ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
23 August 2002


If you read nothing else today, please read this superbly referenced and powerful analysis of the total failure of GM crops as an economic and sustainable agricultural technology.

It draws on a surprising source:

"the latest USDA report reveals for the first time from an official US government source using unequivocal language, that most of the basic economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect."
USDA Report Exposes GM Crop
Economics Myth

"Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."
'The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops'    US Department of Agriculture Report, May 2002

 "In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the US owes more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and agronomic delivery."
'USDA Report Exposes GM Crop Economics Myth'
nlpwessex, August 2002

22 August 2002

The United Kingdom is about to embark on a national debate about whether it should permit the commercial growing of GM crops. The Prime Minister claims to want a scientific discussion. He thinks the introduction of this technology will provide worthwhile economic benefits.

At the same time there is widespread belief within sections of the UK farming community that the availability of GM crops will enable British agriculture to compete in a cost efficient way in international markets - the so-called 'competitiveness' factor. This belief stems largely from the assumption that farmers in America are already enjoying such a competitive advantage (albeit a belief which seems to ignore the most important question as to how much of a market there is for GM produce outside of America).

Reinforcing this perception the UK's leading agricultural journal 'Farmers Weekly' published an article 12 July entitled "Data shows economic success for GM crops" based on a study produced by the US National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP). This report made some strong claims regarding the economic performance of GM crops.

However, agricultural journalists rarely have time to read such reports in detail, and often do not pay much attention to who has funded them - in this case the study was part financed by Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO). BIO's remit since 1993 has included responsibility for "Shaping political and public reaction to the genetically modified foods that were poised to enter supermarkets".

However, in the same month that the NCFAP report was published the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its own extensive analysis of the economic performance of GM crops in America. This revealed a completely different picture. Indeed, the USDA report goes so far as to conclude that "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."

Mark Griffiths, the editor of the nlpwessex GM news service wrote to Farmers Weekly on this subject. A copy of the letter providing a summary of his analysis of the USDA report was printed in the 16 August edition of the journal as reproduced below.

Following the publication of the USDA report it is clear that British
farmers can be confident that the proposed introduction of herbicide-tolerant GM crops in the UK is unlikely to add to the profitability of their farms (although it will almost certainly alienate the general public who are both their customers and the funders of agricultural subsidies). As economics are the principal reason for farmers' interest in GM crops, it is important to recognise in these circumstances that British agriculture has little to lose and much to gain if the country as a whole decides to remain GM-free at the end of the national debate .

Quite apart from the issue of crop marketability (which it does not focus on) the USDA's latest detailed analysis of national farm data reveals that GM crops have not generally delivered economic competitive advantage to US farmers - even though that is what many farmers themselves believe.

This is a situation which has been documented at length by nlpwessex on its web site and which has been disseminated via its email news service over a long period. It has collated and made available extensive material originating from as far back as 1996 when GM crops were first introduced on widespread scale.

However, the latest USDA report reveals for the first time from an official US government source using unequivocal language, that most of the basic economic claims made for GM crops are either false or suspect.

That the myth of such economic 'benefits' should have lasted so long says a great deal about the nature of modern agricultural science and the way it is communicated to farmers by vested interests.

Most of the points in the USDA report highlighting the disappointing agronomic performance of GM crops will be familiar to regular readers of nlpwessex bulletins. However, there is one aspect of the new report which has not received much previous attention, but which is especially interesting.

Based on its analysis of the most widely grown GM crop, soya, the report confirms that "Using herbicide-tolerant seed did not significantly affect no-till adoption". This finding sits in stark contrast to the claims of those who have attempted to promote GM crops on the back of rising economic and environmental interest in no-till crop husbandry.

As the USDA report points out, the no-till acreage in America had already been steadily rising before the introduction of GM crops. That prior trend has since simply continued. In fact to some degree it has subsequently stagnated according to the USDA analysis.

It has never been necessary to grow GM crops in order to carry out no-till agriculture. In fact the countries that have been expanding no-till agriculture at the fastest rate in proportion to their total arable area are in Latin America, where only Argentina grows GM crops on a substantial commercial scale (no-till was introduced on tractor-mechanised and large farms in Paraguay in 1990 and by 1997 51% of its total cultivated area was 'no-tilled'. The relative figures in 2000/1 are for Paraquay 52%, Argentina 32%, Brazil 21%, and the United States 16%.).

In the end the USDA report struggles to explain why there has been such a rapid uptake of GM crops in the US, although it refers to a possible 'convenience' factor. However, a separate study funded by Iowa State University carried out in 1998 reveals that GM crop uptake can be driven as much by how well farmers believe the crops deliver, as it is by factual data on their real performance. In the world of commerce and marketing perception is, of course, everything.

The Iowa study confirmed that over half of farmers planting herbicide-tolerant GM soya did so because they believed that it gave them higher yields compared to conventional varieties. However, when the university analysed the harvest results of the farms concerned they found the opposite was true despite the belief of the farmers to the contrary (it is in fact now recognised that genetic modification has actually reduced the yield potential of GM soya by inadvertently disturbing other aspects of the plant's functioning).

A subsequent study from the University looked in detail at the on-farm financial performance of soya crops in Iowa. It confirmed that after taking into account costs relating to seed, herbicides, fertiliser, all machinery operations, insurance, and a land charge "there is essentially no difference in costs between the tolerant and non-tolerant fields". However, because of their higher yields the non-GM crops made a profit for their growers, whereas the GM varieties did not.

The study suggests advertising pressure as one possible reason for the rise in the use of herbicide-tolerant soya beans despite their disappointing economic performance.

In short the 'success' of the introduction of GM crops in the US owes more to marketing hyperbole than it does to objective science and agronomic delivery. This regrettable development has been apparent for some time. Professor Charles Hagedorn, an Extension specialist working in conjunction with Virginia State University and the US Department of Agriculture, characterised it in September 1998 as "a classic case of what has been described in the [scientific] literature as a situation where commercial development and marketing is way ahead of the science."

It is surely important that the future of world agriculture is developed on the basis of sound science, and not on the basis of those technologies which simply have the biggest PR and marketing budgets or on which the largest number of academic posts are perceived to depend (the potential loss of such posts as a result of public opposition to GM technology is a natural but misplaced fear of the scientific community. Other aspects of modern biotechnology are widely acceptable to the public and are in fact recognised even by industry as having greater long term potential than the incorporation of recombinant DNA into organisms. This area in fact offers a potential 'solution' to the GM debate where the aspirations of both the scientific community and the wider public can be simultaneously satisfied).

If the greatest public good is to be served by any new technology it is essential that the science on which it is based is subject to thorough analysis and scrutiny. In this respect it is worth examining a number of aspects of the NCFAP report prominently featured in Farmers Weekly in July.

A large part of the report is in fact concerned with what it is hoped GM crops might do in the future as opposed to the known performance of currently approved varieties. In addition the NCFAP report indicates that in the process of producing the range of results presented it has changed the methodology used in its earlier studies. It can be expected that there will be some scientists who will seek to challenge a number of the new assumptions deployed (nonetheless the study does acknowledge that some results from others researchers which have previously suggested improved GM yields may be accounted for by higher fertiliser use).

Although the report cites various references, remarkably it ignores what is arguably the most rigorous scientific work ever completed in the discipline. This research carried out by the University of Nebraska has confirmed the poor yield performance of GM herbicide resistant soya, the world's biggest GM crop. In particular it concluded that the low yields appear to have been caused by the genetic modification itself and not by any adverse effect from the new herbicide to which it had been engineered to be resistant:

"Yields were suppressed  with GR [glyphosate resistant] soybean cultivars.... The work  reported here demonstrates that a 5% yield suppression was related to the gene or its insertion process and another 5% suppression was due to cultivar genetic differential. Producers should consider the potential for 5-10% yield differentials between GR and non-GR cultivars as they evaluate the overall profitability of producing soybean."

The NCFAP report's failure to acknowledge this study is all the more astonishing because it is one of the few tightly controlled agronomic trials of a GM herbicide resistant crop - using as near isogenic sister line controls as available - to have been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal (Agronomy Journal 93:408-412 (2001)). Few studies, if any, have been subjected to the same degree of scientific rigour in this field.

There is, however, general agreement amongst scientists that Bt insecticide cotton (a crop not relevant to the UK) has resulted in reduced insecticide applications. How sustainable this proves to be due to concerns over the development of insect resistance to any toxin based approach (whether dealing with chemical sprays or toxins genetically engineered into plants) remains to be seen. Moreover Bt cotton has never eliminated the use of insecticides; and research on Bt varieties in Australia has showed insecticide applications steadily rising over the three years ending 1999.

Even at this stage 'Innovate Australia' (representing Australia's food, fibre and natural resources research and development corporations) states "Economic benefits for growers from the new [Bt cotton] technology have been variable but generally only small when compared to conventional cotton".

Already there are plans to phase out the first generation of Bt cotton varieties in Australia because of problems in this area. The relief offered by the replacement 'twin' toxin Bt varieties due to be introduced may be short lived. According to an article published in Cotton World September 2001 the chief executive of the Australian Cotton Cooperative Research Centre, Dr Garry Fitt, warned that 'two gene' cotton will further alter the balance of insect pests, with possible increases in aphids and green vegetable bug populations.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that this approach will provide a satisfactory long term alternative to insect predator based Intregrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques which the Australians are now developing with some considerable success.

Interestingly the NCFAP report states that "Bt cotton is credited with saving the cotton industry in Alabama." By chance nlpwessex corresponded with an agricultural Extension specialist in Alabama from Auburn University in May 2000. He was a Bt cotton enthusiast. Nlpwessex asked him a number of questions related to cotton husbandry practices in Alabama and the use of IPM techniques.

One question was "How often is cotton grown in the same field?" to which the response was "in north Alabama there are fields that have not been out of cotton production since before the civil war (ours) about 150 years.... and some of those fields are down to nil in the organic matter department". More generally he advised that rotation practice varied from continuous cotton to - at best - cotton every other year and that "Most plant at least half [the farm in cotton]. Some all." This situation is not confined to Alabama. According to Professor Robert Hayes of the University of Tennessee: "Unfortunately, most cotton producers do not practice crop rotation, and if they do it is short rotation".

Nonetheless, the USDA report confirms that the majority of cotton farmers (63%) did not plant Bt varieties in 2001 - presumably because they considered it either unnecessary or uneconomic. Meanwhile an article in New Scientist 17 August 2002 reported on new chemical patents secured by Monsanto which acknowledge that insect control through transgenic plants "may not be desirable in the long term" because it produces resistant strains and "numerous problems remain... under actual field conditions".

And it's not just Bt crops where the basic functionality of the technology is in danger of faltering. University weed science specialists reported at a meeting of a 'No-Till Field Day' earlier this month that glyphosate-resistant 'marestail' is now a problem on around 200,000 acres of soya beans in west Tennessee. The same problem is reported to be affecting 36 percent of all cotton acreage in the state. Monsanto are now recommending changes in weed control practices for next year (the prospect of post adoption changes in GM crop husbandry practices as exemplified here is one which brings into further question the usefulness of the UK's own GM farm scale trials).

Little of this sounds like significant progress towards sustainable agriculture, one simple test of which is to ask the question "can you keep doing it?". The latest situation in Tennessee also represents a very rapid development as the first glyphosate-resistant marestail did not arise until 1999.

A simplistic 'one size fits all' approach to farm management of the kind encouraged by the arrival of GM 'input trait' crops is always going to be at risk of creating agro-ecological problems that ultimately become a husbandry burden. In this case there have been a few years of supposedly trouble free production and then what amounts to technology breakdown.

Glyphosate-tolerant soya volunteers in follow-on 'Roundup Ready' cotton crops are also becoming a problem which is "especially challenging" according to Professor Hayes. To deal with this and other emerging weed control failures in GM cotton crops increasingly the advice is to use glyphosate in conjunction with additional herbicides. The same is happening with other crop categories and with glufosinate-tolerant varieties. A herbicide mixtures patent obtained by Monsanto in 2001 suggests that it expects this problem to become widespread.

These difficulties are not addressed in the NCFAP report despite the Farmers Weekly article describing it as "Considered to be the most comprehensive study to date on the economic and environmental benefits of biotech crops in the US".

Fortunately, beyond cotton and the big animal feed sectors served by soya and maize production, few US producers seem to be buying into the technology. The NCFAP report confirms that Florida sweet corn growers are not planting transgenic cultivars even though these have been commercially registered since 1998. Packers do not wish to jeopardise the market for US sweet corn which is used for direct human consumption.

For similar reasons GM sugar beet and potatoes, although also approved for cultivation, are not being adopted by US farmers either. The NCAP report confirms that processors have not been accepting these crops and that Monsanto closed its potato division in 2001.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report published in 2000 revealed that the world is able to more than adequately feed itself decades into the future without recourse to GM crops. It forecasts large increases in production in the developing world using 'present-day' technical knowledge only.

Given the overall agronomic and market performance of GM crops in practice, the increasing resistance to their introduction in the world's poorer countries - much publicised in recent weeks - seems to be well advised. However, it remains to be seen whether this view will be allowed to prevail at next week's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

If there is to be a genuinely scientific approach to the future sustainability of global agriculture, then this view must not be trampled on.


More details of the US National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy report ('Plant Biotechnology: Current and Potential Impact For Improving Pest Management In US Agriculture'), part funded by Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, can be downloaded from: . This report was publicly launched by press release dated 10 June.

The USDA report ('The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops') is available from:

Although dated May 2002 the USDA report appears not to have been publicly released until 28 June. The NCFAP report does not appear, therefore, to have taken this latest governmental review of data into account in its examination of available research.

Letter Published in 'Farmers Weekly' 16 August 2002 (Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes provided here only, for further reference; title of letter produced by Farmers Weekly.)

GM crop data was not so rosy

The article "Data shows economic success for GM crops" (Arable, July 12) is misleading.

It quotes claims from a US National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy study part funded by Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation.

With the exception of Bt insecticide cotton, often planted where little integrated pest management is used, examination of USDA governmental data released in June gives a different picture.

First, GM crops do not increase yield potential and may reduce yields. [1]

Second, Bt insecticide GM corn has had a negative economic impact on farms. [2]

Third, GM herbicide-tolerant crops have produced no reduction in herbicide active ingredient applied. [3]

Fourth, the reports says: "Change in pesticide use from the adoption of herbicide-tolerant cotton was not significant." [4]

Fifth, for herbicide-tolerant soya, active ingredient of herbicide applied has increased. [5]

Sixth, it states: "The adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans does not have a statistically significant effect on net returns." [6]

It adds: "Using herbicide-tolerant seed did not significantly affect no-till adoption". [7]

The report comments that "the soybean results appear to be inconsistent with the rapid adoption of this technology" and that "An analysis using broader financial performance measures... did not show GE crops to have a significant impact." [8]

It concludes that: "Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative." [9] The report does not refer to unreliable promotional advice fed to farmers.

The Prime Minister claims to seek a scientific debate on GM crops. Unless there is a willingness to look at all the scientific data and to avoid hype from vested interests, we are unlikely to get one.

Mark Griffiths


[1] p21 of USDA report

[2] p30 of USDA report

[3] p28 of USDA report - see graph. Note Farmers Weekly edited out from the letter the word 'overall' from what should have read 'no overall reduction'. The USDA graph in fact shows a very small reduction in herbicide active ingredient applied in the case of herbicide-tolerant corn. However, other analysis of USDA data published in a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry does not indicate any such reduction, but rather a substantial increase. In addition, a report by BBC Newsnight June 2002 has revealed that American farmers are now changing the way they grow herbicide-tolerant corn by tank mixing a wider range of chemicals than originally intended. It is therefore unlikely that the small reduction reported by the USDA in this report will survive in future statistics.

[4] p28 of USDA report - see note to graph.

[5] p27 of USDA report. Note that the report says "The estimated active ingredients applied to corn, soybean, and cotton fields also declined by about 2.5 million pounds...". However, all but a small fraction of this is accounted for by Bt cotton. The only positive contribution from a herbicide-tolerant crop is in the case of corn (and even this is questionable; see note [3] ).

[6] p23 of USDA report

[7] p29 of USDA report. This relates to soya beans, the largest GM crop. Data is not provided for other crop types.

[8] p23 of USDA report

[9] p24 of USDA report

       More GM agronomic information available from nlpwessex at:

"The Emperor's Transgenic Clothes"
Why millions of acres of poor performing GM crops are being grown in the US - 1998 Article

  "Are GMOs essential for effective sustainable agriculture in a hungry world?"
Dismantling the myth of genetics as the principal constraint on responsible global agricultural production - 2000 Article

"Flaws in GM crop trials"
 'Welsh Farmer' - Official Journal of The Farmers Union of Wales - Issue 188 - 2002 Article

FAO report reveals GM not needed to feed the world - July 2000
Letter to Director General of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation  - June 2001

Fundamental scientific conceptual errors in the development of  recombinant DNA technology

'GMOs: Radical Risks, Bogus Benefits, Corporate Control and Ample Alternatives'
                 click here for web information archive

European Commission lacks confidence in own GM safety tests - More Details

 GMOs - Does the British Prime Minister Know What He is Talking About?

         Blair Increasingly Isolated As BBC Blows The GM Whistle

                  Solution to the GM debate? - Feb 2000

            Breakthrough for Sustainable Biology - April 2001

         Solar Energy, Agriculture and World Peace - click here
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