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In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists UCS published a report titled Failure to Yield, available for download at httpwww.ucsusa.orgfoodandagricultureourfailingfoodsystemgeneticengineeringfailuretoyield.html. Are the reports conclusions that GM has largely failed to meet its promise accurate?

Submitted by: rcrosby70


Expert response from Community Manager

Wednesday, 01/10/2014 17:24

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) was correct in pointing out the success of modern plant breeding and the need for multiple crop-production tools. Yet the UCS has taken a very narrow view of the promise of genetically engineered or genetically modified (GM) crops.


American farmers are not only some of the most productive in the world but also among the most efficient users of irrigation water, fertilizer and other inputs, and among the lowest contributors of GHG emissions (Grassini and Cassman, 2013; West et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2014). GM crops are an important part of this success story. We are also striving to make these technologies more available in regions where they are needed the most, like Africa and Asia, and in important food crops. After all, planting improved hybrids, applying the best farming practices and using seeds with GM traits are scalable actions, meaning smallholder farmers can benefit similarly to large, commercial-scale farmers.


In the 2014 growing season, American farmers are on pace to produce all-time record yields of both corn and soybeans, which year in and year out are unmatched anywhere in the world over such a large and diverse geography. And during one of the worst drought years in the past 100 years, 2012, these same farmers were able to deliver crops of corn and soybeans that rivaled good-year yields of the early ’90s (Boyer et al., 2013). Stable yields in tough environmental conditions and record yields in good growing conditions do not happen by accident. Further — and this is something the UCS missed altogether — American farmers are producing these high yields in a more environmentally sustainable manner than ever before (West et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2014). Genetic modification, while only one of the tools available, has played an important role.


Insect control and herbicide-tolerant GM traits, for example, are designed primarily to help farmers protect yield, not enhance yield. As soon as a farmer places a seed in the soil, the genetic package of yield and quality is under attack from both biotic stress (disease, insects, weed competition) and abiotic stress (cold, heat, too much moisture, too little moisture, poor soil fertility).. The underlying genetics, developed through years of breeding, are responsible for enhancing yield, while the GM traits help protect the crop.


Genetic modification and biotechnology have also helped productivity and sustainability in other ways not obvious to the UCS. Plant breeders today understand much better the underlying genetic code of crop plants because of biotechnology and thus enable a more efficient and productive breeding process that contributes to yield gains, especially under tough growing conditions, like drought. Based on the historical record of drought events and the predictions of climate-change modelers, stabilizing or improving yields under drought conditions will become more important, and we’ll need all the tools available, including GM.


Expert response from Janet Carpenter

Owner, J E Carpenter Consulting LLC M.S. Agricultural and Resource Economics

Thursday, 04/09/2014 17:42

The UCS report that you mention draws overarching and mistaken conclusions about the current and potential global impacts of GM crops based on a limited number of studies conducted only in the United States.
It is true that currently commercialized GM crops have had a relatively modest impact on yields in the United States, although the recent introduction of drought-tolerant corn has likely had a more significant impact in areas where rainfall was limited. This modest impact is not surprising, as farmers here, as in other developed countries, have access to many pest-management tools that they were utilizing prior to the introduction of the first wave of GM crops that embodied pest-management traits. The real impacts of currently commercialized GM crops in the United States have been to reduce insecticide use, decrease production costs and reduce tillage.


However, the report fails to acknowledge the considerable impacts that currently commercialized GM crops have had on yields in developing countries, where surveys show farmers achieving average yield increases that range from 16 percent for insect-resistant corn to 30 percent for insect-resistant cotton. (See an analysis of the results of global farmer surveys on the impact of GM crops.) The results of studies conducted in the United States simply do not represent the experience of farmers in developing countries, where limited access to effective conventional pest management tools is more common.
Further, the report projects into the future, questioning the role the GM crops might play in meeting future food production needs for a growing world population. Given that GM crops are already delivering significant benefits, especially in developing countries, it is unreasonable to doubt the future role that GM crops could play. In fact, a recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that GM crop traits such as nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance can play an important role in mitigating the impacts of climate change on world food production while reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts.