This is a guest article by Emily Cassidy, a research analyst at Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.
Growing food takes a major toll on the environment, one that will grow worse in the coming decades as humanity faces the demands of a mushrooming population and its growing appetite for grain-fed meat.
Biotech companies and proponents of industrial agriculture tout genetically engineered (GE) crops as the key to feeding the world, because they supposedly increase the yields of major crops. Yet current evidence indicates this is an empty promise. Recently, I published a report which shows that in the 20 years since the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, their yields haven’t actually increased in wealthier countries nor helped feed the hungry in developing regions. In fact, GE food seems to be distracting from real solutions proven to help lift small farmers out of poverty.
Corn and soybeans engineered to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide account for more than 80 percent of the global acreage growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) today. In my report, I highlight a recent peer-reviewed paper by New Zealand geneticist Jack Heinemann, who found that the mostly-GE corn and soy grown in United States have no greater yields than non-GE crops in western Europe, where GMOs are not allowed. Heinemann’s research was a big blow to biotech industry claims of increased yields.
GMOs aren’t keeping pace with traditional crop breeding in Africa, either. The weekly scientific journal Nature highlighted efforts by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project to improve crop production in dry regions where drought can slash yields by up to 25 percent. Since 2006, the project has developed 153 new crop varieties using traditional breeding techniques—and found these new strains produced up to 30 percent better yields than genetically engineered varieties, even in nutrient-poor soils. The World Resources Institute also released a report concluding that traditional breeding has been, and will continue to be, the primary engine of improved crop yields.
Considering that genetic engineering is at least 100 times more expensive than traditional breeding, I wonder why GMOs are getting so much attention.
In my report I outline a blueprint for strategies that would help improve food security even as they minimize agriculture’s burden on the environment. In Africa and other poor regions, for example, farmers can often afford only one-tenth of the fertilizer recommended for their crops. Instead of applying excessive fertilizer on farms in developed countries, as often happens now, it would do far more good to use it on farms in the developing world that need it the most. Better use of fertilizers could increase the production of major cereals by 30 percent, improve the incomes of poorer farmers, and reduce contamination of water supplies by nutrient-loaded runoff.
Biotech companies often spend upwards of US$100 million to develop just one genetically engineered crop variety that may not even increase yields—money that could be better spent helping small farmers get access to basic resources such as fertilizers.
What GMOs have done is to rapidly increase the use of herbicides. The rapid adoption of herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans resulted in a major surge in the use of Roundup, the main ingredient of which—glyphosate—the World Health Organization deemed just last week to be a “probable human carcinogen.” A previous publication by WHO found that farmers who are frequently exposed to glyphosate have twice the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a life-threatening blood cancer.