Biotech’s history of overpromising and underdelivering may be catching up with it
km6xoTom Philpott’s post on USDA chief Tom Vilsack’s comments regarding biotech deserves a bit more attention. Vilsack was speaking at the first ever meeting of the Group of Eight agricultural ministers. I guess we have to consider it progress that the top ag officials from the eight largest industrialized nations finally decided it was worth getting together despite the fact that there’s no consensus on what to do about food.
It doesn’t help that when Tom Vilsack leaves the country — the meeting was held in Italy — he goes from being “Farmer Tom” to “Salesman Tom.” His prime responsibility (indeed a fundamental mission of the USDA) is to further the interests of US agriculture. Right now that means two things — pushing US food and technology exports. It’s almost a reflex — there’s no indication of any meaningful thought behind his position. Rather, if you take another of Vilsack’s statements in the FT article Philpott linked to — “[t]his is not just about food security, this is about national security, it is about environmental security” — at face value, it’s entirely at odds with a reliance on GM seeds. After all, GM seeds are controlled by a handful of companies — Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow (although Monsanto really is the most dominant player) — and are wedded to the Three Evil Sisters — synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and diesel fuel, which has nothing to do with “environmental security.”
But while I’m not willing to overlook Vilsack’s presentation of the false choice of GM seeds as key to food security, I would hope that he’s serious about bringing what he referred to as “agricultural science” front and center. Because if he does, he’ll see that perhaps, at last, the research tide has turned against GM seeds. Most notably the Union of Concerned Scientists just released an analysis of 20 years’ worth of scientific research designed to determine the extent to which GM seeds have improved overall crop yields. The answer? Only one GM crop — Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready corn — has shown ANY yield increase. And it has managed a mere 3-4% total increase over 13 years. That’s it, folks. No huge jumps in productivity. No magic seeds. Why is this? According to the UCS:
One likely reason is that new yield genes often have much more complex genetic interactions with the plant genetic material than the few currently successful transgenes, and therefore cause more genetic side-effects that often lead to undesirable agricultural properties.
In other words, the heribcide resistant genes (which represent the only true GM success stories) don’t cause much in the way of adverse genetic side-effects that might interfere with plant growth. But the genes involved with yield do. So while the industry’s ability to manipulate individual genes has increased over time, their ability to control the side effects of their manipulation has not. And there is no indication that this will change. Monsanto, however, will forever sing the siren song of the magic yield-doubling — or even tripling — seed to anyone fool enough to listen. But they simply can’t deliver.
The UCS report also addresses the question of the whether GM (aka GE) seeds will produce greater benefits in the developing world where yields are generally lower to being with. The signs point to no:
The record so far suggests that GE is unlikely to play a major role in increasing yields in developing countries—especially those with limited public infrastructure—in the foreseeable future. Overall, GE has not had a major impact on yields in developing countries. As with developed countries, there are only a few GE crops, with herbicide-tolerant soybeans being most widely grown (in South America), followed by Bt cotton, primarily in India and China. There are small amounts of Bt maize (corn) in South Africa and a few other countries.
Even Monsanto’s own research demonstrates the limits of GM techniques. According to a study they funded, RoundUp Ready crops still require significant investment, careful pest management and applications of multiple kinds of pesticides. Say what? The dark side is supposed to be the quick and easy path. Now it turns out that the stuff doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do. That’s one seriously naked emperor.
Unlike the US, the UN understands all this, which is why they released a report declaring that organic techniques are ideal for answering the developing world’s agricultural needs. In fact, adopting the basic organic techniques of composting, mulching, and crop rotation could double or even quadruple current yields in Africa. Take that, Monsanto!
Of course, organic practices aren’t patented. There are no license fees or expensive supplies. No flying in compost from Iowa or manure from North Carolina. Just education and investment in “human capital.” How awfully boring and unsexy. But until US international ag policy focuses on results in the field rather than on the balance sheets of US biotech conglomerates, we’ll have to listen to otherwise smart guys like Tom Vilsack parroting their party line.