New York Times Attempt at a Nuanced View of GMOs Lacks Nuance

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screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-48-48-pmGuest Author: Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida | Follow him on Twitter: @kevinfolta

This piece originally appeared on Kevin’s blog, Illumination. It appears here by permission of the author. It has been lightly edited for clarity to a general readership.


The New York Times failed again, publishing a less-than-scientific ball of bias that revolves around the tired old trope that genetically engineered crops have failed to produce as expected.  It is a great way to get clicks.  But reporter Danny Hakim’s analysis departs from those folks that really understand the benefits and limitations of the biotech crops — the farmers that use them.

As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil. 
The author here returns to the ancient criticisms that genetically engineered crops fail to yield and don’t cut “pesticide” use.  These are old discussions for those of us that have deeply studied this subject.

We could spend a lot of time reviewing the data he used to reach those conclusions.  Instead, to discuss this intelligently you only need to understand a few points:

1.  No genes for yield have been introduced into biotech crops.  The current suite of biotech traits were not meant to improve yields, they were made to protect yields.  In other words, they help farmers operate with lower costs, fewer insecticides,  and improved weed control (As well as virus resistance in the case of the Rainbow Papaya and virus resistant squashes).  Same yield at lower cost = better for farmers.

2.  What are “pesticides”?  Hakim, like many that want to tell an anti-biotech story, use the term “pesticides” to make claims that farm inputs have increased.  They look at total use by weight without considering if a new pesticide, applied at higher rates by weight, has replaced one with higher environmental impact per acre.

Don’t forget that “pesticides” is a catch all term for herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.

GE crops cut insecticide use (see NAS review, figs 4-4 to 4-7) and help limit fungicide applications due to insect damage.  That’s really important.

Now the amount of herbicide has increased in total.  That’s because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre (more than the 750 ml per acre normally used).   Yes, when you add up the total used it is more relative to 1996, when RoundUp was used on farms sparingly, but also in residential and municipal situations. It is also widely acknowledged that RoundUp replaced more harmful herbicides.

Like Charles Benbrook; an agricultural economist with ties to the organic industry who published a widely circulated, but problematic paper showing an increase in pesticide use associated with biotech crops, and many before him; Hakim lumps all forms of chemistry together to create the outcome he wants– more total amount being used.  He ignores the simple fact that not all farm chemicals are the same. You can’t just compare amounts.

And the stuff farmers have switched to has a much lower impact on the environment compared to what it replaced. It’s also often the case that farmers who choose not to use GE-traited seeds do so because they don’t face the same pest pressures as those that do, so in that case, the causality is running in the other direction.

3.  You can’t make valid general statements about yield.   When you analyze the GE-traited crop against its non-GE counterpart in side-by-side comparisons, you see trends.  It depends on the location, crop, pest pressure, weather, etc.  Mainly, the trait has little effect on yield.  Sometimes it is higher.  Occasionally it is lower.  Mostly, it is exactly the same.

Years ago, I was on a panel with Dough Gurian-Sherman, who at the time was the staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists who authored their report “Failure to Yield” which largely gave birth to these “Biotech failed to deliver” narratives.   I spoke of specific case from the peer-reviewed literature where biotech crops HAD contributed to increased yields. He agreed with me on just about every case.

You have to consider the specifics.  For instance.  The GE trait has has had great effects on yield for papaya farmers.

4. Farmers are shrewd business men and women.  There is a certain arrogance in proclaiming a technology is a failure, when millions of people use it because it works.  Farmers choose these technologies, and they cost more money, as Hakim points out.

Therein lies the implication that farmers somehow can’t do the math.  To say that they are willing to pay more for less performance undermines the tight business acumen necessary to make it in a business with razor thin profit margins. The one percent that feed the rest of us know about a bottom line. If any product fails to keep pace, producers change gears to better alternatives.

Great to see the ag community adding their informed viewpoints. 
 
 

To conclude:   The benefits of the technology are well understood in agriculture and for years people have tried to suggest that the technologies are dangerous or environmentally deleterious.  We certainly know the realistic risks, but none of the dire predictions have ever emerged.

So it is fashionable to retreat to “failed” rhetoric.   It is truly sad that a venue like the New York Times would publish such a shoddy report.  Time will show that it was another biased report that followed data and analysis that supported the hypothesis the author wanted to support, not the conclusion found my millions of farmers that use the technology.


EDITOR’S UPDATE – NOVEMBER 1, 2016: Since we published this piece Dr. Folta has published a follow up presenting yield and pesticide data from solid sources. We present it here as an addendum rather than a separate post so that people looking for clarity can find it one place.


Kevin Folta:
After commenting on the New York Times piece that claimed that genetically-engineered crops have failed due to no effect on yield, I decided to revisit a slideshow I prepared back in 2014.  I was on a panel in Denver, CO to discuss risk, benefit, gain, loss of genetically engineered crops with a diverse group of farmers, scientists, physicians, activists, NGO leadership and corporate representatives.

I was tasked to be on a point-counterpoint discussion with Doug Gurian-Sherman, then with the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He wrote the notoriously cherry-picked and underpowered (yet highly influential) brochure “Failure to Yield”, and indictment of the failure of genetically-engineered crops.

My point was simple.  GE crops were not made to directly increase yields.  They control other aspects of growth so that yields are maximized.

Yields are determined by how genetics interact with environment, and how pest pressure, weather, and dozens of other factors impact the plant.

So what do the data say?  Here are a few examples from the talk.

EXHIBIT A is a table by Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2014 [PDF]

Click to view full size image in a new window.
Click to view full size image in a new window.

The results of this meta analysis show how the net effects of adopting GM crops over conventional, comparing yield and pesticide use.  Hakim claims yields are flat and pesticide use increases. What do the data actually say?

INTERPRETATION:  Yield andpesticide use depends on the crop, pest pressure and other factors. However, the net benefit is generally positive.

EXHIBIT B.

 

Farmers reasons for adopting genetically engineered crops
Click to view full size image in a new window.

 

This image shows the reasons farmers adopt GE crops. Light blue is increased yields and yellow is decreased pesticide input cost.  USDA ERS/ARMS data from 2006-2010 surveys, depending on crop.

INTERPRETATION:  Farmers seem to think their yields and pesticide costs are lower.

EXHIBIT C.  Economic benefits of adopting conventional or Bt corn in three Spanish provinces over three growing seasons.

Click to view full size image in a new window.
Click to view full size image in a new window.

What?  In the EU?  How can that be?

INTERPRETATION: Yields are the same across all three seasons. However, the farmer’s profits are higher, even with the higher costs of the product, which are offset by decreased corn borer control costs.

EXHIBIT D.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-10-26-53-am

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-10-30-53-am
USDA data

These two tables show cotton (top) and sugar beet (bottom) data from various states, before and after adoption of transgenic traits.

INTERPRETATION:  Traits help yields in these locations over these years.

EXHIBIT E.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-10-37-50-am

The dotted line is a Roundup Ready corn variety.  The solid line is the same line with a Bt insect control trait.  Yield is shown over two seasons as a function of nitrogen input.

INTERPRETATION:  Yield depends on many variables. In 2009, the Bt trait is invisible.  No effect on yield.  But in 2008 the Bt trait had normal yield, the non-Bt had significantly lower yield.  This is an important figure in the discussion.  While the Bt trait did not increase the yield, it made sure that the inherent genetics were allowed to produce to their full potential.  I’m not sure where I got this graph from.  Poor scholarship. I’ll figure it out later.

CONCLUSION:
YES, these are selected and biased examples and there are plenty out there that show no difference.  I just thought it was important to reinforce the idea that yields are not always the objective, and certainly there are documented cases where GE traits matter.

I hope these resources prove helpful in your continued discussion of the New York Times article.

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15 Comments

    • This is so true.

      Here’s a thought for what I think could be an interesting weight/acre metric: How about we compare fuel usage per acre (gallons of diesel/acre) for like-crop farming using modern herbicides versus tillage?

      I can spray 1 acre of crop using 0.07 gallons of diesel (about one cup) with my modern spray rig. How many gallons of diesel does it take to drag a row cultivator around to control weeds?

      What about an organic-approved flame weeder that burns 5 to 10 gallons of propane per acre, plus the diesel burned by the tractor pulling that flame weeder?

      To be fair, we would need to look at how much energy is used in the manufacture of the herbicide that I’m spraying with the modern spray rig, but I’m pretty confident which system is spewing less bad stuff into the atmosphere…

      • “To be fair, we would need to look at how much energy is used in the manufacture of the herbicide that I’m spraying with the modern spray rig, but I’m pretty confident which system is spewing less bad stuff into the atmosphere.”

        I have wondered this exact thing. Based on the selling price, there can’t be that much energy in glyphosate.

        Most people can’t even comprehend how much energy and labor is replaced by a 120ft 17mph modern sprayer.

        • “I have wondered this exact thing. Based on the selling price, there can’t be that much energy in glyphosate.”

          From what I gather, and it’s from my chair with only one semester of organic chemistry under my belt, is that glyphosate is manufactured by combining several precursors at low temperatures (around 105 Celsius). Further, none of the precursors use particularly energy-intensive production methods.

          Zooming out a bit, it makes sense when you see that two of the three glyphosate manufacturing plants in the U.S. are located in Iowa and Missouri, which aren’t exactly known as states with big oil or natural gas reserves that would make glyphosate production more economical if it actually were an energy-intensive production process. More it’s a case of make the glyphosate close to where it’s actually used.

          “Most people can’t even comprehend how much energy and labor is replaced by a 120ft 17mph modern sprayer.”

          Yup. When I tell people that think weeding is no biggie that one acre of corn planted in 30 inch rows has 3.3 miles of row, their eyes roll back in their heads. I’m thinking they would not see the anemometer and wind direction indicator mounted on the roof of the sprayer and how that helps keep from inadvertently applying chemical to unintended areas…

  1. As usual Dr. Folta makes clear, concise and correct points.

    I like his, “As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil. ”

    This is a modern version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s address at Bradley University on September 25, 1956 where President Eisenhower states, ”
    You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

  2. I thought Andrew Kniss did a good job of discussing some of the issues around these arguments. Part of the problem with the type of pieces the NYT ran is that they end up asking the wrong sorts of questions.

    The yield argument depends a whole lot on what the trait is and what happened before. Most of the traits currently available are so-called input traits. There are actually quite good economic reasons for this. These traits are attractive to growers and don’t require the development of specialty markets that consumer-driven traits might. Therefore, they are more applicable across a wider area. As they are input traits, whether they increase yield depends on how well the pests were being managed previously. So in corn production in the US, you would expect little impact on yield. In contrast, if you look at Bt cotton in India, where farmers were unable to effectively control insect pests previously there was about a doubling in yield. So asking whether corn yields are increasing at the same rate in the US and Western Europe is not a question about the value of GM corn.

    The ‘pounds on the ground’ argument about pesticides is easy to make – but largely useless. Clearly the aim is rather to replace more toxic pesticides with higher environmental impact with less toxic pesticides with lower environmental impact. The actual number of pounds used can be irrelevant to this goal. Both Bt crops and RoundupReady crops have achieved this goal. As has PRSV papaya incidentally, although on a much smaller scale.

    The authors of the piece would have been much better served to ask farmers why they were using the technology. They would have got a range of other answers that would have been much more illuminating. These would have been about production efficiency, rotational flexibility and ability to grow specific crops.

    That is not to say there haven’t been issues from the widespread adoption of GM crops (glyphosate resistance is the most obvious), it is just those issues are not about yield or total amounts of pesticide used in the US.

    • “Part of the problem with the type of pieces the NYT ran is that they end up asking the wrong sorts of questions.”

      I’m not convinced that Danny Hakim was the least bit concerned with asking the right questions in the first place. It seems to me he started his story from a conclusion and backfilled from there.

      • Did you attempt to bring your concerns about Danny hakims reporting on the GMOs to either Danny or the nytimes? Just curious.

        My own attempts to get not just nytimes but other reporters over years on a different subject (pipelines and usually natural gas ones) to make corrections to errors or to even tell a true story have fallen on deaf ears.

        Still you should attempt to have your concerns heard by the nytimes is what I think.

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