Are Farmers Stupid, or Deluded, or Both?

Friends of the Earth misinforms on crop biotech again


Last week, the ideological environmentalist group Friends of the Earth (FOE) launched another attack in its misinformation campaign against biotech crops. FOE's latest salvo is its report "Who Benefits from GM Crops?," issued explicitly to counter the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications' (ISAAA) annual global assessment of biotech crops. FOE claims biotech crops yield less than conventional crops, harm the environment, are technologically stagnant, have done nothing to help poor farmers, and are monopolized by a few giant corporations.

The ISAAA 2007 report on the global status paints a far different picture. The ISAAA notes that farmers around the world continue their rapid adoption of biotech crop varieties. In 2007 the global planting of biotech crops rose to an all time high of 282 million acres, a 12 percent increase over 2006. In addition, the number of farmers choosing to grow biotech crops rose from 10.3 million in 2006 to over 12 million in 2007. The ISAAA report notes that 11 million of the biotech growers are resource poor farmers in developing countries, the majority of whom cultivate insect-resistant cotton. Biotech crops are now planted in 23 countries, and 29 others have approved the import of biotech food and feed.

Let's look at FOE's claims about the alleged faults of biotech crops.

Do biotech crops yield less than conventional crops? FOE is artful in its use of data. Some biotech varieties did initially impose slight yield penalties when compared to conventional varieties. This occurred because breeders improved conventional varieties during the years it took biotech crops to be approved by regulatory agencies. Even so, farmers adopted slightly lower yielding biotech crops because they were cheaper to grow. Biotech crops need fewer pesticide applications and require less plowing. A 2006 study by the British agricutural and food economics consultancy, PG Economics, found no impact from biotech on soy yields while cotton and corn enjoyed higher yields. Even though biotech seeds cost more, overall lower production costs more than make up for the initial expense. The PG Economics report estimates that biotech crops have increased farm incomes by $27 billion since 1996.

Do biotech crops harm the environment? FOE claims that biotech crops use more pesticides than conventional varieties and it identifies crops resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup) as the chief offenders. Farmers kill weeds without harming their biotech crops by spraying with glyphosate. The PG Economics study found that the adoption of biotech crops reduced the use of pesticides since 1996 by 224 million kilograms (493 million pounds), or just about 7 percent.

In addition, herbicide resistant crops enable farmers to switch to no-till farming which dramatically reduces soil erosion. In fact, an August 2007 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that "no-till farming can build soil fertility even with intensive farming methods." However, some regions experienced an increased use of glyphosate as farmers shifted to no-till agriculture. So if glyphosate applications are going up, is it harmful to the environment or human health? Not even the hyper-cautious Pesticide Action Network puts glyphosate on its list of "bad actors." Nor does glyphosate linger in the environment—it is rapidly degraded by soil microbes with a half-life of a week to several months, which is shorter than many of the herbicides that it replaces.

FOE also claims that spraying biotech crops with herbicides is forcing the faster evolution of herbicide resistant superweeds. Just as bacteria eventually evolve to resist antibiotics, so too do weeds evolve to resist herbicides. This process started with the introduction of modern herbicides after World War II, well before the advent of modern biotech varieties. Fortunately, biotechnology is a fine tool for developing new ways to control weeds.

FOE argues that crop biotechnology has stagnated and correctly points out that the vast majority of biotech crop varieties incorporate just two traits: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits are valuable to farmers though they don't not offer obvious benefits to consumers. If few new biotech crops have yet to make it to the tables of consumers, FOE can take a good bit of the credit. FOE and other ideological environmentalists have campaigned tirelessly to block the development and spread of new beneficial biotech crop traits. FOE does its best to stop biotech in its tracks and then turns around to assert that researchers have developed nothing new.

However, FOE will soon not be able to make that hypocritical claim. Biotech researchers are now incorporating traits for drought resistance, salt tolerance, and one which enables plants to thrive on half a dose of nitrogen fertilizer. Crops with these traits will be particularly valuable for poor farmers in developing countries. Despite FOE's opposition, "Golden Rice," which has been genetically improved to help prevent vitamin A deficiency, which blinds 300,000 to 500,000 poor children each year, should become available by 2011. In addition, researchers are creating crops that provide enhanced nutrition such as tomatoes with increased folate.

Anti-biotech campaigns by activist groups like FOE have succeeded in frightening the governments of many developing countries into banning biotech crops. Nevertheless, biotech crops have been embraced by poor farmers around the world—whenever their governments will let them. The World Banks's World Development Report 2008 (WDR) notes that second-generation biotech crops are now making their way to the market. The WDR reports, "Transgenic rice, eggplant, mustard, cassava, banana, potato, sweet potato, lentil, and lupin have been approved for field testing in one or more countries. Many of those technologies promise substantial benefits to poor producers and consumers."

And finally, FOE complains that biotech seeds are monopolized by a few large companies. Again, FOE activists should look in the mirror to find the culprits behind this industry consolidation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of startup and well-established seed companies that aimed to develop agricultural biotech exploded. But, as we've seen, crop biotech ran into a buzz saw of environmentalist opposition, especially in Europe. Consequently, since biotech seeds are relatively low in value compared to biomedical treatments, small crop biotech companies withered and the industry consolidated into fairly large companies, chiefly Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and Bayer. St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto dominates the market for biotech seed. Some 60 percent of all biotech improved seeds contain traits developed by Monsanto. FOE is certainly responsible, in part, for Monsanto's exploding profits.

Finally, let's revisit the title of FOE's new report: "Who Benefits from GM Crops?" As the ISAAA report clearly shows, millions of farmers around the world think that they benefit from biotech crops. Since this is so, FOE can only conclude that these farmers are either stupid or deluded or both. If biotech crops did not deliver their promised benefits, farmers around the world would not be adopting them at exponential rates. Not even FOE's most determined efforts to spread anti-biotech misinformation can obscure this plain fact.

Disclosure: I used to own some Monsanto shares years ago. It looks as though I should have held onto them. I don't own any other crop biotech stocks. I grew up on a farm and I can tell you that plowing and weeding are not all that much fun.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.