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USDA: GMOs represent cost savings for consumers and benefits for farmers, environment

The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released a report titled “Economic Issues in the Coexistence of Organic, Genetically Engineered (GE), and Non-GE Crops.” It estimates the costs to producers of delivering harvests using organic methods versus “genetically engineered” (GE) seeds versus non-GE seeds, and it concludes that “In 2014, 1 percent of all U.S. certified organic farmers in 20 States reported that they experienced economic losses (amounting to $6.1 million, excluding expenses for preventative measures and testing) due to GE commingling during 2011-2014.”

To put these numbers in perspective, in 2012, organic crops were grown on 5.4 million acres, nearly 1.4 percent of the total U.S. crop area of 390 million acres. Despite “organic corn and soybean prices that are generally two to three times higher than conventional crop prices,” they accounted for less than half of 1 percent (366,000/390M) of total crop area. The total value of US agricultural production in 2012 was “nearly $395 billion.” In other words, though the injury to the farmers affected was no doubt significant, in the overall picture it falls several orders of magnitude below rounding error (6.1/395,000 = 0.0000154).

Even so, there are a number of weaknesses in the methods ERS used to come up with these cost estimates: They are based on incomplete responses to a survey (response rate ~19% of 1,500 growers contacted, suggesting a non-representative sample), and all the data derive from self-reporting by the respondents with no verification, among other limitations. To its credit, though, ERS makes clear deep in the body of the report that organic producers who claim to have suffered losses are themselves responsible for taking measures “to minimize the presence of GE materials in their crops.”

ERS leaves unstated the fact that all the losses claimed by these organic producers fall into the category of “self-inflicted” injuries. The biotechnology improved seeds they refuse to use have been improved with the most precise, predictable, and safest plant breeding technologies in history—consider the worldwide scientific consensus, which is even stronger on the safety of GE products than it is on the issue of anthropocentric climate change. Organic growers chose to deprive themselves of the freedom to use these improved seeds over the objections of those in their community who value the many benefits that have caused them to be the most rapidly adopted innovation in the history of agriculture.

It is worth noting that while the USDA Organic Standard prohibits organic growers from using biotech-improved seeds, it set no threshold for allowable levels of biotech-derived material in organic harvests. Consequently, no organic producer in the U.S. has ever lost certification for any level of accidental presence of biotech-derived materials in his or her harvests. Yet these same organic producers who prohibited themselves from using biotech-improved seeds have voluntarily entered into contracts with private buyers stipulating allowable levels of biotech material in the products they deliver to their customers. Thus it is solely from their own voluntary actions that organic growers have suffered the reported losses. As ERS noted, “Organic and non-GE producers, in order to receive the price premiums associated with organic and non-GE production, need to minimize the accidental occurrence of GE materials in their crops.”

One is reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) tale of the man who kills his parents then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.

Nevertheless, a cadre of campaigners has noisily clamored for the growers of biotech crops—safe, legal, crops warmly embraced by farmers around the world on account of their significant safety, economic, and environmental benefits—to compensate the minuscule fraction of organic growers claiming injury for their self-inflicted wounds. In other words, so that they can secure a premium price for little or no apparent value added, these organic partisans seek to externalize the costs of organic production by exporting them onto the shoulders of their neighbors, who are growing safe, legal, beneficial crops. Nice work, if you can get it.

These organic campaigners have gone so far as to file a lawsuit seeking protection against any accidental encroachment of biotech material into their harvests and the consequences they have themselves caused to flow from such events. The lawsuit failed, of course, with the judge dismissing the suit as “a transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

The ERS appraisal of the economics of coexistence of organic vs. non-GE vs. GE agricultural production is oddly one sided, however. There is no mention of the “halo effect” through which organic growers benefit from the superior suppression of pest and weed populations provided by neighboring GE fields. This has, for example, made it possible for an organic papaya industry to exist in Hawaii, thanks to the superior control of the Papaya ringspot viral disease which had eliminated commercial papaya production from Oahu and Maui and threated the same on Hawaii before biotech came to the rescue. And it is estimated that farmers who planted non-GE corn seed in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin saved $2.4 billion over the course of 14 years. There is also no mention of costs that GE crop growers face dealing with pests or weeds dispersing from reservoirs created by their organic or non-GE neighbors using sub-standard and inferior control measures.

At the end of the day, the facts and the numbers show that many organic producers choose to expose themselves to possible losses rather than enjoy the benefits enabled by GE seeds, and that the minuscule losses they have reported are dwarfed by the halo effect benefits from proximity to GE crops that they have enjoyed but not earned. Perhaps it’s time to start considering some proportionate tax on organic and non-GM growers to compensate their GE-growing neighbors to whom they are in debt, and to atone for the ill-considered propaganda campaigns of disparagement they’ve waged in lieu of the appropriate expressions of gratitude.

The central truth is clear: GE food represents real cost savings for consumers, and widely shared benefits to farmers and the environment worldwide. Organic foods are essentially a luxury good. If some folks want to pay a premium for organic food, they have every right to do so. But the defensible policy objective is a higher standard of living for all citizens, not a more indulgent quality of life for Whole Foods shoppers in tony neighborhoods.

This article originally appeared on Innovation Files here and was reposted with permission of the author.

Val Giddings is senior fellow at The Information and Technologies Innovation Center. He previously served as vice president for Food & Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and as expert consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, USDA, USAID, and companies, organizations and governments around the world. Follow him on twitter @prometheusgreen.

30 thoughts on “USDA: GMOs represent cost savings for consumers and benefits for farmers, environment”

  1. Coexistence, like substantial equivalence, makes allowances for GMO contamination and places the burden, consequences, financial loss and due diligence on those being contaminated via patented and licensed genetics and associated inputs. It’s a warped commercial contrivance that gives favor to the industrial biotech monopolization of the global food supply. If someone doesn’t want to participate in coexistence scheme, they (we) can’t opt out.

    • Nonsense, The author described exactly how the organic types painted themselves into a corner. Also, there is no monopolization. Lots of seed companies exist and many sell nongmo varieties. Further your complaints are roughly analogous to a teosinte farmer whining about “contamination” by an early corn farmer. BTW if your popcorn pops and your summer sweet corn is sweet then cross pollination might just be exaggerated.

    • What is warped and indefensible is claiming that non-GMO crops have some superior quality that justifies the additional resources used to grow them, and for which I as a consumer should pay. Claiming “contamination” is an attempt to create exclusiveness where none exists. Farmers have been growing different varieties of seed in adjacent fields ever since distinct seed varieties have been available. Does a farmer growing a genetically engineered crop ever complain about “contamination”? No, because many decades of experience show that if any cross-pollination occurs, it has no measurable impact on the crop.
      *
      The “industrial biotech monopolization” claim is a myth. Yes, there are six, soon to be five large corporations that supply a large part of the seed market. But there are genetically engineered plants that have been developed by about 20 non-profit organizations and almost that many small companies. The completely needless regulatory burdens placed on genetically engineered crops drives the market to larger and larger companies due to the costs of meeting regulatory requirements. If you want to see many more companies supplying seed, tell governments to stop imposing regulatory burdens where none are needed.

      • If people are willing to pay more for non-gmo food then the superior quality of such food is the fact that it’s non-gmo. It’s well known that people pay more for “brand name” foods.

        People are willing to pay more for non-gmo food and those wishing to provide supply for this demand have every right to ensure that unique and special quality is not damaged.

        The larger your market, the larger the regulatory hurdles.

        • My position is that there is no “unique and special quality” in non-gmo food, so there is nothing to be damaged by mixing. Just because some number of people wish to believe that the earth is flat does not make the earth flat. Just because some number of people believe that non-gmo food has some special or unique property does not mean it is true. We do not prohibit people from going on around-the-world cruises because a few people claim the earth is flat and the ship will fall off the earth. We certainly would not support a law preventing around-the-world cruises base on the scientifically false claim that the world is flat. Similarly, we should strongly object to any law that states that there is some special characteristic of gmo food that is deserving of legal status, because that law would be based on false claims.
          There is far less genetic difference between a genetically engineered corn plant, and the plant it was derived from, than there is between two hybrid non-gmo corn varieties derived by selective breeding or by mutagenesis. There is simply nothing in any gmo plant that justifies special legal treatment.
          Why do people not demand labels on the food crops developed by mutation due to exposure to near-lethal doses of radioactivity? Based on the claim that genetic mutation carries some special risk, plants developed by exposure to radioactivity have many more times that risk than do gmo plants. Thus, the demand that gmo food be labeled has nothing to do with reality…it is strictly a marketing ploy.

          • My position is that:
            – if you want to hold one of our consumer choices (gmo or non-gmo) to some specific scientific criteria, the same criteria should also be applied to all other consumer choices as well.
            So let’s evaluate all people’s purchases and see if they meet the same scientific standards. Why just GMO?

            – if you want to apply some specific scientific criteria to consumers (only get to know what is approved by scientists) then the same criteria should be applied to the producer as well.
            So no more non factual information on the food packaging.

            Your opinion is your opinion. If someone finds value in non-gmo food and is willing to pay then there is, in fact, a value there whether you think it should be there or not. Observable fact.
            It doesn’t (by any scientific understanding) mean such people also believe the world is flat.

            People value all kinds of things and such values are rarely based on any science. As I pointed out, some people value name brand products. The food producers spend a lot of money to make people believe there is some value in this but in reality, there is no scientific proof of it.

            If people value the color white in some of their clothes they shouldn’t “mix” such clothes with bright colors during a wash no matter what you, scientists or politicians say about it.

          • I would be supportive of stronger regulations about the claims made by manufacturers on the benefits of their products. Not only food, but supplements; indeed, any claim of benefit of any consumer product. Unfortunately, applying this standard to food is not entirely practical, as it is applied to prescription drugs, and the regulatory costs are beyond reason.
            It is one thing for people to select brand A or brand B, and quite another for legislation to discriminate between brand A and brand B on the basis of an irrelevant characteristic.
            Hopefully, the legislation that is eventually passed by congress will prevent those manufacturers who meet the standard for labeling their product “non-gmo” from making any claims about the superiority of the product on that basis. If people want to buy a product labeled “non-gmo”, that is fine, but it is not OK if a law is made that directly or indirectly supports that choice. We already have a mess with the USDA “certified organic” program, because it implies government endorsement of a production method as being worthy of special distinction, which in turn is government support for a specific marketing campaign.

          • We have made messes of lots of things, unfortunately.
            Maybe we can rank things in order of importance and then begin cleaning them up?

          • That’s a good place.
            I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s more difficult than I initially presumed it would be.

            I think we need to start within our own heads.
            Who are we and what’s our purpose if any?
            What do people want out of life?
            What are the ideals we should value over any others?
            What personal characteristics or conditions make for “better” decision making?

            Or maybe we should start with defining our limits in this closed system we call earth.
            What’s most important? Clean air, water and food for all? Shelter for all? Love and compassion?

            Here’s a place that new technology can help. Why not ask each citizen to identify a pressing problem (via social media) and then crowd source for solutions?
            Global participation?

            What would the world identify as our greatest problem and what solutions are available right now?

          • I suspect that the real challenge would be how to allocate limited resources to competing needs. There would be many “most pressing problems”. We are right back to where we are now, substituting an internet consensus for the imperfect political process. But from a security perspective (and that is important – hopefully we all agree that we do not want a rogue state detonating a nuclear bomb in one of our cities), I question that anyone outside of a select few people can make any evaluation of needs. So how do we balance allocation of resources among things that are generally experienced against things that are not generally experienced, but perhaps critical to our society, such as infrastructure for water supply and sewer service (in addition to the national security issues)? How can I possibly evaluate the need for a new water line against the need for more police, unless I can get access to a lot of data, and spend a huge amount of time trying to analyze it? How would you go about sorting out those sorts of things (assuming that you would put “maintaining a healthy, civil society” somewhere near the top of your list).?

          • All good questions for which I have no answers.

            I think security issues decrease the more people are free and stable with all their basic needs met.
            Maybe if we stopped provoking people and trying to take their stuff they will chill out a bit.
            Maybe if we found peace within ourselves we would treat people differently.
            Isn’t there science related to what makes a person less prone to violence?
            Why not apply such science worldwide?

            I think we need more research and application of system design science.
            Maybe we don’t need a new water line if we designed our systems differently. Water falls on land and washes to the sea. We should capture and slow this process down as much as we can. This creates added benefits such as water purification, decreased run off/soil loss, increased organic matter, less flooding, etc.
            What a large amount of money and time we waste creating and maintaining sewer systems to handle storm runoff.
            Let’s start there maybe.

        • So, are you saying that if an organic grower wants to produce a product with absolutely no contamination with a GMO then it is the responsibility of his neighboring farmer to make sure there is no contamination?

    • Seeds have been patented since 1930
      Drift is not “contamination.”
      Commercialization of farming is a good thing. Without profit, farmers would go out of business.
      Industrial biotech opportunities exist. That is not monopolization.
      If you are anti-corporation, anti- big business, then you will demonize Whole Foods, which has about the same annual revenues as Monsanto.
      You can opt out anytime and grow, sell, and eat anything you want.
      Warped contrivances? Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Thank you for the perfect example.

  2. A Boulder, Colorado paper on comparisons between organic, conventional, and GE cropping systems, as reported by the farmers themselves, shows the same results. GE showed higher yields and less negative environmental impact from the metrics of air quality, diesel fuel, water consumption, runoff, soil compaction, and overall footprint.

  3. Weeeeeeeeeee!!!

    It’s like a roller coaster ride through never never land.
    It never ceases to amaze me how many twists and turns people make to try and find proof for what they believe is true.

    Going by reported economic losses to try and make broad sweeping claims about affordability. What a joke!

    Just list all the things necessary for each farm from seed to table and we can evaluate each and every system for efficiency and cost.
    Don’t forget to list the things necessary for each thing necessary.

    • No, it is not about finding support for a belief. It is a willingness to accept the preponderance of evidence that has been obtained by scientifically valid methods. Sometimes, acceptance of scientifically obtained evidence means you must modify previously held beliefs. We have an excellent historical example of the consequences of large groups of people rejecting evidence that was contrary to their beliefs: we call that example the Medieval period. The Internet challenges everyone to have the wisdom to discern supportable claims from fictional claims, and the courage to accept that which is supported by many lines of evidence, rather than hide behind dogma.

      • What does the preponderance of evidence suggest about the safety of non-GMO food?
        If “safe”, then why is this not a valid choice as well?

        Both vanilla and chocolate ice cream can be safe. Why is it that someone would need to consult a scientist before they choose one over another?

        We are stuck in another Medieval period. Instead of ideology of religion, the main culprit now is the ideology of growth oriented economics and reductionistic and linear science.

        The internet encourages active participation in things once delegated to institutions such as scientific communities. So hooray for it and the participation and democratization it brings to such things.

        • I did not state that non-gmo food is not safe, or that it is not a valid choice. After all, only a few food crops are gmo. What I am saying is that it is not valid to claim that gmo products are not safe or deserve some special legal recognition (positive or negative).
          While the internet gives a voice to anyone who wishes to speak, we should not allow that voice to influence decisions of law or product design decisions that require technical expertise. Example: Do you really want people who know nothing about drug safety to make decisions about allowing a drug to be marketed? Do you want decisions about highway design to be decided by highway safety experts or should those decisions be made by popular vote?
          A few weeks ago here in New Hampshire, we had a hearing on a gmo labeling bill. Some 20+ people testified in favor of the bill, largely by making claims that gmo food was a health risk. Not a single one of those people claimed any relevant scientific expertise, except an advocate from Consumer’s Union. Several people testified against the bill who did have relevant scientific expertise. In fact, they had so little knowledge of the subject that one person cited a totally fictional article in a spoof news web site as “evidence” that people died from eating gmo food. Fortunately, the legislature rejected the bill by a 239-122 vote. Think about it carefully: would you really want to have laws passed anytime a noisy group of people asked for a law to be passed based on some fiction they believed? Do you want to have to live with laws that have no basis in fact?

          • I would definitely rather have sane people making sane decisions. There would be little need for government.

            But most people are insane. The examples of how this insanity plays out are numerous and are by no means confined to the GMO “debate”.

            I don’t mean to sound cynical or mean-spirited but that’s how I see it. Welcome to the jungle. Fear sells and all sides use it. Stupidity abounds. Government must act and it’s sure to be an imperfect compromise and will likely cause more problems then it solves.

            But our whole society and culture pretty much guarantees the production of insane people.
            Our systems are built on insane ideas such as growth is good and money is most important.
            This is the result. Stupidity and the inevitable slide towards extinction by our own hands.

          • I suppose there can be different definitions of “growth” in this context?
            There would be a lot less growth if we did not have a rapidly increasing world population, would you agree? But are we not on average better off with improved means of transportation, communication, medical care, and food production (since there are so many people to feed)? Do you classify improving technology as “growth”? Do you mean “growth” as financial growth, increasing size of organizations, or what? (The “growth” I usually think about is the growth in world population.)

          • I am not too up to speed on indicators for family size. I remember that better educated, better fed and more stable home environments are correlated with decreased family size.

            I don’t worry about global population projections too much because these are not reality. I don’t like basing decisions on some imaginary number in the future.

            The growth I am speaking about is economic.
            Our whole global financial system is predicated on the fact that our economies will continue to expand (hence the proliferation of debt).
            The expansion of our economies is intimately tied to our ability to extract resources from the planet.
            So we’ve built a system that literally ensures that limited resources will be strained and it will inevitably crash at some point.

            This same system also ensures that there will be inequality in the world.

            We are enjoying a nice party now but the bill is on the way for society and it’s huge.

            Most people I know just want to do their thing and not mess with anyone. A little work, a little fun and lots of love.
            Isn’t that all you want for yourself and your family?

            We don’t need much. But we are constantly told that we are not good enough, not young enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough and not successful enough unless we buy some thing.
            Why are we surprised then when people act irrationally?

          • Which is why voters also have rejected labeling in the last 4 statewide ballot initiatives. Kudos to the New Hampshire State Legislature for rejecting activist misinformation and upholding farmers and good science.

  4. Well said. The organic Papaya growers in Hawaii wouldn’t even be able to exist without the herd immunity their much maligned GM papaya neighbors provide.

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