GM a failing biotechnology in modern agro-ecosystems
A new paper “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest” published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability challenges high profile claims about the benefits of GM crops.
Led by University of Canterbury, New Zealand researchers, the study analysed data on agricultural productivity in north America and western Europe over the last 50 years, focusing on maize, rapeseed and wheat. It found that the biotechnologies used in north American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to western Europe. A conspicuous difference in choices is the adoption of GM seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe.
The main conclusions are:
* GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the US are poor in comparison to Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system (innovation and biotechnology choices) of Western Europe shows more promise of meeting future food needs than does the US system.
* Both herbicide and insecticide use trends are increasing in the US relative to achievements in Western Europe. Hence the agricultural system of Western Europe appears to be reducing chemical inputs and thus is becoming more sustainable than the US, without sacrificing yield gains.
* The US agricultural system continues to decline in agricultural biodiversity of staple crop germplasm and in options for non-GM and GM farmers. (A similar trend was not detected in selected European countries.)
We reproduce below the abstract of the paper, a press release from the University of Canterbury and a briefing paper by the authors. The full journal paper is available at:
With best wishes,
Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest
Jack A. Heinemann, Melanie Massaro, Dorien S. Coray, Sarah Zanon Agapito-Tenfen & Jiajun Dale Wen
International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability
Published online: 14 Jun 2013
Full text available free from:
University of Canterbury press release
GM a failing biotechnology in modern agro-ecosystems
University of Canterbury (UC) researchers have found that the biotechnologies used in north American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to western Europe.
A conspicuous difference in choices is the adoption of genetically modified/engineered (GM) seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe.
The team led by UC Professor Jack Heinemann analysed data on agricultural productivity in north America and western Europe over the last 50 years.
Western Europe and north America make good comparisons because these regions are highly similar in types of crops they grow, latitude, and have access to biotechnology, mechanisation and educated farmers.
The findings have been published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.
“We 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 package chosen by the US.
“Our research showed rapeseed (canola) yields increasing faster in Europe without GM than in the GM-led package chosen by Canada and decreasing chemical herbicide and even larger declines in insecticide use without sacrificing yield gains, while chemical herbicide use in the US has increased with GM seed.
“Europe has learned to grow more food per hectare and use fewer chemicals in the process. The American choices in biotechnology are causing it to fall behind Europe in productivity and sustainability.
“The question we are asking is should New Zealand follow the US and adopt GM-led biotechnology or follow the high performance agriculture demonstrated by Europe?
“We found that US yield in non-GM wheat is also falling further behind Europe, demonstrating that American choices in biotechnology penalise both GM and non-GM crop types relative to Europe.
“Agriculture responds to commercial and legislative incentive systems. These take the form of subsidies, intellectual property rights instruments, tax incentives, trade promotions and regulation. The incentive systems in North America are leading to a reliance on GM seeds and management practices that are inferior to those being adopted under the incentive systems in Europe.
“The decrease in annual variation in yield suggests that Europe has a superior combination of seed and crop management technology and is better suited to withstand weather variations. This is important because annual variations cause price speculations that can drive hundreds of millions of people into food poverty.
“We need more than agriculture; we need agricultures – a diversity of practices for growing and making food that GM does not support; we need systems that are useful, not just profit-making biotechnologies – we need systems that provide a resilient supply to feed the world well,” Professor Heinemann says.
For further information contact Professor Jack Heinemann, School of Biological Sciences (firstname.lastname@example.org), on or UC media consultant Kip Brook on 0275 030168
What is the paper about?
The central question addressed was: To what degree is the US (and the North American in general) agroecosystem meeting the dual demands of production and sustainability? To answer the question, we compare the effects of agriculture biotechnology, innovation as applied to selected crops grown at significant scales in both the North American and Western European agroecosystems for the last 50 years. The outcome of the different innovation policies for producing high yield/low input and sustainable products is measured by the metrics: yield, pesticide use and germplasm diversity.
Data mainly comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAOSTAT), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Monitoring Agricultural Resources Unit (MARs) of the European Union, but also from the Monsanto company.
Why North America and Western Europe?
The North American (US and Canada) and Western European (defined by FAOSTAT as Austria, Belgium-Luxembourg, France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland) agroecosystems are both modern and industrial and have equal access to their choice of science, technology, and a sophisticated labor force. They both receive significant public subsidies, reside in the same hemisphere and range over approximately the same latitudes. In addition, they have in common significant interest in the growing, use and export of rapeseed (Canada and Western Europe), maize and wheat (US and Western Europe). Therefore, these two agroecosystems make among the best possible matches over a range of relevant parameters. However, they differ in the adoption of GM crops and the management practices associated with GM crops. Rapeseed and maize (as well as soybeans and cotton) are effectively only GM in North America and effectively only conventional in Western Europe, and wheat is non-GM in both regions.
What did we find?
1. Yield (Figure 1 of paper)
A. Over the 50 year period, annual maize yields increased significantly in both the US and Western Europe, however the rate of increase varied between the two agroecosystems. While average pre-1985 yields were lower in Western Europe than the US, since then yields in Western Europe have equaled or exceeded US yields. The annual yield increases are significantly greater in Western Europe than the US, and appear to be growing larger. This demonstrates that yield increases over time are not dependent on GM, and that the package of biotechnologies1 chosen by Western Europe to grow maize is out-producing the GM-led package chosen by the US1,2.
B. While Western European yields of rapeseed have always been larger than Canada’s, since Canada adopted GM rapeseed the gap has only increased (Table 1 of paper). This demonstrates that yield increases over time are not dependent on GM, and that the package of biotechnologies chosen by Western Europe to grow rapeseed is out-producing the GM-led package chosen by Canada.
C. Western European yields of wheat have always been larger than the US’s, but the rate of increase in yields is larger for Western Europe (Figure 2 of paper). US yields are demonstrating stagnation while Western European yields continue to increase. This demonstrates that the biotechnologies used in Western Europe benefit all crop types while the biotechnologies chosen by the US are penalizing all crop types, GM and conventional.
The agricultural system (innovation and biotechnology choices) of Western Europe shows more promise of meeting future food needs than does the US system.
2. Pesticides (Figure 3 of paper)
A. The dominant trait in GM crops is herbicide tolerance. Since the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops in the US (e.g., maize and soybeans), herbicide use per arable hectare has marginally increased to 108% of pre-GM levels. Over this time, France, Germany and Switzerland reduced herbicide use to about 85-94% of mid-1990s levels. The non-GM biotechnologies in use in Western Europe are decreasing chemical herbicide use.
B. The second most common GM crop trait is one that produces an insecticide within the plant. Since the adoption of insecticidal crops in the US, the use of additional chemical insecticides has fallen by only 15% compared to pre-GM levels, while by 2009 in France total insecticide use had fallen to 12%. Similar trends were seen in Germany and Switzerland. The biotechnologies in use in Western Europe show significantly greater reductions in chemical insecticide use.
The agricultural system of Western Europe appears to be reducing chemical inputs and thus is becoming more sustainable than the US, without sacrificing yield gains.
3. Germplasm diversity (Table 2 of paper)
We re-analysed data produced by Monsanto for the US Attorney General and found differentially large reductions in non-GM seed options for US maize, soybean and cotton farmers. While there is no consensus that germplasm diversity is too low, there is evidence that the concentration of the seed market is not arresting further declines in the germplasm diversity of either GM (maize, cotton, soybeans) or conventional (wheat) crops. Meanwhile, the USDA reported that seed prices – particularly GM crops - are the fastest growing expense for farmers, rising 140% since 1994 while in aggregate all other inputs have risen in cost by 80%.
The trends in germplasm parallel events prior to the 1970 Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic in the US which the US National Academies of Science concluded was a product of “powerful economic and legislative forces”, i.e., the outcome of innovation polices. These policies produced incentives for breeders to maximize control of the germplasm by narrowing genetic diversity in the seed supply.
The US agricultural system continues to decline in agricultural biodiversity of staple crop germplasm and in options for non-GM and GM farmers. (A similar trend was not detected in selected European countries.)
Claims for benefits of GM crops are systematically evaluated and discredited using the most objective government sources of data.
What should be done?
We make a few suggestions as part of a larger strategy to begin developing a high-yield, lower-input and sustainable agriculture in North America.
What are the likely criticisms of the paper?
1. The North American and Western European agroecosystems are too different to compare.
There will always be differences when comparing countries and regions. Nevertheless, the number of differences has been minimized in this comparison and it is arguably the best possible comparison that could be made for the type of crops, access to modern science and technology, history of production and geography of the comparators.
2. Canada and the US are rain-fed agroecosystems and Europe relies on irrigation.
While this may be true in some places, it would still only reflect the difference in Europe’s priority in investment in water storage and delivery technologies instead of GM seed or other less effective technologies. The combination of management and germplasm used in Western Europe is superior to that chosen by Canada and the US.
3. The problems are not specific to GM.
In some cases, this is true. For example, germplasm reduction is not limited to GM crops. However, GM crops are compatible with dominating agricultural biotechnologies and innovation incentives that the US is using. In contrast, the combination of management and germplasm used in Western Europe are yield-enhancing and lowering inputs under policies that do not reward GM crops.
4. Pesticide use figures are due to decreasing agricultural areas in Europe and increasing area in the US.
We normalized pesticide use to production area, so the figures reflect actual use per arable hectare.
Dr. Jack A. Heinemann is professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the School of Biological Sciences, and Director of the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Dr. Melanie Massaro is at the School of Environmental Sciences, Charles Sturt University in Australia.
Dorien Coray has a masters degree in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Canterbury and is currently a PhD student there.
Sarah Z. Agapito-Tenfen has a masters degree in Plant Genetic Resources from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil and is currently a PhD student there.
Dr. Jiajun Dale Wen is a researcher and consultant for Third World Network.
Paper is open access: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tags20/current.
This briefing paper was prepared and approved by Jack A. Heinemann, Melanie Massaro, Dorien Coray, Sarah Agapito and Dale Wen.
 Agricultural biotechnologies from the Convention on Biodiversity (Biotechnology): “The term ‘biotechnology’ refers to any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for a specific use. Biotechnology, in the form of traditional fermentation techniques, has been used for decades to make bread, cheese or beer. It has also been the basis of traditional animal and plant breeding techniques, such as hybridization and the selection of plants and animals with specific characteristics to create, for example, crops which produce higher yields of grain…”
 And the Cartagena Protocol (Modern Biotechnology) “‘Modern biotechnology’ means the application of:
a. In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
b. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family,
that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection”.
 See Hilbeck, A., Lebrecht, T., Vogel, R., Heinemann, J.A. and Binimelis, R. Farmer’s choice of seeds in four EU countries under different levels of GM crop adoption. Environmental Sciences Europe 2013, 25:12.