20-year GMO report card: Biotech shrinks ag’s ecological impact, increased farm income $167 billion

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Genetic modification has had a dramatic impact on crop production, agricultural sustainability and the economics of farming, according to a new study out this week. The peer reviewed analysis [note: the environmental analysis journal paper is now in print; the economic paper is forthcoming], prepared by the global firm PG Economics, analyzed data on farm production between 1996 and 2015 in the United States and the 25 other countries that grow GMOs.

“Since 1996, farm incomes have increased by $167.8 billion,” the report concluded. This is equivalent to having added 5.2 per cent to the value of global production of the four main crops of soybeans, maize [corn], canola and cotton.”

In just the last year, “direct global farm income benefit from GM crops was $15.4 billion. The economic benefits have been huge. It has also helped alleviate poverty for 16.5 million, mostly smallholder farmers, in developing countries, the authors claim.

Many studies have previously demonstrated the economic benefit to farmers in developed, but especially in developing, countries that have embraced GM crops. Environmental gains from increased productivity and reduced fossil fuel use have also been tallied.

But a number of anti-GM activist organizations have cited “reports,” most recently a New York Times article last fall, that claim the opposite has happened–that there has been no increases in yield and no ecological or environmental benefits have been realized. That story, however, has been roundly criticized by scientists for its methods of calculating and comparing yields. And unlike the New York Times story, which was almost entirely anecdotal, the economic data in this report have been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the environmental data is about to be.

The report said the largest gains in farm income in 2015 had arisen in the GM corn sector, largely from yield gains, while insect resistant crops had added $46 billion to the income of global maize farmers, since 1996.

The study, which was funded by Monsanto (more on that later), found that in the 26 countries that have allowed genetically modified maize, soybeans, cotton and canola:

  • The technology reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 26.7 billion kilograms (29 million US tons) over 20 years, thanks for reduced tillage, decreasing need for machinery, and soil carbon retention. The report notes that this is equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the world’s roads.
  • Crop spraying in biotech fields dropped by 619 billion kilograms (680 million US tons), an 8.1 percent reduction over 20 years. “This is equal to more than China’s total crop product use each year,” the report noted.
  • Land use was reduced by an equivalent of 11 percent of arable land in the US. “If crop biotechnology had not been available to farmers in 2015, maintaining global production levels that year would have required the planting of an additional 8.4 million hectares of soybeans, 7.4 billion hectares of corn, 3 million hectares of cotton and 700,000 hectares of canola,” the report stated.
  • The biggest environmental gain was due to insect-resistant genetic technology. “GM IR cotton has contributed a 43% reduction in the total volume of active ingredient used on GM crops (-268.7 million kg active ingredient, equivalent to a 29.1% reduction in insecticide use on the GM IR cotton area) and a 31.5% reduction in the total field EIQ indicator measure associated with GM crop use (1996-2015) due to the significant reduction in insecticide use that the technology has facilitated, in what has traditionally been an intensive user of insecticides.”

For poorer, smallholder farmers in developing countries, the economic benefits have been quite favorable:

  • The “net farm economic benefit” was $15.5 billion for 2015. For 1996-2015, this benefit, which is calculated by combining a number of factors such as increased efficiency, higher yields and higher incomes, was $167.7 billion.
  • Profitability from buying biotech seeds was high; in 2015, farmers received $3.45 in income from every dollar spent on GM seeds. In developing countries, that benefit was $5.15 in income for every dollar spent on GM seeds.

The study showed that GM technology is popular because it enables farmers to get higher yields and spend fewer resources on pests and weeds, study author and PG Economics director Graham Brookes said. This means higher incomes, which has enabled farmers in developing countries to better feed, clothe and provide good medical care, education and housing for their families. Brookes continued:

The report findings are consistent with the large volume of peer reviewed literature which has examined these issues in recent years. The only ‘reports’ that draws different findings, claiming that the technology has not delivered yield gains or benefits for farmers or environmental benefits for society, are typically not representative, inaccurate and misleading pieces that are not published in peer reviewed journals, like the New York Times article in October 2016.

The report also disclosed that it was funded by Monsanto. Such funding from a wide range of private sector sources is not unusual for PG Economics reports (and in fact, private sector funding does account for about half of scientific research and development projects in the United States, according to a number of sources). According to Brookes:

The company has no input into the analysis, aside from providing some data (e.g., the cost of seed, where relevant) and has no say or input into the findings and conclusions. It is a standard practice and requirement of all studies we undertake, whether for private companies, non-government organizations, public bodies or governments that we undertake such work independently and objectively, without interference or influence from sponsors. This is a common and respected practice in the research sector and in 30 years of undertaking research analysis and consultancy work of this nature, no private sector sponsor has ever tried to influence or interfere with any study we have undertaken.

The report did include a warning: in areas where herbicide resistant crops are popular, “some farmers have relied too much on the use of glyphosate to manage weeds in GM HT crops and this has contributed to the development of weed resistance.” Today, about 36 weeds resist glyphosate, including a few that are not glyphosate tolerant.

According to the report, “there is a growing consensus among weed scientists for a need for changes in weed management programs in GM herbicide tolerant crops,” including using other herbicides with different chemical mechanisms, and as part of an overall weed management system. And, most importantly, resistance to glyphosate is not a problem unique to genetic modification.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Kent Roth

    Farmers have feed a growing population with the help of science, however, safety must come first. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-05/syngenta-faces-7-000-kansas-farmers-in-gmo-corn-dispute

    • Good4U

      Right. Safety does, and always has, come first. That’s the main point of biotechnology as it pertains to agriculture. Its results are safer food in terms of human health effects, and a safer environmental profile than the technologies which preceded. That’s what the article above states very well.

  • Mary M.

    We farm. For twenty years now we have used genetically engineered seeds to grow corn and soybeans in the heartland of the USA. We use less chemicals…we plow the ground less often… I simply can’t believe that we are still debating the benefits of biotechnology. Science and farming go hand in hand and we all continue to reap the benefits.

    • WeGotta

      It would be far better to stop growing so much corn and soy.

      Non-gmo is science and corn and soy are mostly used to make the junk food scientists tell us is harmful.
      So I’m not sure you fully understand the situation enough to comment about the “benefits of biotechnology” beyond how it benefits you personally.

      • Good4U

        Gutta, you never cease to amaze us how ignorant you are of agricultural processes and technologies, or the food supply chain that keeps you alive. They term you an armchair farmer.

        • WeGotta

          I term you an armchair human.

      • Aguirre15

        The fact is that most of the corn and soy is used to feed animals and a fast growing percentage is being exported for that very purpose. You may not like billions of chinese and Indians adding some meat and eggs to their diets as their incomes rise but thats not for snobs like you to say.

        • WeGotta

          You are trying to pin the global trade system on me.
          I didn’t create it and it’s not in place for altruistic reasons. It’s controlled by those that make a profit and it’s designed so that they can maximize profits. Period.
          They needs of people are just peices on a game board to them.

          The fact remains, its stupid to grow so much of a crop that is ultimately used to increase the availability of foods known to cause our greatest health problems.

          The fact that you can buy a soda, fries and a triple bacon cheeseburger for less than $5 is the result of specific conditions we ourselves created.
          We could easily create conditions where all people can afford healthy food.

          It would be done using science.

          • Aguirre15

            Corn and soybeans are fungible commodities generally needed in high volume and very dependent on supply and demand. Somebody had to set up a system to trade and distribute worldwide. Since prices are set in the commodity markets the economics of such distribution are quite complex. What’s your solution?

          • WeGotta

            My solution would be to ask everyone what they wanted and then use the best science possible to provide it.

          • Aguirre15

            Clearly you have some vision in mind. Would you care to elucidate?

          • WeGotta

            1. Ask people
            2. Act

            I’m already living my dream.

          • Aguirre15

            Uh-huh. You are pretty fulsome in your criticism of the global supply chain but sure clam up when asked how you would handle it.

            Japan is perennially the largest importer of corn in the world. They have a reputation for marvelous and healthful cuisine. You really don’t think the people of Japan have been “asked”?

            We have contracting elevators, growers and shippers all over the Midwest who supply tofu, natto and miso soybeans to Japan because we grow the best beans in the world. Again, you don’t think the Japanese or these suppliers have been “asked”?

            It’s pretty obvious you are nothing more than a reflexive anti GMO hack.

          • WeGotta

            I told you how I would handle it.

            1. Ask people.
            2. Act.
            Use science along the way. Also use religion. Also use anything that would help.

            Here’s the only thing the president needs to do:
            1. Ask people.
            2. Act.
            Use tools.

          • Aguirre15

            Your outline sounds like pretty basic marketing to me. I just don’t think you like the answers.

            What does the president have to do with this?