CFS statement on NRC report
Genetically Engineered Crops Are Already Having Negative Impact on Farm Sustainability in the United States
The Center for Food Safety today released a statement in response to a National Research Council (NRC) report that purports to address the impact of genetically engineered (GE) crops on “farm sustainability,” understood to include farmer economic welfare as well as the environment. Center for Food Safety Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell reacted to the report, which was released this morning by NRC in Washington, DC:
At issue is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology, which is found in over 70% of GE crops grown on 130 million acres in the U.S. Roundup Ready crops are engineered to survive direct application of glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup herbicide, which would kill or injure a conventional crop. Roundup Ready crops do not increase yield. Rather, they have provided about a decade of convenient, labor-saving weed control by facilitating vastly increased and more frequent use of glyphosate, perhaps the most effective weed-killer ever developed.
The costs of what the NRC calls ‘excessive reliance’ on Roundup Ready technology are legion. In just 14 years, the Roundup Ready system has triggered an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds, in the same way that an overused antibiotic fosters resistant bacteria. Resistant weeds lead to increased pesticide use, which in turn harms the environment and human health. The leading independent study demonstrates that Roundup Ready crops and resistant weeds have increased use of herbicides (weed-killing pesticides) by 383 million lbs. over what would otherwise have been used in the 13 years from 1996 to 2008. Resistant weeds also trigger greater use of soil-eroding tillage, and in some cases manual hoeing to remove weeds, as well as higher production costs.
Significantly, glyphosate-resistant weeds are becoming so prevalent as to undermine the efficacy of glyphosate itself in ever more areas of the country. In response, companies are introducing crops resistant to non-glyphosate and multiple herbicides – an ultimately futile approach that will simply deepen the pesticide dependence of the American farmer.
In short, the biotech industry’s flagship product is proving to be inherently unsustainable, digging its own grave after just a decade and a half of use, and driving development of still other short-term fixes that will in turn rapidly become obsolescent.
Center for Food Safety is not certain what ‘sustainability’ means to the NRC. In our view, it should mean farm technologies and practices that remain effective and enhance productivity over many generations, not flash-in-the-pan innovations (like Roundup Ready technology) that drive their own obsolescence in just a decade or two.
Unfortunately, the rapid takeover of the seed supply by pesticide-biotechnology companies means that farmers have ever fewer conventional seed options. Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company, followed by DuPont (#2) and Swiss-based Syngenta (#3). Other pesticide manufacturers with a large stake in the seed industry include Dow Agrosciences, and German-based Bayer CropSciences and BASF Plant Science. It should not be surprising that these pesticide companies are developing new GE seeds for use in tandem with weed-killing pesticides they also sell.
Farmers are increasingly turning away from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds to conventional seeds due to astronomical GE seed prices, resistant weeds, and the ability to legally save and replant conventional seeds. (Seed-saving, a traditional practice in the U.S. and around the world, has been made illegal with patented Roundup Ready seeds.) Demand for conventional soybean seeds has outstripped supply in at least five states, which means that some farmers who want to “go conventional” are unable to do so thanks to shortage of conventional seeds.
The declining availability of conventional seeds – due in part to atrophy of public sector breeding programs – is hopefully one topic the Department of Justice and state attorneys general will explore in their ongoing investigation of anticompetitive effects of seed industry concentration. Other issues include anti-farmer seed patents, the astronomical cost of GE seeds, and a number of anticompetitive practices used by Monsanto. Monsanto has used its seed patents to wring anywhere from $85 to $160 million from U.S. farmers for allegedly saving and replanting the company’s patented seeds.
Monsanto’s latest quarterly financial report shows a massive 19% drop in earnings, which directly reflects the farmer revolt against overpriced and increasingly ineffective Roundup Ready technology. The result would have been still worse for the company if farmers had had an adequate supply of viable conventional seed alternatives to draw on.
In the end, the NRC makes too much of short-term benefits of certain GE crops, and fails to appreciate the inherent unsustainability of the pesticide-promoting technologies being offered by the industry. In addition, there is too little concern for the many adverse impacts of seed industry concentration and seed patents on farmers’ welfare.
CFS calls for a moratorium on approvals of all new pesticide-promoting GE crops; an end to utility patents on seeds such that farmers can again save and replant seeds from their harvest; and serious antitrust remedies to break up the ongoing takeover of the seed supply by pesticide companies. The Federal government should commit significant new funds for independent, public-sector breeding programs. Without strong, decisive action of this sort, the pesticide-seed-biotechnology conglomerates will continue to saddle farmers with increasingly expensive, pesticide-promoting seeds that represent the complete opposite of sustainability.
Click here to view the footnoted version of CFS’s statement