Seeds of Biotech Resentment: Part One

This Business of Farming

Agroecology or biotech? Why eco-activists hate modern Ag technology

Published on: May 1, 2013

Last week's Food Dialogues event in Chicago sparked much debate about the virtues of biotech seed. I had a similar experience on a smaller stage when I attended an Earthweek event titled Understanding and Addressing the Anti-GE Critique, sponsored by the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at University of Illinois.

What I thought would be a thoughtful back and forth on biotech was really – for the most part, anyway – more tirades about the evils of Monsanto and the virtues of organic farming. But this experienced did help me understand the growing resentment among eco-activists and organic farmers toward biotech. Whether real or imagined, biotech appears to be a threat to their way of living and belief. Many seem consumed by the idea that big, faceless companies (and the farmers who grow their seeds) are taking away their freedoms. They don't like government policies that treat biotech as conventional agriculture. I'm convinced now that ranting against genetical engineering is more than just a slick way to rally like-minded eco-folks for more fundraising.

The panel consisted of Doug Durian-Sherman, with the "Union of Concerned Scientists" (a group that "seeks a great change in humanity's stewardship of the earth," according to the nonprofit group's online financial report); Mike Gray, a highly regarded University of Illinois entomologist; Mary-Howell Martens, a New York organic farmer; and Gerhart Ryfell, a European molecular biologist who is working on developing genetically engineered plants that would be acceptable to the organic crowd.

Oh, and I should mention that Leon Corzine, an Assumption, Ill., farmer and past president of the National Corn Growers Association, also spoke on the panel. Corzine wasn't even mentioned in the initial invitation and was only invited later, after pressure was put on organizers to actually add in a farmer who uses biotech seed. Go figure!

I entered the meeting just as Sherman was saying that 15% of the 28% U.S. corn yields increase since 1996 could be attributed to genetic traits; the rest, he says, is from better plant breeding. He also says there is a 5-10% increase in yield based on what he called "yield bias" – meaning seed companies put their best genetics into GM seed lines, so of course those will yield better than conventional seed.

Most of Sherman's presentation, in a nutshell, was a point-by-point argument on why genetically engineered agriculture is not a success story. He noted instead the virtues of multifunctional agroecology, which, says Sherman, works well in African corn production. Natural chemicals from desmodium, a legume intercropped with corn, will repel moths and snuff out significant African weed infestations. On field edges the farmers there plant Napier grass, which attracts borers. "With these systems farmers more than double yields compared to average yields," he says. (Unfortunately African corn yields are barely one fourth of yields from developed countries).

Next, Sherman dismissed biotech's contribution to the growth of no-till farming. "It probably contributed, but not as much as federal policies that came into play in the early '90s that incentivized people to do no-till," he says.

What about drought tolerant GE crops? Monsanto's Droughtgard provides a 6% yield benefit in moderate drought, says Sherman; in extreme drought, he adds, it will probably be useless. "It will be most useful only in around 15% of corn acres in the country, resulting in about 1.2% yield increase nationwide."  Conventional breeding is making a lot of strides in drought tolerance, too, Sherman adds.  

Biotech is also responsible for monoculture, which tends to exacerbate pest problems, says Sherman. Growing weed resistance to glyphosate is the best and worst example. "By recent estimates, about 50 to 60 million acres are now infested by these weeds that can no longer be controlled by the Roundup system," he says. "That's driving up herbicide costs. The cumulative increase in herbicide use in the U.S. is about 400 million pounds."

"Genetically Engineered crops have not been successful at addressing the big challenges of industrial ag," Sherman concludes. "GE faces challenges with genetically complex traits. GE is much more expensive, and not faster, than crop breeding. Public research and policy needs to emphasize agroecology and more money for public breeding.

"GE can and will have a role, but we should not sell it as a silver bullet. We should understand there are other methods that are cheaper and more effective."

None of this was surprising considering the history and raison d'être for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Just take a gander at their website.This is a group that believes it can use science to justify its positions. I guess you can be dismissive of technology that works, as long as you hide behind a lab coat.

It's another reason why science alone is not a good enough argument for modern agriculture techniques. Folks, you can find research or "science" that fits any position you want. It's sharing your common values that will connect you with doubting consumers.

Tomorrow I'll share what I learned from the other panelists' presentations.