Responses to "Failure to Yield" critics
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Responses to Failure to Yield Critics, Part III
This is the final (for now) in my series of responses to critics of the groundbreaking report released by UCS last month, Failure to Yield, which countered biotech industry claims that genetic engineering increases crop yields. Today's post continues our response to concerns voiced by Wayne Parrott, Ronald Bailey and others that Failure to Yield did not discuss the full range of genetically engineered (GE) crops' potential benefits.
Although a broad discussion of benefits was beyond the narrow focus of the report (or this post), it is worth pointing out the much of the evidence in Parrott’s paper linking benefits to GE crops is not convincing.
One such supposed benefit, often touted, is the contribution of herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops to reduced or conservation tillage, which can prevent soil erosion, save fuel, and reduce pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Unfortunately, the data presented by Parrott do not support the conclusion that increases in conservation tillage are a result of the adoption of herbicide tolerant crops. As his chart on “Corn Soil Loss per Acre and Yield Per Acre” (page 3) reveals, almost all of the improvements in reducing soil loss occurred before GE corn was introduced in 1996. A similar trend, by the way, occurs in soybeans -a comprehensive USDA report from 2002 finds that HT is not a significant cause of increases in reduced tillage.
Finally, Parrott claims that Failure to Yield is incorrect in claiming that a new non-GE variety of soybeans reportedly has significantly increased yield. He writes that the new non-GE soybean variety is really genetically engineered, and that this could have been easily understood by checking a USDA database that lists this soybean variety. But Parrott is apparently confusing the new non-GE soybeans by Pioneer Hybrid mentioned in the report with another soy variety called Roundup Ready 2 Yield (RR2Y) from Monsanto, mentioned elsewhere in the report. RR2Y soybeans exhibit increased yields and do contain transgenes, but contrary to Parrott, the yield increases in RR2Y are due to superior conventional genetics not the GE traits.
Jumping to the conclusion that any yield increases observed in GE crops are due to the GE traits is an all too common mistake. One of the major reasons I wrote Failure to Yield was to distinguish the contribution to yield of GE traits from contribution of conventional breeding, and to make sure the conventional breeding gets the credit it deserves.
Responses to Failure to Yield Critics, Part II
Today's post provides additional responses to criticisms from Dr. Wayne Parrott and Ronald Bailey. In his piece, Dr. Parrott writes, “The premise of the report [Failure to Yield] is that GM crops are a bad means to achieve global agricultural sustainability simply because they have not affected intrinsic yield.”
In our view, increases in intrinsic yield are essential to producing enough food for growing populations. The failure of GE to produce any traits to increase intrinsic yield is an important deficiency in a technology touted as a response to the world food crisis. We understand that GE insect resistance traits crops have provided some increases in operational yield, and discuss those operational yield increases at length in the report. But as the report amply documents, even those benefits are modest.
GE crops are not so much a "bad means" to achieve sustainability as an overrated one.
So why didn't Failure to Yield cover all of the other purported benefits of GE?
Any report, paper, or research project sets limits, and Failure to Yield is no different. The report was narrowly focused on yield of GE food and feed crops in the U.S. and simply did not analyze any other benefits.
We agree that there are other benefits to GE crops. The pesticide reduction benefits associated with Bt cotton in the US, for example, have been well documented. Many of the other benefits cited by Parrott and Bailey, however, like lower nitrogen fertilizer use, increased pest resistance, and stress (e.g. drought) tolerance, are associated only with experimental crops””none have been successfully commercialized. Some of these crops may be successful in the future, but based on the record documented in Failure to Yield of thousands of experimental GE crops that were never brought to market, some degree of skepticism is appropriate.
More Response to Criticism of Failure to Yield
I wrote in my last post about why Failure To Yield didn’t include studies on the performance of genetically engineered crops in the developing world. Here are my responses to two other critiques.
Critique: You should have included GE cotton in your analysis
Failure to Yield was motivated in large part by the “global food crisis” of the past few years. So we wanted to examine the ability of GE to address the challenges for food production given a growing global population, changing consumption patterns, and climate change impacts. For this reason, we decided to look at major GE food or feed crops in the United States, and this means soybeans and corn. We didn’t include canola, an oilseed crop, because the acreage devoted to canola, about a million acres, is only 0.6 percent of the acreage devoted to corn and soybeans in 2008.
Cotton was excluded because it is primarily a fiber crop. Cotton seed meal may also be used as animal feed, and the plant itself as fodder in some places, but these uses are secondary to fiber production. In other words, we did not look at GE cotton because the report is intended to inform the solution of the global food crisis, not a global clothing crisis.
Continue reading "More Response to Criticism of Failure to Yield"
Failure to Yield Turns on Biotech Spin Machines
On April 14, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report, Failure to Yield, which analyses the contribution of genetically engineered traits to increased food and feed crop yields in the United States. The report was motivated by questions raised by the recent food crisis about the ability of the human population to produce enough food, and by ongoing claims that genetic engineering has increased yields and will be vitally important for doing so in coming years.
Since the launch of Failure to Yield, several comments complained that the report does not include studies from the developing world. In essence, they claim that the report misses important parts of the picture.
I think these comments are off the mark. By criticizing what is not in the report, they divert attention from its core finding that a solid body of research shows that despite decades of trying, genetically engineered (GE) traits in the United States contribute only marginally to increased yields, while at the same time, other means of agricultural innovation have shown great success at increasing crop yields.
Nevertheless the comments raise important issues that are worth additional discussion.
Critique #1: Failure to Yield does not include yield data from GE crops in developing countries
This is an important point, because although the report is about the impact of GE on the yield of food and feed crops in the United States, the context of the report is the coming global food crisis, and several recommendations concern agriculture policy toward developing counties.
There are several reasons why we focus on data from the United States, why these data have relevance for other parts of the world, and why data about GE crops in developing countries have some important limitations and therefore may not be as useful as would first appear.
Continue reading "Failure to Yield Turns on Biotech Spin Machines"