GM a “failing biotechnology” says NZ researcher

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 24th June 2013

The biotechnologies used in North American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to Western Europe, according to researchers from the University of Canterbury (UC) in New Zealand.

The study, led by UC Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics Jack Heinemann and published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, analysed data on agricultural productivity in North America and Western Europe over the last 50 years. It found that “a conspicuous difference is the adoption of genetically modified/engineered (GM) seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe”.

“We found that the combination of non-GM seed and management practices used by Western Europe is increasing corn yields faster than the use of the GM-led packages chosen by the US,” said Professor Heinemann. “Our research showed rapeseed (canola) yields increasing faster in Europe without GM than in the GM-led package chosen in Canada and decreasing chemical herbicide and even larger declines in insecticide use without sacrificing yield gains, while chemical herbicide use in the US has increased with GM seed,” he said.

According to the authors of the study, Western Europe and North America “make good comparisons because these regions are highly similar in types of crops they grow, latitude, and access to biotechnology, mechanisation and educated farmers”.

The study’s authors said that Europe has “learned to grow more food per hectare and use fewer chemicals in the process”. They also found that there had been a decrease in annual variation in yield in Europe, suggesting  the region “has a superior combination of seed and crop management technology and is better suited to withstand weather variations”.

“We need more than agriculture; we need agricultures – a diversity of practices for growing and making food that GM does not support; we need systems that are useful, not just profit-making biotechnologies – we need systems that provide a resilient supply to feed the world well,” Professor Heinemann said.

GM increases crop productivity, says plant science organisation

But Heinemann’s research has been rejected by Australian plant science organisation CropLife Australia, which has called on consumers to “look at the weight of credible, independent evidence, rather than the latest activist claims”.

According to CropLife Australia, GM technology is used globally by more than 16 million farmers, and the global area of ‘biotech crops’ has increased one hundred fold since they were first commercialized in 1996.

“Between 1996 and 2011, the global farm income gain from GM crops has been US$98.2 billion,” said Matthew Cossey, CEO of CropLife Australia. “Farmers are astute business people, if GM crops didn’t put more money in their pockets, they wouldn’t buy GM seed the next season,” he said.

“GM crops are continuing to deliver significant productivity grains and environmental benefits. If they weren’t farmers wouldn’t be using them and we wouldn’t be seeing industries like the Australian cotton industry having the success it enjoys today,” Mr Cossey said.

GM health debate

The impact of GM foods on human health has long been at the centre of debates around the biotechnology.

Professor Heinemann and another researcher, working in conjunction with anti-GM activist group called “The Safe Food Foundation”, claimed in September 2012 that CSIRO-developed GM wheat may have unintended effects on humans. Other experts disagreed with the assessment of the risks associated with the modified crop.

More recently, a research paper published in the Journal of Organic Systems said that pigs are “seriously harmed” by the consumption of feed containing GM crops over a commercial rearing lifetime. According to the study, pigs fed on the GM diet had “more severe stomach inflammation” and female pigs had on average a 25 per cent heavier uterus than non-GM-fed females. The pig feed study, however, has been criticised by experts who claim that the results are not conclusive.

Biotech organisation CropLife disputes claims GM crops have lower yields