GE Fails To Boost US Crop Yields: Study

Apr. 24, 2009

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase crop yields in the United States, while traditional breeding continues to deliver better results, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The UCS is a non-profit group founded in 1969 by faculty and students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that advocates practical policy based solely on science.

On Wednesday the group released its report ailure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops," which the UCS says is the first study to closely evaluate the overall effect genetic engineering has had on crop yields in relation to other agricultural technologies.

It says that for years, the biotechnology industry has trumpeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields, but its research has shown that this is not the case.

A biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report, Doug Gurian-Sherman, says that the biotech industry has spent billions on research and public relations hype, but genetically engineered food and feed crops haven't enabled American farmers to grow significantly more crops per acre of land.

He says in comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results.

The study reviewed two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans, the two primary genetically engineered food and feed crops grown in the United States. Based on those studies, the UCS report concluded that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report found, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.

The UCS report comes at a time when food price spikes and localised shortages worldwide have prompted calls to boost agricultural productivity, or yield - the amount of a crop produced per unit of land over a specified amount of time.

The UCS says that biotechnology companies maintain that genetic engineering is essential to meeting this goal, with Monsanto currently running an advertising campaign in the United States that warns of an exploding world population and claiming that its "advanced seeds significantly increase crop yields".

The UCS report debunks that claim, concluding that genetic engineering is unlikely to play a significant role in increasing food production in the foreseeable future.

The biotechnology industry has been promising better yields since the mid-1990s, but the "Failure to Yield" report documents that the industry has been carrying out gene field trials to increase yields for 20 years without significant results.

"After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven't helped raise the ceiling on potential yields," said Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist and director of UCS's Food and Environment Program.

"This record does not inspire confidence in the future of the technology," she says.

The report recommends that the US Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies, and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs.

The report also recommends that US food aid organisations make these more promising and affordable alternatives available to farmers in developing countries.

"If we are going to make headway in combating hunger due to overpopulation and climate change, we will need to increase crop yields.

"Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down," said Dr Gurian-Sherman.

Following the release of the report, Kimberly Pfeifer, the Head of Research at Oxfam America, said that the UCS offers a useful report for emphasising and demonstrating what is commonplace knowledge: that genetically engineered crops to date do not increase intrinsic yield, that GE crops are limited in improving yield (with the exception of Bt varieties), and that other approaches have demonstrated improvements to yield.

She says that in the report the UCS rightly questions why GE technology receives such privileged attention over other approaches.

"The report is also timely for highlighting the shift in focus and the concerns that come with it. That research and development in GE crops is shifting focus to address the current crises capturing the attention of policy-makers and the publicamely, the food prices crisis and climate changehere is a focus on crops to deal with drought tolerance, flooding, salinity, etc. But the jury is still out and we are not sure how soon this will change. Additionally, we will need to be cautious due to new complexities.

"While Oxfam does not have a position on GE crops, it has publicly expressed in regards to food aid that governments and citizens receiving food aid have a right to decide whether they want to accept or not GE crops (foodstuffs) and if not they have a right to receive non-GE food assistance.

"From such a stance it would follow that supporting multiple local options in agricultural methods as UCS recommends for improving food availability in developing countries is a sound approach. Developing countries should have the policy space to make such decisions as they determine," she said.

(c) NewsRoom 2009

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