By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Take your pick:
The widening adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers around the world is reducing global pesticide use, increasing agricultural yields and bringing unprecedented prosperity and food security to millions of the world's poorest citizens.
Or, it is fueling greater use of pesticides, putting crop yields at risk, driving small farmers out of business and decreasing global food security by giving a single company control over much of the world's seed supply.
Dueling reports released yesterday -- one by a consortium largely funded by the biotech industry and the other by a pair of environmental and consumer groups -- came to those diametrically different conclusions.
The assessments highlight the controversy that still envelops agricultural biotechnology 12 years after the first gene-altered crops debuted commercially.
Both sides agree that genetically modified crops are gaining ground. More than 280 million acres of them were planted in 23 countries last year, a 12 percent growth in acreage and an increase of two countries compared with 2006.
Most are endowed with a bacterial gene that protects plants against a leading weed killer, Monsanto's Roundup, allowing farmers to spray that herbicide without worrying that it will kill their crops along with the weeds. Most of the others have a gene that helps plants make their own insecticide, and a growing percentage have more than one engineered trait.
But the implications of those statistics are open to interpretation.
To the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which gets its funding from foundations and the biotech industry, the numbers represent a virtual tidal wave of acceptance.
"Once farmers have got used to this technology, they recognize the significant benefits," said Clive James, chairman of ISAAA's board of directors and author of the new "Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2007." In a teleconference call, James said more than 90 percent of farmers in China and India who planted engineered varieties in 2006 did so again last year -- evidence, he said, of their enthusiasm.
"Already those farmers who began adopting biotech crops a few years ago are beginning to see socioeconomic advantages compared to their peers," including better access to health care and higher school enrollment for their children, James said. Biotech crops will be essential, he added, if the world is to achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty and hunger in half by 2015.
Not so fast, said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a District-based consumer organization that, with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, produced its own report, "Who Benefits from GM Crops?: The Rise in Pesticide Use."
Countries worldwide are largely shunning biotech crops, Freese said in an interview, with virtually all the increased acreage in a handful countries such as Argentina and Brazil that are growing "Roundup-ready" soybeans on huge corporate farms -- not for poor people but for export to rich countries and as animal feed.
Meanwhile, Freese said, studies such as a recent one in the journal Nature Biotechnology have found that insecticide-exuding Bt cotton is increasingly failing to control insects, so farmers "end up having to buy pesticides anyway, after paying roughly threefold more for the bt cotton seeds."
Each camp accused the other of using data selectively.
James said that farmers reaped $7 billion in benefits from biotech crops in 2006. He said that because of those crops, 289,000 fewer metric tons of the active ingredient in pesticides were applied to fields between 1996 and 2006, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in negative environmental effects. Huge amounts of fuel were saved by not having to spray those pesticides, shrinking carbon dioxide emissions by 2.6 billion pounds in 2006, equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road, he said.
The Friends of the Earth report says that the growing use of Roundup-resistant crops has brought a 15 percent increase in the use of that herbicide on soybeans, cotton and corn from 1994 to 2005, with a 28 percent jump in 2006 alone.
Meanwhile, the resistance gene has spread to several weed species, making them immune to the herbicide. And some biotech genes have contaminated conventional crops, forcing major recalls and losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Freese and others noted.
"Significantly, biotechnology companies have not commercially introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought tolerance or salt tolerance," the report finds.
Hope Shand of the ETC Group, a civil society organization based in Montreal, said that as the number of biotech acres has swelled, the seed industry has shrunk.
"In 2006, Monsanto's biotech seeds and traits accounted for 88 percent of the total world area devoted to genetically modified crops," she said. "This is a staggering level of corporate control over the world's seed supply."