A reporter working on a story about the controversies might then reasonably ask these questions: How many countries grow biotech crops, which crops, and on how many acres? Getting that information in the biotech-friendly U.S. is easy. The Department of Agriculture keeps data—self-reported by farmers—on what GM crops with which traits are grown and (roughly) where. But to get a global snapshot there is only one place to go: the pro-biotech, industry-funded ISAAA. (A Canadian company called AGBIOS has a searchable database that allows you to insert a country’s name and see which crops and traits have been approved there. But the list is limited to data that individual countries voluntarily make available, and it does not indicate which crops have been commercialized.)

This doesn’t necessarily make the ISAAA data wrong, but any journalist listening to Clive James, the author of the ISAAA report, should feel a little queasy about relying on it as an ironclad source. In a video that accompanied the release of the 2008 report, James said:

I believe that the question that we’ve asked of biotechnology and the question that society has asked . . . over the last twelve years is whether in fact there is a risk associated with this. Is there a risk in terms of food safety? Is there a risk in terms of the environment? Now we have the opportunity to look at a very rich database that has been generated over a twelve-year period, and what that database tells you is that this technology is as safe as conventional technology, or sometimes safer. So therefore the question that we must ask now: What is the risk in not using this technology? And it is clear from the evidence that has been generated that, if in fact you do not use this technology you will not be able to provide for a secure world tomorrow in terms of food.

Putting aside James’s vaguely threatening tone, critics argue that the report has methodological flaws and isn’t peer reviewed. “The ISAAA data are not reproducible, and they don’t cite their sources,” says Greg Jaffe, the biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, referring to some of the adoption data. “Is the acreage correct? Is the number of farmers correct?”

The data source in the report is often listed simply as “Clive James,” leading some readers to question how he gathered the material. “It’s hard to believe that in Africa, with roads the way they are, with communications barriers, transportation barriers, that it would be easy to get those numbers,” Jaffe adds.

Melinda Smale, a senior researcher at the aid group Oxfam and formerly of the International Food Policy Research Institute, has studied whether biotech crops benefit small farmers. “If you want to do objective research, you need a census, a reliable list, to do your sampling,” Smale says. “If the only source of that list is Monsanto, people can question that data.”

Ask the industry where to go for information on the global adoption of biotech and it will point you to ISAAA. Ask the industry where to go for the benefits that biotech crops have delivered to farmers and it will point you to Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot’s studies done for PG Economics, a U.K.-based enterprise, or to studies by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, both funded by Monsanto.

One of the key benefits of GM crops, according to the industry and its supporters, is higher yields through plants engineered to tolerate herbicides or resist pests. The industry is now working on crops that can better tolerate heat and drought—key attributes in a hotter, drier world. But recently, a couple of studies have cast doubt on the actual and potential ability of some GM crops to increase yield. One study, by Barney Gordon, a professor of agronomy at Kansas State University, caught the eye of Geoffrey Lean, the environmental editor at The Independent in London. Lean’s story, which ran under the headline “Exposed: The Great GM Crops Myth,” began: “Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows.” Professor Gordon called the story a “gross misrepresentation” of his research, which looked specifically at soybeans’ response to manganese in very high-yielding conditions.

Another study, called “Failure to Yield,” released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in April 2009, concluded that yields of herbicide-tolerant GM corn and soybeans in the U.S. had not gone up in the thirteen years those crops have been grown commercially. (This study was based on Department of Agriculture data and looked only at yield in U.S. crops.)

Georgina Gustin writes about all things food-related for the Metro section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When not in the newsroom or tracking farmers in the hills, she's usually in her kitchen, ruining dinner.