SUSTAINABILITY AND AG BIOTECH
- How will genetically modified seeds, crops and foods
affect the sustainability of U.S. agriculture? During 1999, agricultural
economist Charles Benbrook tried to answer that question. Benbrook has
a long history of analyzing all aspects of agriculture as an employee of
the executive branch, the Congress, and the National Academy of Sciences,
and more recently in the private sector. Benbrook defines "sustainable
agriculture" as a food system that:
- ** Provides a reasonable rate of return to farmers, to
sustain farm families, agricultural infrastructure, and rural communities;
- ** Assures a reasonable rate of return to public and
private providers of farm inputs (seeds, fertilizers, etc.), information,
services, and technologies;
- ** Preserves and regenerates soil, water, and biological
resources upon which farming depends, and avoids adverse impacts on the
- ** Increases productivity and per-acre yields at least
in step with the growth in demand;
- ** Adheres to social norms and expectations in terms
of fairness, equity, compliance with regulations, food safety, and ethical
treatment of workers, animals, and other creatures sharing agricultural
- First we should acknowledge that, by these criteria,
U.S. agriculture is not sustainable now and hasn't been for many decades.
Loss of profitability is almost always the immediate cause of unsustainability
in farming, Benbrook says. "All too often in the U.S. in recent decades,
the only thing that really changes is that energetic and ambitious managers
willing to accept lower returns per bushel find the capital to expand,
maintaining their income only by expanding their acreage base," Benbrook
says. Of course when one farm expands its acreage, often another farm family
has to move off the land. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of the Census stopped
counting "farm residents" in 1993 because there were so few of
them left; their numbers had dwindled to fewer than 2% of total U.S. population
(4.6 million people). (In contrast, in 1900, farm residents made up
35% of total population.)
- Benbrook believes that genetically modified seeds, crops
and foods will amplify recent trends and will have the following effects
- ** Increasingly serious economic surprises and setbacks
for farmers because many emerging biotechnologies are more expensive to
bring to market, for several reasons:
- (a) Biotechnology results from mergers of seed companies
and pesticide companies. For example, as a result of a series of acquisitions
and mergers, DuPont and Monsanto together now own 73% of corn seed producers
in the U.S. Seed companies have traditionally had a relatively low profit
margin (around 12% to 15%), whereas pesticide producers have had a higher
profit margin (20% to 30%). As pesticide companies try to raise the profit
margins of their newly-acquired seed companies up toward the levels expected
of pesticide companies, the cost of seed and chemicals will probably continue
to rise for farmers. This has, in fact, been happening, Benbrook shows.
In the midwestern farm belt, corn and soybeans are the major crops. Since
1975, for soybean farmers, the share of the farmer's gross income per acre
devoted to seed plus chemicals has risen more than 50%, from 10.8% to 16.3%.
For corn farmers, the increase has been even larger (from 9.5% of gross
income to 16.9%, 1975-1997).
- (b) Genetically modified crops are requiring more herbicides
than farmers were initially led to believe they would, thus driving up
weed management costs. Take Roundup Ready crops. These are crops genetically
modified to withstand dousing with Monsanto's premier weed killer, Roundup.
The idea was that farmers would give their crop one good dousing with Roundup
and that would solve their weed problems. Monsanto placed print ads telling
farmers Roundup was "the only weed control you'll ever need."
You can see one of these 1998 ads on the Iowa State University Herbicide
Ad "Hall of Shame" web site. Roundup Ready crops offered farmers
a modest reduction in costs per bushel if everything worked as advertised.
However, the reality is different from what Monsanto promised in its ads.
Farmers using Roundup Ready crops find they have to use two or three applications
of two or more herbicides to control weeds. Some farmers are finding they
must use as many as four different herbicides after planting a seed that
supposedly makes weed management easier. This disappointing trend is putting
more of farmers' income into the pockets of the seed and chemical giants.
As Charles Benbrook points out, the full Roundup Ready system is now costing
farmers "an amazing $68.77 per acre in 1999, about 50% more than the
cost of [other] seed plus weed management systems in the Midwest in recent
years." This trend promises to deliver "significantly lower average
returns to growers," Benbrook predicts.
- (c) Some weeds are developing resistance to Roundup --
notably hemp weed or pig weed -- so Roundup is becoming less effective,
requiring additional measures for weed control, raising costs for those
relying on Roundup Ready crops.
- (d) There is evidence that low-dosage herbicides can
disrupt beneficial soil microorganisms and perhaps interfere with plant
uptake of phosphorus, an essential nutrient. Benbrook believes this can
have an important negative impact on plant health and farm profitability.
- (e) There is evidence of a "yield drag" associated
with some Roundup Ready crops, meaning that per-acre yields are not consistently
as high as it was once thought they would be. A yield drag quickly translates
into a profitability drag.
- There are additional reasons why genetically modified
crops are likely to produce economic surprises and setbacks for farmers:
- (f) The costs of creating and protecting intellectual
property are already high and they are bound to rise, Benbrook believes;
- (g) The regulation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
seems likely to increase, and so will regulatory costs;
- (h) Biotechnology is being promoted and used in a way
that tends to reduce diversity on the farm -- precisely the wrong direction
for farms to be going, in Benbrook's view. Successful pest management requires
a diversified system that spreads the burden across differing mixes of
chemical, biological, genetic, and cultural (farming technique) tools and
tactics. Reliance on a single approach to pest management will fail because
pests will successfully evolve and thrive in response to single approaches,
- (i) Trouble has appeared in another line of genetically
modified crops -- those containing the pesticidal Bt gene. Bt is a bacterium
that is toxic to a large class of common insect pests called lepidopterans.
Lepidopterans are butterflies and moths; during the caterpillar stage of
their life-cycle, lepidopterans eat leaves and can cause great damage to
leafy crops. Because of the damage they inflict, lepidopterans provoke
some of the greatest use of pesticides world-wide.
- Bt is a naturally-occurring killer of lepidopterans.
As such, it is a priceless gift from nature to row-crop farmers who need
to control outbreaks of lepidopterans. Charles Benbrook makes this comparison:
Bt is to the control of lepidopterans what antibiotics are to the control
of human diseases. If Bt loses its effectiveness, it will have major consequences
for vegetable farmers across the U.S., many of whom use Bt (in one form
or another) as a foliar spray.
- By inserting a gene from the Bt bacterium into plants,
Monsanto and others have created crops that are themselves pesticidal to
lepidopterans. For example, Monsanto's "New Leaf" potato, which
is now sold in U.S. grocery stores, is itself a registered pesticide because
every cell in every potato contains the Bt gene. (Notably, it is one
of the few registered pesticides that is not labeled as such.)
- From the beginning, Monsanto and others have acknowledged
that their Bt-containing crops might conceivably induce Bt resistance among
lepidopterans, but they have insisted that the likelihood is "remote."
Resistance is a well-understood phenomenon. When a group of insects is
sprayed with a poison, those that are least affected survive and reproduce.
Soon the only remaining insects are unaffected by that poison -- they have
developed resistance to it.
- When Monsanto approach EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency] for permission to market Bt-containing plants, they came armed
with numerous studies showing that resistance to Bt might take 30 years
to develop, if indeed it developed at all. Because genetically-engineered
Bt-containing crops had been developed in almost total secrecy, when EPA
asked for public comment on Monsanto's proposal, the nation's agricultural
experts had little to say. EPA assumed their silence meant all was well.
- Traditionally, farmers get reliable information from
the land grant colleges that Congress created in 1862. However, beginning
with the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, Congress has systematically reduced
the role of the public sector in U.S. agriculture. Now development of genetically
engineered crops is largely in private hands and the new technology is
cloaked in secrecy. The veil of secrecy "raises an important public
policy issue," says Benbrook. "When scientists are unwilling
to share data, are constrained in what they can report, and/or have no
opportunity to study new technology, public institutions and regulators
have to fly blind for a period of time." So, flying blind and basing
its decision on Monsanto's science, EPA approved crops with the Bt gene
inserted into them.
- Now it turns out that Monsanto's science was woefully
weak and incomplete. New studies show that resistance to Bt is not nearly
as rare in lepidopterans as Monsanto claimed it was, so resistance can
be expected to develop much more rapidly than Monsanto initially projected.
Furthermore, it is now clear that Bt-corn can adversely impact populations
of key beneficial insects. Lacewing larvae, which eat lepidopteran larvae,
are killed by Bt, thus removing a natural control on lepidopterans. It
now seems clear that farmers who become reliant upon genetically modified
crops containing the Bt gene can expect unpleasant surprises in the short
term and loss of the effectiveness of Bt in the medium term. It will
be a grave loss indeed. In sum, genetically modified crops seem poised
to reduce diversity on farms, reduce farm profits, and make U.S. farms
even less sustainable than they already are. For the U.S. food system,
this hardly seems like progress.
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