Are genetically modified crops needed to feed the world? There are proponents on both sides of this debate: those who insist GM crops already are boosting the world food supply and are especially needed as the world’s population increases, and those who claim non-GM crops reduce environmental hazards and can out-yield GM crops while also saving input costs for pesticides and seed.
On October 29 this year “The New York Times” published an article that compared canola, corn, sugar beet and soybean crop yields in France and Germany, where GM seeds have not been used for about 20 years, with the yields of the same crops in the U.S. and Canada, where GM seeds have been used for about 20 years and have gradually plateaued to around 85 percent of the planted acres of these crops for most of the past decade.
There was no discernible advantage in yields, as measured by food produced per acre, according to data supplied by the United Nations and reported in the “Times”; however, non-GM sugar beet yields in modernized farming areas of Europe have risen above GM sugar beet yields in the U.S. and Canada.
The “Times” article indicated further that since GM crops like corn, cotton and soybeans were introduced in the U.S., the use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a third and the spraying of herbicides, including those containing glyphosate, has risen by 21 percent. During the same time frame, in France the use of insecticides and fungicides has dropped 65 percent and the use of approved herbicides has decreased by 36 percent.
Are the GMO vs. non-GMO crop yield data accurate? The chief technology officer at Monsanto, Robert Fraley, claimed the “Times” article cherry-picked its data to support its conclusions. Corn yields tell a different story, he says.
The world currently has a surplus of both GM and non-GM foods. That there are almost a billion disadvantaged people around the world without sufficient nutrition is due to insufficient food distribution, not its production.
Meanwhile, genetically modified organisms have contributed to advances in medicine, such as vaccines, immunoglobulins, allergens, and to medical procedures aimed at treating diabetes and cancers, to name but a few applications of GMOs. But with regard to food crop yields we just don’t know for certain.
GM foods don’t appear to harm humans who consume them, as feared by some when GM foods first became available. Indeed, we are just scratching the surface of the potential benefits to life that GM organisms hold.
The EPA has banned certain pesticides, mainly some insecticides and fungicides because they have been linked with neuropsychological deficits and cancers and it is considering banning the herbicide atrazine because it appears to disrupt endocrine hormone production.
Some research suggests glyphosate is a possible endocrine disruptor also, but the EPA said in September this year that glyphosate likely doesn’t disrupt endocrine production or cause cancer. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization agrees.
There are many other agricultural pesticides besides glyphosate that are used with GM seeds that are not sufficiently researched, such as neonicotinoid seed treatments and glufosinate herbicide. Although the makers of these seed treatments and herbicides claim yield advantages, independent research studies are needed that measure both yields and possible toxic effects.
The GM debate isn’t over. The work of Dr. Norman Borlaug deserves comment about the accomplishments that won him the Nobel and World Food Prizes for his use of line-breeding of small grains and crossing methods to produce seeds with traits that greatly increased the yields of rice and wheat.
His methods involved careful selection of chosen hybrids and not gene insertion. Later in his life Borlaug favored GM seed development as a form of “speeded up” selection.
Farmers who use GM crops and required pesticides prefer clean and insect-free fields but are concerned about glyphosate-resistant weeds. Other farmers say GM seeds and the products they require are costly and unnecessary.
That’s why some soybean producers in Illinois during the past few years planted non-GM soybean seeds and are using older herbicides to control weeds. They sell their beans on European markets and earn about a two dollar premium per bushel.
Certified organic producers of soybeans are able to sell food-grade beans currently for $30 per bushel and feed-grade beans for $20 per bushel if they meet quality standards, like sufficient test weight, protein content, desired color and other requirements.
These organic producers also claimed 5 bushel per acre soybean yield advantages in fields where crops are rotated regularly. Their cultivation expenses and the costs for bean-walkers, who are kids in their communities or migrant laborers whom they paid $12-25 per hour this summer, are more than offset by the income from their soybeans.
Conclusion: It’s safest to say additional information is still needed by farmers to decide what to plant and by consumers to decide what to eat.