Do GM Crops Increase Yield?
The Answer Is No
By Devinder Sharma
21 March, 2009
Lies, damn lies, and the Monsanto website. Tell a lie a hundred times, and the chances are that it will eventually appear to be true. When it comes to genetically modified crops, Monsanto makes such an effort – and it could be that you too are duped into accepting their distortions as truth.
My attention has been drawn to an article titled "Do GM crops increase yield?" on Monsanto's web page, although I must confess that this is the first time I have visited their site.
This is how it begins: “Recently, there have been a number of claims from anti-biotechnology activists that genetically-modified (GM) crops don’t increase yields. Some have claimed that GM crops actually have lower yields than non-GM crops. Both claims are simply false.”
It then goes on to explain the terms germplasm, breeding, biotechnology, and then finally explains yield.
Here is what it says: “The introduction of GM traits through biotechnology has led to increased yields independent of breeding. Take for example statistics cited by PG Economics, which annually tallies the benefits of GM crops, taking data from numerous studies around the world:
Mexico - yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybean of 9 percent.
Romania – yield increases with herbicide tolerant soybeans have averaged 31 percent.
Philippines – average yield increase of 15 percent with herbicide tolerant corn.
Philippines – average yield increase of 24 percent with insect resistant corn.
Hawaii – virus resistant papaya has increased yields by an average of 40 percent.
India – insect resistant cotton has led to yield increases on average more than 50 percent.”
These assertions are not amusing, and can no longer be taken lightly. I am not only shocked but also disgusted at the way corporations try to fabricate and distort the scientific facts, and dress them up in such a manner that the so-called 'educated' of today will accept them without asking any questions.
At the outset, Monsanto's claims are simply flawed. I have seen similar conclusions, at least about Bt cotton yields in India, in a study by The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – although I have always said that IFPRI is an organisation that needs to be shut down. It has done more damage to developing country agriculture and food security than any other academic institution.
Nevertheless, let us look at Monsanto's claims.
The increases in crop yields that Monsanto has shown in Mexico, Romania, the Philippines, Hawaii and India are actually not yield increases at all. In scientific terms these are called crop losses, which have been very cleverly masqueraded as yield increases. By indulging in a jugglery of scientific terminologies that take advantage of the layman’s ignorance, Monsanto has made claims based on evidence that does not exist.
As written in Monsanto's article: “The most common traits in GM crops are herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (IR). HT plants contain genetic material from common soil bacteria. IR crops contain genetic material from a bacterium that attacks certain insects.”
This is true. Herbicide tolerant plants and insect resistant plants do perform broadly the same function as chemical pesticides. Both the GM plants and the chemical pesticides reduce crop losses. In fact, GM plants work more or less like a bio-pesticide - the insect feeds on the plant carrying the toxin, and dies. Spraying the chemical pesticide also does the same.
In the case of herbicide tolerant plants, the outcome is much worse. Biotech companies have successfully dove-tailed the trait for herbicide tolerance in the plant. As a result, those who buy the GM seeds have no other option but to also buy the companies own brand of herbicide. Killing two birds with one stone, you might say.
GM companies have only used the transgenic technology to remove competition from the herbicide market. Instead of allowing the farmer to choose from different brands of herbicides available in the market, they have now ensured that you are only left with a Hobson’s choice. As several studies have conclusively shown in the US, the use of herbicide does not go down over time, but rather increases.
Here is the question that must now be asked: if the chemical herbicide used by Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant soybeans (so-called 'Roundup Ready') truly increases yields, then why don’t all the other herbicides available in the market also increase yields?
Surely, if all herbicides do the same job of killing herbs, then all herbicides should increase crop yields. Am I not correct? So why are we led to believe that only Roundup Ready soybeans (a GM crop) increase yields, whereas others do not?
When was the last time you were told that herbicides increase crop yields? Chemical herbicides are only known to merely reduce crop losses. This is what I was taught when studying plant breeding – a fact that is still being taught to agricultural science students everywhere in the world.
A similar story holds true for cotton. We all know that cotton consumes about 50 percent of total pesticides sprayed, and these chemical pesticides are known to reduce crop losses. I am sure that Monsanto would also agree without question that pesticides do not increase crop yields, and I repeat DO NOT increase cotton yields.
Monsanto's Bt cotton, which uses a gene from a soil bacteria to produce a toxin within the plant that kills certain pests, also does the same. It only kills the insect, which means it does the same job that a chemical pesticide is supposed to perform. The crop losses that a farmer minimises after applying chemical pesticide is never (and has never) been measured in terms of yield increases. It has always been computed as savings from crop losses.
If GM crops increase yields, shouldn't we therefore say that chemical pesticides (including herbicides) also increase yields? Will the agricultural scientific community accept that pesticides increases crop yields?
This brings me to another relevant question: Why don't agricultural scientists say that chemical pesticides increase crop yields?
While you ponder over this question (and there are no prizes for getting it right), let me tell you that the last time the world witnessed increases in crop yields was when the high-yielding crop varieties were evolved. That was the time when scientists were able to break through the genetic yield barrier. The double-gene and triple-gene dwarf wheat (a trait that was subsequently inducted in rice) brought in quantum jumps in yield potential. That was way back in the late 1960s. Since then, there has been no further genetic breakthrough in crop yields. Let there be no mistake about it.
Monsanto is therefore making faulty claims. None of its GM crop varieties increases yields. At best, they only reduce crop losses. If Monsanto does not know the difference between crop losses and crop yields, it needs to take some elementary lessons again in plant breeding.
But please, Monsanto, don't try and fool the world by distorting scientific facts.
For the record, let me also state that when Bt cotton was being introduced in India in 2001 (its entry was delayed by another year when I challenged the scientific claims made by Mahyco-Monsanto), the Indian Council for Agricultural Research had also objected to the company's claim of increasing yield. It is however another matter that ICAR's objections were simply brushed aside by the Department of Biotechnology, and we all know why.
Interestingly, ISAAA and several consultancy firms (and how can we believe them anyway after their role in the economic collapse now facing the world) have been claiming that cotton yields in India increased after Bt cotton was introduced. Such claims are made about other crops too. I have seen this happening again and again over the past two decades; whenever the crop yields increase, the scientists and agribusinesses take the credit. But when the crop yields go down, the blame invariably shifts to weather conditions.
Which may make you wonder why agricultural scientists and companies never thank the weather at times of bumper harvest. As a former Indian Agriculture Minister, Mr Chaturanand Mishra, always used to say, the only real Agriculture Minister is the monsoon.
This year, cotton production estimates in India have been scaled down by 14 per cent. Using the same yardstick, does it not mean that the productivity of Bt cotton is also falling? But of course the blame cannot lie with Bt cotton. You guessed right – it must be the fault of inclement weather.
Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. He is a regular contributor to STWR and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org