Genetic Engineering Fails to Significantly Boost Crop Yields

The biotech industry claims genetic engineering was responsible for increased crop yields in the United States over the past decade, but a new report says traditional breeding and conventional agricultural improvements were the true causes of the increase.
From the Union of Concerned Scientists
April 14, 2009
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Herbicide-tolerant corn and insect-resistant corn are two of the most common genetically altered food and feed crops in the United States.
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For years, the biotechnology industry has trumpeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields.

That promise has proven to be empty, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.

“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,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report. “In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results.”

The report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, is the first to closely evaluate the overall effect genetic engineering has had on crop yields in relation to other agricultural technologies. It 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 localized 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.

Biotechnology companies maintain that genetic engineering is essential to meeting this goal. Monsanto, for example, is currently running an advertising campaign warning of an exploding world population and claiming that its “advanced seeds ... significantly increase crop yields.”

The UCS report debunks this 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 “Failure to Yield” 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,” says 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.”

“Failure to Yield” makes a critical distinction between potential — or intrinsic — yield and operational yield, concepts that are often conflated by the industry and misunderstood by others. Intrinsic yield refers to a crop’s ultimate production potential under the best possible conditions. Operational yield refers to production levels after losses due to pests, drought and other environmental factors.

The study reviewed the intrinsic and operational yield achievements of the three most common genetically altered food and feed crops in the United States: herbicide-tolerant soybeans, herbicide-tolerant corn and insect-resistant corn (known as Bt corn, after the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, whose genes enable the corn to resist several kinds of insects).

Herbicide-tolerant soybeans, herbicide-tolerant corn and Bt corn have failed to increase intrinsic yields, the report found. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn also have failed to increase operational yields, compared with conventional methods.

Meanwhile, the report found that Bt corn likely provides a marginal operational yield advantage of 3 to 4 percent over typical conventional practices. Since Bt corn became commercially available in 1996, its yield advantage averages out to a 0.2 to 0.3 percent yield increase per year. To put that figure in context, overall U.S. corn yields over the last several decades have annually averaged an increase of approximately 1 percent, which is considerably more than what Bt traits have provided.

In addition to evaluating genetic engineering’s record, “Failure to Yield” considers the technology’s potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades. The report does not discount the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to increased crop yields. It does, however, suggest that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as sub-Saharan Africa.

The report recommends that the U.S. 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 U.S. food aid organizations 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,” Gurian-Sherman says. “Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.”


The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., and has offices in Berkeley, Calif., Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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Post a comment below.

 

Tyler_2
6/12/2009 9:40:46 AM
Interesting article, many things to consider. I too am skeptical of UCS publications, just like everyone should be of any "study" designed to persuade. One fact left out that would have explained increased crop yields (for corn anyway), is that the true advancement in yield per acre came from the development of varieties that are able to be planted more densely than ever before, and still have high yields. Whether or not this advancement came through traditional breeding or GM I do no know. Furthermore, were these densely planted varieties also GM for herbicide resitance or anything else? I don't know the answers, but hopefully UCS considered all the information at their disposal, not just the friendly studies.

Di_2
5/6/2009 11:41:35 AM
I agree with Foodchoices. This whole GM food thing has nothing to do with "the good of the People"and feeding us. It has everything to do with GREED thru Control of the food supply,thru our seeds. The end of treasured seeds that have been passed on from generation to generation.Policing farmers and their seeds. Having to buy GM seeds, from "drug companies" cause we CAN'T make our own anymore because they've been cross polinated with GM seeds.Which will starve peoples of other countries because there seeds have been rendered useless,seeds they've passed down thru famlies, gone. Forced to buy,most likley at High prices,GM seeds. EVERYONE should read up on "Monsanto" Then see what you think about this big big mess we are unwillingly getting sucked into. GREED once again,still, rearing its ugly head.$$$$$$$ is what it's all about, and we can't do anything about it.I'm stiil amazed at how fast we humans have ruined this earth in 200 years.I could go on but you get the picture. I urge everyone to check this out furthur,Esp. "Monsanto"

ccm989
5/6/2009 9:10:59 AM
Monsanto is one of the primary reasons I began an organic Victory Garden. Fish genes in corn -- Ugh! Just say "No Thanks" to Frankenfoods. I don't think the world population explosion can be solved by growing more food. The real solution is BIRTH CONTROL. Birth control for free for every women that wants it. And we can't grow more food without more clean, potable water. Worldwide droughts are showing us that the real danger is not having enough clean, potable water. What are we (America) doing about that? Afterall, most of us can go for a while without food, but none of us can survive more than 3 days without clean, potable water.

Reptilian crusher
5/1/2009 9:56:23 AM
Genetically modified food is a hoax,orchestrated for investment banker companies like Monsanto and the corporations to take hold of the food industry and what we eat. As many of the population who regularly eat 'junk' and fast food from mainstream outlets bear witness to, gm creates obesity, loss of equilibrium, fatigue and a weaker immune system. Monsanto's aim is to buy out all seed companys, and have every thing we eat genetically modified. This would be the equivalent of turning us all into zombified electro-controlled magnets that can be controlled emotionally and physically. In other words the idea of gm is to create a living hell. The wider population of non-investment bankers and globalisers should be concentrating on growing their own fresh food and keeping seeds as natural and original to nature as possible. The lie that Monsanto can produce more yield with their gm seeds is ludicrous. If Monsanto and the 'World Health Organisation' wanted to end hunger, they would remove free trade that keeps restrictions on trade embargo from Africa,making the prices lower on export, and none of the farmers' able to keep themselves. Say no to GM.

Reptilian crusher
5/1/2009 9:55:01 AM
Genetically modified food is a hoax,orchestrated for investment banker companies like Monsanto and the corporations to take hold of the food industry and what we eat. As many of the population who regularly eat 'junk' and fast food from mainstream outlets bear witness to, gm creates obesity, loss of equilibrium, fatigue and a weaker immune system. Monsanto's aim is to buy out all seed companys, and have every thing we eat genetically modified. This would be the equivalent of turning us all into zombified electro-controlled magnets that can be controlled emotionally and physically. In other words the idea of gm is to create a living hell. The wider population of non-investment bankers and globalisers should be concentrating on growing their own fresh food and keeping seeds as natural and original to nature as possible. The lie that Monsanto can produce more yield with their gm seeds is ludicrous. If Monsanto and the 'World Health Organisation' wanted to end hunger, they would remove free trade that keeps restrictions on trade embargo from Africa,making the prices lower on export, and none of the farmers' able to keep themselves. Say no to GM.

jimmy37
4/29/2009 2:27:19 PM
Sorry, I don't believe anything that UCS prints. While I have no love for the stuff that Ag companies are pushing on us, I don't have any love for the the politics that UCS pushes on us, either.

foodchoices
4/29/2009 12:32:16 PM
Excuse me! There was mix up in the url's in my previous post. It should be New York Times report here: http://tinyurl.com/q5ldm Another report: The dull days of White Gold http://www.indiatogether.org/2009/apr/psa-whitegold.htm

foodchoices
4/29/2009 12:27:30 PM
Thank you for this article! I had just written about Monsanto's advertising tactics, "Monsanto:wooing the public",in my blog http://foodchoices.wordpress.com Official reports by State Governments on the performance of GM Cotton in India can be accessed at http://www.indiagminfo.org/under "official study-RTI documents". The spate of suicides among cotton farmers have also been attributed to Monsanto- Government nexus. New York Times report here: http://tinyurl.com/q5ldm http://www.indiatogether.org/2009/apr/psa-whitegold.htm

Roy Pfz
4/29/2009 10:43:32 AM
I would agree that there has not been an impact on yield directly. What there needs to be a study on is how the use of Roundup Ready corn has affected the farming practices and how that has impacted the land. As a kid growing up on a farm and a part time farmer now I see a vast difference in how the land is used and the impact that these technologies have on methods of farming. It used to be during the winters we would have dust storms because during the previous summer they would have cultivated the corn and there was no residue to keep it from blowing later. Now by using different practices the land doesn't blow saving top soil and in turn making the land more productive in a long run. As for Bt corn they should see the difference in pesticide application and if there was an impact to how much was applied per acre before and after Bt was made available.








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