Can GM Crops Solve the Food Crisis?

UCS says journalists overstate potential for higher yields

With global food prices up eighty-three percent over the last three years, world leaders are looking for any means available to ease the burden on consumers, especially in developing countries.

Potential policy-oriented solutions, such as relaxing the U.S. ethanol requirements that chew up the supply of corn and other foodstuffs, are manifold. We live in a world that reveres technology, however, and the promise that humans can engineer their way out of any bind. Thus, it was no surprise when, in April, The New York Times reported that:

Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

Yet two months later, after a plethora of articles exploring the biotechnology industry’s ability to mollify world hunger, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) complained that some journalists had been misled. The nonprofit advocacy group issued a press release at the end of June, which argued that:

A number of recent news stories on soaring food prices worldwide have cited unsubstantiated claims that genetically engineered crops are the solution to the problem. In fact, according to experts at the UCS, there is no evidence that currently available genetically engineered crops strengthen drought tolerance or reduce fertilizer use. Nor do they fundamentally increase crop yields.

The UCS is partly right. While it can make a strong argument that genetically modified (GM) crops are unlikely to reduce global food prices and alleviate hunger in the short-term, there is, in fact, some evidence that they improve yields. The group, which has long criticized the alleged benefits of GM foods, is also only partly right about the related journalism. Its press release identified three problem stories.

The first was a June 5 article from the Los Angeles Times covering a United Nations emergency summit on food supply in Rome. The meeting focused on the correlations between biofuels production and rising food prices, but, as a sentence at the end of the piece reported, “American officials are also using the summit to promote genetic engineering as a way to boost food productions by the increasing crop yields.”

While there is nothing technically wrong with that statement (nobody claims that GM crops are a solution - only that they could be), it hints at a common criticism made by biotech opponents — that the industry is taking advantage of global hunger to promote a dubiously beneficial product. In 2007, the number of worldwide acres devoted to biotech crops increased substantially for the twelfth consecutive year, according to the ISAAA, an industry trade group. U.S. exporters, who planted half of those acres, stand to benefit the most from more growth, and the food crisis may abet that. Indeed, a May article from the Chicago Tribune reported that:

The Bush administration has slipped a controversial ingredient in the $770 million aid package it recently proposed to ease the world food crisis, adding language that would promote the use of genetically modified crops in food-deprived countries.

While the article prominently notes that the value of GM foods is “intensely disputed,” it is, nonetheless, another one of the pieces singled out by the Union of Concerned Scientists’ press release. The group complained about a quote from Dan Price, a food aid expert at the National Security Council, who told the Tribune, “We certainly think that it is established fact that a number of bio-engineered crops have shown themselves to increase yields through their drought resistance and pest resistance.” Just one paragraph farther down, the Tribune reporter balances Price’s quote with one from the national director of the Organic Consumers Association, who says, “I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that genetically engineered crops — they do a number of thing, but they don’t increase yields.”

The UCS doesn’t mention that quote, of course (tsk, tsk), but that omission doesn’t invalidate the criticism. Too often, science journalists think that adhering to the old norm of “balance” fulfills their obligation to readers. But two conflicting statements do not enlightenment make. What is a reader supposed to think when one person says that GM crops boost yields and another says the opposite? In such cases, journalists must at least try to provide more context.

For starters, reporters can unbundle the crops. Referring to them in aggregate as having this or that effect on yields (or on any other variable) is utterly meaningless - they’re all different. At this point there are really only three big crops to keep track of, anyway: corn, cotton and soybeans. (Dig deeper and you’ll get a bit of data on rice, wheat, canola, cassava, tomatoes, and a few others.)

Because varieties of these GM seeds have only been available commercially since 1996, only a limited amount of data exists, much of which conflicts on the question of yields. The first generation of seeds was designed to make plants resist insects and herbicides (weed killers). They were not designed to improve yields per se (that is, they weren’t designed to put bigger beans on the stalk or more corn on the ear). So, reporters write or quote sources saying that GM crops have not “improved” yields, which is true insofar as they weren’t really designed to do so. But, according to a 2006 report [pdf] from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, some of them can “prevent yield losses” compared to non-GM crops, which succumb more easily to bugs and weeds. This report has been selectively quoted by groups like the U.K.’s pro-organic Soil Association and Friends of the Earth International [pdf], in order to make it appear that the USDA’s ultimate conclusion was—flat-out—GM crops don’t improve yields.

In fact, many studies agree that both insect- and herbicide-resistant corn have improved yields, although there is some concern that this only happens when pest infestation is particularly high. Cotton is a bit more contentious. There is strong evidence that GM cotton has helped turn India from one of the world’s least fruitful cotton producers into one of its biggest exporters. Elsewhere, cotton has had mixed results, and even in India there have been problems — much like mosquitoes to malaria, harmful pests have been found to develop tolerances for their intended treatments. GM soybeans are by far the biggest disappointment yield-wise, and in some cases they’ve even led to yield losses. This is significant because soybeans are by far the most planted GM crop, and the rate of increase in global soybean acreage is rising faster than any other.

Again, none of this is to say that groups like the UCS and Friends of the Earth don’t make strong arguments that GM crops won’t assuage the global food crisis (and reporters should be as leery of reports [pdf] from pro-GM groups like the ISAAA as they are of those from Friends of the Earth [pdf]). Certainly, many news accounts have portrayed biotech’s ability to stem that crisis in a rather Pollyannaish fashion. The third and final article cited in the UCS’s press release was from Investor’s Business Daily in May, which reported in the nut graph:

Soaring world food prices appear to be chipping away at public and commercial objections to GM crops that sharply raise yields and slash growing costs for corn, wheat and other staples at a time when the biggest spike in commodities prices since the 1970s is driving up food prices worldwide.

The story gets more nuanced as it progresses, but it still makes it seem as though the next generation of drought-resistant, nitrogen-fixing, and nutrient-rich seeds is impending—a highly questionable conclusion. Of course, the press has also swung to the opposite extreme, dismissing the potential of new technologies wholesale.

The U.K.’s Independent did just that when covering a University of Kansas study [pdf] about how GM soybeans had caused yield losses in the U.S. The study was sturdy and newsworthy enough, but The Independent framed it with an egregiously exaggerated headline: “Exposed: the great GM crops myth.” Ironically, the paper swung back to the other side of the debate two months later when it covered a European Commission report on pest-resistant corn - the only GM crop approved in Europe. The short article made it seem like the corn equivocally produced higher yields despite the fact that the commission’s report clearly stated that, “The results of the analysis were mixed.”

Reporters (and editors) must be more precise about such details because a lot is at stake. As myriad articles about the politics of GM crops have observed, the U.S. is ardently promoting biotechnology as a “key to the solving the food crisis.” At the same time, other stories have noted that Europe, which has long opposed GM crops, is now grudgingly warming to them, as are China, Japan, and South Korea.

In early June, both the Associated Press and The New York Times covered Monsanto’s promise to double yields of GM corn, cotton and soybeans by 2030. The Times coverage was especially skeptical, making it clear the attainability of such goals is a “matter of debate.” The most detailed coverage of biotech’s current capabilities and future projects, however, is to be found in two long features from late June and early July. The first, headlined “All about the yield,” came from Canada’s The Globe and Mail, and second, headlined “A time to sow?” came from the U.K.’s Financial Times. Both articles unbundle the various crops and run through profiles of Monsanto and Syngenta, the world’s number one and two agricultural biotech companies respectively.

“And as we stand at the edge of the precipice of hunger once more, the world is again asking the men and women of the labs to perform their miracle,” the Toronto Star wisely noted in a recent lede. Nonetheless, a number of articles have quoted Martin Taylor, the chairman of Syngenta, conceding that, “GM won’t solve the food crisis, at least not in the short term.”

That said, Taylor and his cohorts are working hard on the next generation of drought- and salinity-resistant crops, as well as seeds specifically engineered to directly boost yields. But, of course, this leads to some obvious questions that reporters ought to be asking. Will Syngenta and its competitors share these GM crops? What will be the impacts on the environment, human health, and biodiversity? Even if we grow enough safe, sturdy mega-crops to feed the entire world, we will still have to deal with fundamental and ongoing problems of consumption, distribution, and trade policy.

A number of recent article about GM crops role in the food crisis have discussed the need for a second “Green Revolution.” The first pulled Mexico and India from the brink of famine in the 1940s and 1960s, respectively, by introducing higher yielding crops (achieved through conventional cross-breeding), fertilizers and pesticides. This time around, food experts hope for much of the same, but they’ve learned a few lessons from past experiences. In an editorial from early June, The Christian Science Monitor argued that:

A second green revolution would need to go beyond recent science in genetically modified seeds. Poor farmers often can’t afford the high prices charge by companies that own rights to these seeds… Despite advances in GM crops over the past decade, world crop yields have risen at about half the yearly rate since 1990 as they did during the two previous decades of the Green Revolution.

Unfortunately, all of this information—from the yields, to impacts on health and biodiversity, to the policy obstacles related to solving the global food crisis—is difficult to present every time a source says something quotable about GM crops. Useful elaboration eats up space in print and broadcast outlets and defies the rush-to-post mentality of online publications. Nonetheless, reporters must make time to make some sense of the competing claims of the biotech industry (and its government proponents) and groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Human life hangs in the balance, and greater clarity is possible.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.