. We all know, as farmers, that tillage is required, chemicals are needed (to an extent) and hard work is a must! If we want to be lazy and crop 10-20,000 acres then we have to become the slave to someone, and that someone is the chem companies. Gmo’s are owned by multi corps and multi corps LIE!! They are not proven, beyond the benefit of any doubt, that they are safe. But also be aware that much of what we eat now has been modified in some way. But again I would say this, if you as a farmer are not willing to eat what you grow or feed to your own family, then why bother with the bull$&@; and just be a farmer. Forget about your ego and being the “wanna be farmer” with toys but instead be a purveyor for what’s right and what every population entrusts you with…..grow food and do it right. Leave the doctors and scientists alone. They need work like everyone else and they themselves have to ask the big question…..”Do I want to be like the wanna be farmer”?

    • neil

      I am a farmer and eat what I grow and feel very safe in feeding it to my family.

    • Prince Annor

      Interesting debate here, I think the 2 farming systems should complement each other and not be seen as a recipe of chaos. Rhetorically, if there exists only organic agriculture, can the world in the long run be food secured? Again, if there exists only conventional agriculture, can the world food production in the long run be sustainable? Practicing both at least will make the world break even in sustainably providing food to feed the ever expanding world population. Blessings!!

      • Harold

        The root of the controversy is seed ownership and the power and profits of control. Eliminate intellectual ownership, and your thoughts can be realized. In other words, abolish all patents on food entirely. Since the beginning, all food sources were given to us un-patented by it’s creator for individual profit, and not for the profit of the Elite few. Here lays the controversy.and the results obvious.

  • Benjamin Edge

    The GM papaya is ringspot (a viral disease) resistant. It does not have a GM insect resistance trait.