The Gray Lady and Biotech Crops


The editors at the New York Times evidently believe that genetically enhanced crops will help poor farmers in developing countries. Hooray! Perhaps some of their readers who buy only organic at Zabar's will take note.

However, the Times' editors need to get down on the farm a bit more. The editors condemn biotech companies for creating genetically modified seeds that can't be replanted. In actual fact, most of them can be replanted; it's just that modern farmers in industrial countries sign contracts agreeing not to replant them. Why? Because modern farmers (dismissed as "agribusiness") generally want to get the latest improved varieties each year so they don't save seed anyway.

But where the Times' editors go most wrong is that corn (maize) farmers in rich countries have not been saving seed since hybrid varieties were developed in the 1930s. Before hybrid corn, US farmers produced around 30 bushels per acre; today they produce over 150 bushels per acre. Of course better fertilizers, pesticides and land cultivation techniques contributed to this increase, but hybridization was critical. Farmers don't save hybrid seed because they don't breed true.

The Times' editors are right that subsistence corn farmers probably do need to save seed for the time being, but they seem to believe that poor farmers will "subsist" forever. The boost in productivity that biotech crops will give poor farmers will also boost their incomes which leads to a path away from subsistence toward ever more modern methods of high yield farming. To achieve even higher jumps in their crop productivity, once poor farmers will eventually choose to buy hybrid seeds each year just the way that their rich country competitors do today.

One final observation: why is "profit" apparently OK for newspapers, but not for biotech companies? And just where do the editors think the Rockefeller and Syngenta Foundations got the money to fund research in the first place?