New York Times ignored GM crop benefits

U of S researcher Stuart Smyth says the research for this article was neither extensive nor balanced. It lacks discussion of immense literature on the benefits of GM crops in the United States and Canada. | Screencap via

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.

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.

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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