ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
Date:  9 December 2000


Apologies for any cross-posting but this is a telling article with some telling comment, as ever, from Mark Griffiths of nlpwessex. And below all that we’ve stuck an earlier Mark Griffiths’ piece—pointing, amidst much else, to the extraordinary dream from which US farmers now seem to be finally waking.

Mark writes:
‘An earlier 1998 opinion poll carried out by the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University of approximately 800 farmers in Iowa revealed that most (53%) chose RR beans because they thought they produced higher yields than non-GM varieties. But when actual data from their farms was analysed the opposite was found.

“It is interesting to note....that increasing crop yields was cited by over half the farmers as the reason for planting GMO soybeans, yet yields were actually lower”, reported researchers at the Leopold Centre.”

Part of the significance of this is that so many of the claims of positive results from the use of this technology have relied, in realitty, on producer report. A bit like assessing fashionable pharmaceuticals via practitioner surveys - not quite the same as a double blind trial!

For example, the ISAAA’s annual reports which have been pushed into the hands of the scientific and political elite throughout the South are made up, in reality, of little more than surveys of the global acreage of these crops and reports of massive on-farm benefits - the latter almost entirely based on producer estimates.

Well, it’s increasingly dream over for the agbiotech-placebos!

nlpwessex: Farming press notices - GM liabilities

“ guys [US Gov] created this monster; you clean it up. I have learned my lesson. No more GMO crops on this farm — ever”, US farmer and GM seed salesman, Nebraska, Dec 2000.

Most agricultural journalists do not have the time to read agronomic scientific papers.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find that the UK agricultural press continues to produce articles on the ‘benefits’ of GM crops taken at face value as presented to them by those promoting the technology without looking in depth behind those claims.

The actual scientific situation is often different revealing disappointing yields and/or higher than claimed costs (see: ).

In the UK agricultural journalists tend to believe that if US farmers are adopting the technology it must be economically beneficial.  But the US farmers are pretty much in the same position as the journalists when it comes to detailed knowledge of research work. Even before the issue of the sale price of the crop is considered, often farmers in the US have adopted the technology thinking that they are making more money when in fact they are making less (see: ).

However, once GM crops actually become unsaleable in the market then even the most GM enthusiastic agricultural journals start to notice the GM downside as this piece in the UK’s Farmers Weekly demonstrates.  US farmers are increasingly unhappy with this technology.
*  *  *
Farmers Weekly 8 December 2000

The US government is still defiantly bullish about the prospects of persuading EU consumers to accept genetically-modified (GM) foods.  However, at home, another GM scare involving non-food-use-approved maize getting into the food chain is making farmers and processors increasingly dubious. Alan Guebert reports.............

THE biggest question facing many US agricultural processors, exporters and farmers today can be appreciated best by paraphrasing the old nursery rhyme: “Starlight, star bright, do you know where your StarLink maize is tonight?”

The US Department of Agriculture claims to know where the maize — banned from all food use globally and only recently approved for US exports —is located. Aventis, the French firm which developed the genetically modified maize sold throughout the US maize belt in 1999 and 2000, says it knows, also. So do I: StarLink maize is everywhere.

From Iowa to Osaka, from taco shells to chicken feed, StarLink is spread throughout the US food, feed and export chain. In late October, StarLink was found in Japan. On Nov 1 the US Food and Drug Administration, America’s food safety watchdog, issued a recall of more than 300 food products that contain StarLink.

The mess has split US farmers. The National Corn Growers Association, viewed as the spokesgroup for most maize farmers, defends StarLink and has attempted to calm foreign customers. It has also worked closely with USDA and Aventis to get the maize approved for feed and non-food exports (which occurred Oct 26) and is working with both for food-use approval in the US.

The smaller, but more outspoken, American Corn Growers Association has publicly chastised every government agency, Aventis and the NCGA for creating the StarLink controversy in the first place. The partial approval of StarLink for just domestic feed and industrial markets was “a recipe for disaster and disaster is what we now have”, said one of its officials in mid-October.

The “disaster” is two-fold and growing. First, the Oct 26 export approval for feed and non-food uses almost guarantees that StarLink is present in maize already sent overseas. That will slow any new exports while buyers locate and isolate it, since America’s biggest maize customers have laws banning StarLink. More importantly, the export approval is seen as a US confession that it cannot deliver what it promises — grain that meets foreign specifications.

Japan, America’s largest maize customer, offers an example. StarLink was found in Japan on Oct 25. The previous week, Japanese importers ordered 690,000t of US maize, or 97,600t a day. After the discovery, though, Japan ordered only 85,000t for the week of Oct 20-26.

Second, US farmers, merchandisers and food processors face inestimable losses for StarLink if they hold even a handful of it. Oct 31 press reports from Iowa, the leading US maize producer, suggest that half, or 50.8m tonnes, of the state’s $2bn (£L2bn) 2000 crop may contain traces of StarLink mixed with “clean”, or non-StarLink, maize.

If accurate, the cost of the cleanup will explode. Aventis has promised to pay StarLink growers a tiny $10/1 (£6) for the maize grown from seed. But it has not agreed to pay the bonus on maize mixed with StarLink. Iowa officials, however, are pressing Aventis to buy both StarLink maize and maize mixed with the stuff. That could push Aventis’s projected liability from $100m (£62m) nationwide to more than $250m (£155m) in Iowa alone.

An Iowa merchandiser who has detected StarLink in two separate trainloads of maize guesses his losses at $35,000 (£22,000). “I am sending the bill to Aventis,” he said, in a Nov 2 newspaper story. “If they pick up the tab, we won’t sue.” His attitude is universal.

Farmers with StarLink are trapped in an even tighter box. Aventis has not guaranteed it will pay farmers for maize commingled with StarLink. And StarLink users, like livestock feeders, are also backing away from it unless they can buy it for a discounted price. Another big projected user of it, ethanol makers, do not want it, either. Ethanol makers who use the wet-milling process have promised export customers of maize gluten, ethanol’s biggest by-product, they will not use StarLink. Wet milling accounts for 60% of America’s 1.5bn gallons of ethanol.

“I do not know what I am going to do,” says one Nebraska farmer who mixed 685t of StarLink with more than 1270t of non-StarLink maize. He also admits he sold 330t of StarLink to his local merchandiser who, he guesses, dumped it into a silo containing 2538t of “clean” maize. “I did not know I was not supposed to sell it,” he says. Ironically, the farmer was also a salesman for StarLink.

His plan to end the StarLink nightmare? “I will put the maize under government loan. That way if this problem get worse I can just dump it on the government next year and say you guys created this monster; you clean it up.” He adds: “I have learned my lesson. No more GMO crops on this farm — ever.”

USDA and farm groups hate to hear such groanings; they have staked too much on biotech to concede defeat now, even if farmers retreat.

Indeed, USDA now is pushing for approval of StarLink in domestic food, mostly because it is the only way to recapture the StarLink genie. In other words, the government sees the problem and hopes to solve it by saying: “There is no problem.” Oh, but there is. Just ask anyone holding StarLink.
June 2000
Low Yields from RR soya - Nebraska University Study
Comments by NLP Wessex

Earlier press reports this month of work done at the University of Nebraska on poor yields from Roundup Ready (RR) soya beans were a little sketchy. Below is the original University press release which gives more details. It is worth noting the following:

1) The genetic modification process itself appears to have had an adverse effect on the ability of the plants to yield as well as their unmodified sister lines. This would seem to undermine claims that the RR beans are ‘substantially equivalent’ to their non-GM equivalents and that the process of genetic modification does not produce unintended effects that are not picked up during the testing process.

2) Research reported last year by scientists at the University of Georgia in Athens showed that RR beans produce an unintended 20% increase in lignin (the tough, woody form of cellulose) as a result of the genetic modification for herbicide resistance affecting a major metabolic pathway. This leaves them prone to excessive stem splitting and crop losses in high temperature conditions.

3) Recent data released by Monsanto show that additional fragments of foreign DNA have been found in the genome of RR beans which were not picked up when they were approved.

4) None of the above effects appear to have been picked up under the legal approval processes despite claims that such approval systems are robust.

5) An earlier 1998 opinion poll carried out by the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University of approximately 800 farmers in Iowa revealed that most (53%) chose RR beans because they thought they produced higher yields than non-GM varieties.  But when actual data from their farms was analysed the opposite was found (i.e most farmers were unaware of the negative yield performance of the new beans they were growing - this would explain the illogically high uptake of the technology in the US).

“It is interesting to note....that increasing crop yields was cited by over half the farmers as the reason for planting GMO soybeans, yet yields were actually lower”, reported researchers at the Leopold Centre.

Surely, though, thousands of US farmers can’t be wrong on this?  For more information on how this remarkable situation has come about see: .

6) The latest Nebraska data showing adverse yields from RR beans confirms similar earlier extensive data from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) reported in 1999 covering those states responsible for the majority of US soya bean production.

7) The Nebraska report also seems to confirm that US farmers are using RR technology to needlessly destroy weeds to get a ‘weed-free’ field - the study shows that the economics do not justify this, and therefore on farm biodiversity is also needlessly being destroyed.

8) The authors of the Nebraska study conclude that their work shows the importance of farmers being able to have access to ‘research-based information’ on GM crops (i.e rather than relying on claims made by biotechnology companies).

9) The Nebraska and Wisconsin data are especially important as they comprise ‘side-by-side’ trials under controlled conditions (by contrast, for example, USDA aggregated annual data on GM crops do not involve controls for variations in site conditions and husbandry methods, and therefore do not represent ‘scientific’ findings on the agronomic performance of such crops).

10) The Nebraska study was funded by the Nebraska Soybean Board and was initiated after producers began asking yield-related questions about Roundup Ready soybeans in 1997.

For more information on the frequently poor physical and economic performance of GM crops visit:
*  *  *

Research Shows Roundup Ready Soybeans Yield Less
For Release: On Receipt

CLAY CENTER, Neb.—Soybean plants genetically modified to resist a popular non-selective herbicide yield less than conventional soybeans, University of Nebraska research shows.
Two years of NU Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources research showed Roundup Ready soybeans yield 6 percent less than their closest relatives and 11 percent less than high-yielding conventional soybeans. This averages to three fewer bushel per acre, or 480 fewer bushels on a 160-acre field.

NU Agronomist Roger Elmore, who headed this study, said the research was initiated after producers began asking yield-related questions about Roundup Ready soybeans in 1997, about the same time early test results from Nebraska and other state universities were released. The questions and early results hinted Roundup Ready soybeans yielded less than conventional beans.
“Preliminary studies indicated something was going on,” Elmore said.  Soybeans are broadleaf legumes that grow to about 30 inches, leaving them susceptible to weeds such as velvetleaf, waterhemp and shattercane. Weeds can outgrow soybeans, stealing moisture, sunlight and nutrients, and thus lower yields. Weed management can be tricky because most broadleaf herbicides can wipe out soybeans, along with weeds. Roundup Ready soybeans contain a gene that allows them to be treated with Roundup Ultra, the most popular of the glyphosate-based herbicides.

Going into the research, NU scientists knew one of two things was responsible for the Roundup Ready yield penalty: either spraying with Roundup or the gene insertion process. Their studies showed spraying had no effect.  Researchers sprayed 13 Roundup Ready cultivars with three substances: Roundup, ammonium sulfate that enhances herbicide activity and weed control, and water.

Roundup Ready yields were consistently 55 bushels per acre, which indicated Roundup didn’t affect soybean growth, development or yields.  From that, the scientists deduced the gene insertion process was responsible.

Elmore and his colleagues then focused on the effects of the gene insertion process in dryland and irrigated studies at North Platte, Clay Center, Lincoln and Concord. They compared five Roundup Ready cultivars; their closest conventional relatives, called sister lines; and high-yielding ,conventional cultivars. In this study, weeds in all test plots were controlled with conventional
herbicides and by hand; Roundup was not used. This allowed scientists to compare yields
without the variable of Roundup application complicating results, Elmore said.

The high-yielding conventional soybean lines yielded 57.7 bushels per acre, their sister lines yielded 55 bushels per acre and the Roundup Ready soybeans yielded 52 bushels per acre. This research showed that Roundup Ready soybeans’ lower yields stem from the gene insertion process used to create the glyphosate-resistant seed. This scenario is called yield drag. The types of soybeans into which the gene is inserted account for the rest of the yield penalty. This is called yield lag.

Elmore likened yield drag to the effect an air conditioner has on a new pickup. When the pickup’s air conditioner is on, performance is less but it’s not the pickup’s fault. Yield lag, on the other hand, would be analogous to putting high-octane gas into a 1930’s car: the car just doesn’t have
what it takes to perform by today’s standards.

Despite lower yields and more expensive seed, Elmore predicts producers will continue planting Roundup Ready  as well as conventional soybeans. “Farmers are willing to pay some penalty for the better weed control,” Elmore said.

This research helps producers still deciding whether to plant conventional or Roundup Ready soybeans weigh the trade-offs, Elmore said. On one hand, Roundup Ready seed costs more and yields less, but fields can be practically weed-free. On the other, conventional seed yields better and is less expensive, but weed control is more complex and perhaps more time-consuming.
Roundup Ready soybeans have become increasingly popular since their introduction in 1996. That year 7 percent of soybeans planted in the United States were Roundup Ready, compared to 57 percent in 1999.

Elmore said some producers would rather pay more for the seed and accept reduced yields in exchange for a clean, weed-free field on their farms, even though that route is more costly.
“If you can control weeds with conventional herbicide, you’re probably better off than to go with Roundup Ready,” Elmore said. If weed control is a problem, he said planting Roundup Ready soybeans is perhaps the better option.

The Nebraska research provided scientific answers relatively quickly to questions by producers and the Nebraska Soybean Board, which funded the work.

“Two years is awfully fast for this kind of work,” Elmore said. This project  demonstrates the importance of a land-grant university responding to a pressing local need for research-based information.

This research was conducted by IANR’s Agricultural Research Division.

5/16/00-ca     CONTACTS: Roger Elmore, Ph.D., professor, agronomy, (402)762-4433
elmore.16           Cheryl Alberts, IANR news writer, (402)472-3030

If you have questions, please call: IANR News and Publishing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Phone: (402)472-3030/fax: (402)472-3093


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