Agriculture is complicated. Farmers have to make hundreds of decisions every day about what to do on their farms based on a constantly changing set of variables like weather and pests. The decisions they make determine whether or not they grow a successful crop, which in turn ends up at the grocery store for consumers to enjoy. While I know it can be tempting to simplify agriculture so that it fits conveniently into a news article, it does a major disservice to both the agriculture community and consumers who are trying to understand how their food is produced.
A recent article in the New York Times calls into question the value of some types of genetically modified crops based on their impact on crop yields and pesticide use. But this is a very simplistic evaluation of whether or not these crops have been a success.
One of the most obvious measures of success for the crops in question, which was overlooked in the article, is that when farmers were given the opportunity to use crops tolerant to herbicides or resistant to insect pests, it resulted in their widespread adoption. In fact, these modified crops represent the most rapidly adopted agricultural technologies in history. Here in Canada more than 90 per cent of corn, soybeans and canola planted with varieties that are herbicide-tolerant and/or resistant to insects. Why? Because farmers have seen the benefits and make the choice to plant these crops because they are the best option for their farms.
There is no one agricultural technology that is the silver bullet but the more tools farmers have to choose from the better. Farmers are smart business people who make the choice about what technology to use on their farm and farmers in Canada have overwhelming chosen to adopt crops tolerant to herbicides or resistant to insects because they have helped farmers grow more on less land.
The data presented in the New York Times article about the relationship between these particular types of genetically engineering crops and pesticide use is misleading at best (for example, there is a graph comparing two different units of measurement), but rather than debate different sets of data, it’s important that we help people not intimately familiar with the intricacies of agriculture understand why these crops have been useful for farmers.
A key driver for this rapid uptake is that one of the most significant challenges farmers face is insect pests, weeds and diseases that threaten to destroy their crops. As long as there has been agriculture, farmers have had to find ways to control yield robbing pests. Modern agricultural tools like herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops, in addition to pesticides help farmers control pests more efficiently and sustainably.
Herbicide-tolerant crops have been one of the key innovations that have helped farmers adopt conservation tillage practices, providing a new era of weed control, allowing farmers to eliminate weeds with less crop inputs rather than relying on the old practice of plowing the soil, known as tillage, which is harder on the soil. By reducing tillage, farmers have been able to improve the health of their soil all while limiting the number of times they pass over their fields with tractors, which saves huge amounts of diesel fuel from being burned and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost 30 million tonnes a year.
When the conversation about some genetically modified crops focuses on whether they have led to more or less pesticide use, it misses the point. Instead what we should be talking about is how these crops have helped create a more sustainable agricultural system that has helped farmers grow more per acre of land than at any other time in history.
This is a really important part of the success story of modern agriculture. The world population continues to grow and farmers are being tasked with growing more food while at the same time protecting natural habitats. According to a recent study CropLife Canada commissioned by RIAS Inc., without pesticides and some types of biotech crops we’d need 50 percent more land in Canada to grow what we do today. That’s a lot of forest, native grass and wetlands that are left untouched. Continuing to increase productivity on existing farmland will be imperative to protecting biodiversity.
And contrary to what was reported in the New York Times, the study by RIAS Inc. revealed that these crops have helped drive greater economic activity on the farm and through the economy, they support more environmentally sustainable farming practices and they help keep food affordable for Canadians.
Having access to plant breeding innovations has given Canadian farmers a significant advantage over their European counterparts. In Europe farmers are prevented from choosing to grow varieties derived from genetic engineering or political reasons. Productivity gains in Canada enabled in part through the use of herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops, and pesticides are part of the reason Canada is a net food exporter sending food around the world, while Europe remains a net food importer. Access to modern agricultural technologies in Canada is also part of the reason food costs in this country are in line with some of the lowest in the world while food prices in Europe are on the rise.
Humans have been improving crops for thousands of years. These changes have resulted in incremental benefits in terms of producing more abundant, hardier and healthier plants. Today scientists are continuing to improve crops through a whole suite of tools, just one of which is genetic engineering. This has resulted in more than herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops offering farmers access to drought-tolerant and disease-resistant crops as well.
And the future of plant breeding innovation holds great potential with the possibility of crops with enhanced nutritional qualities and crops with reduced allergens to name just a few. Having access to new and improved varieties of crops developed through various methods will be important to helping farmers continue to feed the world into the future.
As the New York Times article points out, the question about the safety of genetically modified crops has been settled. There’s a consensus globally among the scientific community that these crops are safe. Since we can put concerns about safety aside, why don’t we leave it to farmers to make the choice about which crops they grow on their farms. After all, who is better suited to make those decisions than them?
There have been some excellent responses to the article in the New York Times, a few of which I’ve listed below:
Why Danny Hakim’s New York Times GMO exposé misleads, Graham Brookes
New York Times on GMOs, Jayson Lusk
Rehashing a Tired Argument, Kevin Folta
The tiresome discussion of initial GMO expectations, Andrew Kniss
President, CropLife Canada