ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

GM crops aren't working

An editorial in the Independent on Sunday (London) May 23 1999 - a paper
which is running a campaign against the introduction of GM food crops
into  the UK - concedes that GM systems for soya are a plus for American
farmers. they are it says "boosting yields enormously." A pro-GM
editorial in The Times not so long ago made reference to the fact that
soya yields are up by 5% in the US thanks to GM crops.

The 'fact' that GM crops are good news in terms of food production (in
quantative terms at least) is constantly repeated in the media and
elsewhere. It appears an entirely sensible assumption given the apparent
enthusiasm of so many farmers for growing them. The reality, as
independent research increasingly demonstrates, is very different (eg

Recently we posted an important article ( ‘The Emperor’s Transgenic New
Clothes’) by UK land agent Mark Grifiths which
detailed the agronomic problems, particularly as regards yield, with
transgenic crops and explained how these problems  are being
successfully hidden in the US. As the article was quite long, we thought
we would provide a simple summary which also draws on  additional
evidence (available on the Farming News page of the ngin website). Any
inaccuracies are, of course, entirely are own (see Mark's original
article on the ngin website: .

Agronomic problems with transgenic crops: a summary

* Millions of acres of transgenic crops are already being planted, with
US farmers in the vanguard.  The independent evidence currently
available, however, does not seem to support the much advertised claim
that transgenic varieties are improving crop performance or boosting
farmers' incomes.

* Some notable agronomic failures have occurred, perhaps most
spectacularly the crop failure of thousands of acres of genetically
modified (GM) cotton in Mississippi in 1997.

* Management problems have included the US Environmental Protection
Agency's insistence that crops modified with the insect-resistant Bt
toxin be planted only on part of a farmer’s corn or cotton acreage
because of concern about a build up of pest resistance.

* Other agronomic failures have been more subtle and US famers appear
largely unaware of their prevalence.

* This is probably because transgenic varieties are bypassing
traditional independent testing procedures, making it difficult for
farmers to obtain unbiased advice and information on their performance
relative to unmodified varieties,  leaving the biotechnology companies
free to proclaim thieir virtues.

* Traditionally when companies in the US introduce a new variety,
Extension crop specialists (university scientists who advise farmers)
field test the new variety for at least 3 to 5 years.

* With GM crops, the companies are going directly to the farmers with
contracts, and the Extension crop specialist is being excluded.

* This means the vast majority of GM performance data is held by the
biotechnology companies. When data is released it is usually in the form
of summaries where unreleased raw data has been analysed and interpreted
by the companies themselves and not by independent agronomists.

* Where independent scientists undertake such work and the results are
published, it is not always made clear whether particular crops are
transgenic or otherwise, as the agronomists are not always provided with
this information by the companies.

* However, research publicised in 1998 by the University of Arkansas and
Cyanamid appeared to show reduced profit levels and lower yields for GM
soya and cotton compared with unmodified varieties. According to
Cyanamid, trials on nearly 300 test sites across the US showed that high
performing non-modified varieties produced yields up to 20% more than
transgenic soya in 1997. 

* Cyanamid is a commercially interested party, but it is possible to
track down some independent data on comparative yields and this appears
broadly supportive of the Cyanamid findings.

* The University of Purdue (1997) found  trangenic soya varieties
yielded on average between 12% and 20% less than unmodified varieties
grown at the same locations.

* In listings published by the University of Arkansas (based on the 1998
harvest), the  top performing Soya varieties in terms of yield were
almost invariably non-modified varieties. 

* A University of Wisconsin study (1999) of soya yields at 21 trial
locations across 9  Northern US states, found lower yields from GM soya
compared with non-GM varieties in the 1998 harvest at all but 4 of the
trial locations (see attached chart). Details of this research can be
viewed via

* Independent trials with GM crops in the UK show the same pattern.
Trials run by  UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in
1997 and 1998 showed yields from GM winter oilseed rape and sugar beet
were between 5-8% less than high yielding conventional varieties.
(reported Farmers Weekly (UK), 4th December 1998)

* Not surprisingly a number of US agronomists are quietly advising
farmers that if they are considering changing from traditional varieties
for economic reasons they need to approach the question of the
performance of transgenic varieties with great care.

* This loss of yield with GM crops needs to be seen in the context of
the increased costs that the technology imposes. For example, with
Roundup Ready soya farmers have to pay the extra "technology charge" to
use the GM crop in the first place and
on top of this, as Charles Benbrook has pointed out, farmers are finding
they need to apply 2-3 applications (not just one as Monsanto
advertises) of Roundup - expensive! Benbrook says 2 or 3 other
herbicides may also need to be applied. All of whichmakes "for the most
expensive soybean seed-plus-weed management system in modern history"
[Synthesis/Regeneration 19, Spring 1999  p. 15].

* However, biotechnology companies are in a position to obscure the
agronomic realities. As they continue to puchase traditional seed
houses, they are increasingly in a position to phase out existing
non-modified varieties, irrespective of their merits, or slow their

* Biotechnology giant Novartis has already threatened to withdraw the
supply of non-GM sugar beet seed to the Republic of Ireland in the face
of resistance to the development of GM varieties, warning that: "Given
the  importance of Novartis on the Irish market, this would have serious
implications for the Irish sugar beet industry." For more on this see

* The fundamental question is: given the extent of uncertainties about
the marketability, environmental safety and human health risks of GM
crops, are the risks involved worth taking for what appear to be
marginal or non-existent benefits?

* Additionally,  in the light of the actual evidence, what are we to
make of the biotech industry's claims that the rapid introduction of
this technology is a necessity in order to 'feed the world'?

For more information see the Farming News page on the ngin website:

For detailed information and great links on the poor agronomic
performance of GM crops visit: