Truth Please's picture
Regarding sustainability, I was hoping you could address the findings in the research study conducted by Canterbury University Professor Jack Heinemann, based on an analysis of data on agricultural productivity in north America and Western Europe over the last 50 years. The results have been published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. The following is a quote that summarizes the findings. More can be read at the link following: “We found that the combination of non-GM seed and management practices used by western Europe is increasing corn yields faster than the use of the GM-led packages chosen by the US. “Our research showed rapeseed (canola) yields increasing faster in Europe without GM than in the GM-led package chosen by Canada and decreasing chemical herbicide and even larger declines in insecticide use without sacrificing yield gains, while chemical herbicide use in the US has increased with GM seed. “Europe has learned to grow more food per hectare and use fewer chemicals in the process. The American choices in biotechnology are causing it to fall behind Europe in productivity and sustainability.” And: “Agriculture responds to commercial and legislative incentive systems. These take the form of subsidies, intellectual property rights instruments, tax incentives, trade promotions and regulation. The incentive systems in North America are leading to a reliance on GM seeds and management practices that are inferior to those being adopted under the incentive systems in Europe. “The decrease in annual variation in yield suggests that Europe has a superior combination of seed and crop management technology and is better suited to withstand weather variations. This is important because annual variations cause price speculations that can drive hundreds of millions of people into food poverty.”

A:Expert Answer

I would encourage a critical read of the paper that you reference, as the conclusions are not based on any careful analysis of the similarities and differences between North American and European production systems.  As I indicated in a response to an earlier question about the Heinemann paper, I believe the authors’ “conclusions” are better characterized as assertions.  First of all, it is important to recognize the multitude of factors that influence yields and pesticide use, such as climate, soils, farming practices, government subsidies and subspecies of the crop grown (which is different in Canada and Europe for oilseed rape).  A more detailed analysis would explore the influence of all of these factors before attributing observed differences to any single factor, such as the adoption of GM crops.  Instead, the Heinemann study compares overall trends in yields and pesticide use and uses these differences to draw conclusions about the impact of GM crops.


For pesticide use in particular, the analysis is extremely weak.  The data that are used in the analysis are from FAO, which reports annual estimates of total pesticide use by country for all crops.  Because the FAO data only present an aggregated estimate of pesticide use for all crops produced in a country, it would be extremely difficult to draw any conclusions based on these data alone.  Further, despite the assertion by the authors that pesticide use reductions were observed in Switzerland and Germany (with no data shown in the paper), current FAO data show overall pesticide use increasing in both countries between 1995 and 2010.  Perhaps most importantly though, simply comparing trends in the aggregate amount of pesticides used is problematic, as pesticides are applied at vastly different rates and are inherently different in their potential environmental and human health impacts.


The other important point that the Heinemann paper ignores is about the current and potential impact of GM crops in developing countries, where observed yield increases for adopters of GM crops are much greater than in developed countries, and pipeline technologies offer solutions to some critical production and nutritional constraints.

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Community Manager's picture

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Joseph Najjar's picture

I'm sure the experts will have better information than I found, but looking at the study, I was wondering why he chose the time frames he did. Here is an interesting link I found, shortly after.

"Heinemann and colleagues have chosen to drawn conclusions of no beneficial yield impact of GM technology in North America by using a comparison period starting in 1986 which is ten years away from the actual start date. In their paper, they give no clear justification for using this start year, and ignore the relevant start point for GM introduction that occurred a decade into their 1986-2011 comparison period.
On the other hand, if they had used the right comparison time period, they might have picked up this interesting observation noted by Chris Preston"

You'll need to go to the link to see the figures that pertain to the years that GM crops were actually commercialized. This is just a great example of how data can say whatever you want it to say. Dilute the modern yield gains down with yields before the technology was released??? pretty sneaky.....

Truth Please's picture

First of all, thank you for your response.

Secondly, if the findings from the study I linked are misleading that certainly is sad, as I never like to see researchers stooping to the level of the industry which they are trying to discredit.

Your answer also does not make me feel any better about GM crops. You did not address that pesticide use has increased in North American GM crops, which I might add seems quite convenient (conflict of interest?) for a certain company that happens to produce both GM seeds and pesticides. That is quite a business plan. Has the use of pesticides NOT increased in GM crops?

Furthermore, I am not opposed to researching the potential impact of GM crops in developing countries, but I am of the opinion that everybody has the right to know that what they are consuming has been genetically modified. There is no 'proof' that GMO's will not cause long-term health problems. The ONLY way to know is to wait 10/20/30 years. I'm not willing to take that chance for myself or my family, especially since GMO's are not necessary and can be avoided by buying only organic items. I take exception to those who consider a GM crop to be "Natural". Altering the genetic makeup of anything is NOT natural.

I would bet my life savings that someone who eats only locally grown/raised organic foods is healthier than someone who eats foods containing GMO's. Even if it is not local, it is still possible to buy only organic foods. It makes me feel much better to support organic farmers too.

Community Manager's picture

@Truth Please, you might be interested in a few other Q&As on GMO Answers regarding your comment. According to Dr. Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus of food safety and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “GM crops have been planted on more than 2 billion hectares by more than 17 million farmers over 17 years in about 30 countries with no adverse ecological impacts observed. Fair-to-say, that’s a pretty robust long-term study!” (You can read the full response here: You can also find a list of several, but not all, organizations that support GMOs, including the National Academy of Sciences and World Health Organization here: Consumers have a variety of food choices in the marketplace, and many food producers voluntarily label foods containing non-GM ingredients. According to Greg Conko, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Some consumers wish to avoid foods with genetically engineered ingredients, so food producers have increasingly responded to this market demand by labeling food products that do not contain them. There are many thousands of voluntarily labeled, non-GE foods available in grocery stores throughout the country, in stores as varied as Whole Foods Markets and Wal-Mart. From just 2000 to 2009, nearly 7,000 new food and beverage products were introduced in the United States with explicit non-GE labeling. And those numbers continue to grow.” (His full response, which also discusses FDA labeling guidelines, is available here: Please feel free to ask a question at We welcome your discussion and participation throughout the site!

Janet Carpenter's picture

The answer to your question about the impact of GM crops on pesticide use depends on which trait you are talking about. For insect resistant crops, such as corn and cotton, it is widely accepted that insecticide use has decreased as a direct result of the adoption of GM crops. This makes sense because the insect resistance traits control pests that farmers had been using conventional insecticides to control previously. What might be surprising is that insecticide use is reduced for farmers who plant insect resistant GM crops as well as those who don't, because the widespread planting of insect resistant corn and cotton have led to decreased target insect pest populations overall. For herbicide resistant crops, such as soybeans, corn and cotton, the impact has been that farmers substituted glyphosate (primarily) for other herbicides. Because glyphosate has a more benign environmental profile than other commonly used herbicides, the impact on the environment has been favorable. All that said, in recent years, several weed species have developed resistance to glyphosate and many growers have begun to use additional herbicides in their weed control programs. Overall, the mix of herbicides used today is still preferable environmentally to what was being used before herbicide resistant crops were introduced, and what they might be doing today if herbicide resistant crops were never introduced, as growers face weeds with resistance to other commonly used herbicides, a problem which certainly would have become worse without the introduction of herbicide resistant crops. (For more information, see this recent report from USDA: Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States: