NYT Misses the Point on Yields, Pesticides and What Farmers Need

NYT Misses the Point on Yields, Pesticides and What Farmers Need

Industry experts, academics, farmers and growers have plenty to say about an October 30 article in The New York Times.

Authored by Danny Hakim, NYT investigative reporter out of the London bureau, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, is critical of biotechnology and claims that it “has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

Politico’s Morning Ag did a nice job of summing up much of the response:

“Crops haven’t been modified to increase yield.” Andrew Kniss, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming’s Department of Plant Sciences, writes on his blog:  “Given that no yield-specific traits have been inserted into crops, it’s unfair to use that measure to gauge success of the technology.”

And…

As for Hakim’s claims that pesticide use has increased, “that’s because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre,” Kevin Folta, chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, writes on his blog. “Using his words and logic, it is like saying cell phone case sales have ‘skyrocketed’ since 1996.”

The fact is the benefits of biotech crops is well documented – both in terms of decreasing yield losses due to plant disease, weeds and insect pests, and in terms of benefits to the environment due to reduced pesticide use.

To make his points, Hakim points to “an analysis by the NYT using United Nations data,” which showed that “the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields – food per acre – when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany.”

We can rebut each of Hakim’s claims using equally–if-not-more-credible studies, but comparing data points to data points often causes a layperson’s eyes to glaze over.  But since we’re already on the subject:

Graham Brookes, one of the best economists in the world, has been crunching these types of numbers for decades.  He explains the pesticide issue in a post on the Genetic Literacy Project:

200556664-001“Any discussion about pesticide use in agriculture should provide readers with context. This article provides no such relevant context.

“Firstly, the amount of pesticide used is a poor measure of environmental impact of pesticide use because it is the toxicity of a pesticide that impacts on the environment (and on the health of humans, animals, exposed to them, etc).

“Secondly, any examination of pesticide use changes with GM crop technology should also explore the ‘alternative’ – what has happened or would reasonably be expected to have happened if this technology had not been used.

“The Hakim article fails on both counts and therefore misleads. The consistent evidence identified in GM crop studies shows that:

  • The volume of insecticide used (per acre) has fallen and the associated impact on the environment has improved with the use of GM IR technology (largely in corn and cotton);
  • Whilst the volume of herbicides used (per acre) with GM HT crops has increased in the last ten years (after falling in the initial years of adoption), so has the volume of herbicides used on non-GM conventional ‘equivalent’ crops;
  • The associated environmental impact of herbicides used with GM HT crops has been and continues to be better than the associated environmental impact of herbicides used with conventional alternative crops.”

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As for discussions around data and yield comparison, Dr. Robert T. Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, provides an alternative viewpoint in his commentary in The Huffington Post.  It’s important to note, however, that Dr. Fraley compares corn yields and environmental impact in France with Ontario, Canada, where the growing environment and corn maturities are similar.

Aside from the arguments around data and statistics, Dr. Fraley hits the nail on the head:

“It’s important to respect everyone’s right to choose what kind of plants they grow and what kinds of food they eat.”

…Which brings us to the issue of farmer choice.

Soybean farmer Richard Wilkins notes in a statement from the American Soybean Association:

“It is important to remember that farmers are practical businesspeople. They look at what will give them the best total return, factoring in yield, seed price, input price and the price of practices like tillage. Farmers are not loyal to GMO technology based on principle, but rather on sound business logic.”

Food and Ag Economist Jayson Lusk does a great job of talking about the farmer perspective on his blog.

Most of the farmers and growers I talk to say they plant GMO, convention and organic crops because they all fill a need in the marketplace. Ultimately, farmers and growers need access to a variety of tools to grow the crops that are best for their own operation.  We need to stop arguing about which production systems are best and let the farmers decide for themselves.

Joan Conrow writes on the KauaiEclectic blog:

“At the end of the day, it’s all about ensuring that farmers – not activists – get to choose what to grow.”

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Online responses to The New York Times article, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops, include:

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