The Science of Wishful Thinking: ISAAA’s report on GM crops
by Tanya Kerssen
"The developing world embraces a controversial technology,"declared the title of a recent article in the Economist Magazine, referring to genetically modified (GM) crops. This is a rather shocking statement to attribute so matter-of-factly to the entire developing world. Surely, it must be supported by a rigorous and ethically sound set of research data... The article reports on the recently released report by ISAAA--the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. Each year the group releases a report entitled "Global Status of Commercialized GM Crops," which details with exquisite color-coded charts and maps the expansion of GM crop adoption throughout the world. There's only one problem: the information is far from reliable.
While the Economist calls the group a "non-profit outfit that monitors the use of GM crops," ISAAA is actually an industry-funded advocacy group, whose mission is to promote the adoption of GM seed technologies in developing countries. Past and present funders of ISAAA include Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Cargill, Dow, DuPont, Bayer CropScience and CropLife International. Since the release of the new "Global Status" report on February 23, ISAAA statistics have been quoted in articles in the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Of the four, only USA Today notes that ISAAA is "financed by the biotech industry."
And while industry, governments and media continuously cite ISAAA's statistics, close scrutiny of past reports revealed highly exaggerated numbers based on dubious science. The magazine Science in Society, for example, reported the following discrepancies:[i]
- ISAAA's 1998 report claimed yield improvements of 12% for GM soy over conventional soy in the U.S. However, a review of the results of over 8,200 university-based controlled varietal trials in 1998 showed a 7% average yield reduction in the case of the GM soy.
- In 2003, ISAAA listed India as a "key GM crop cultivator" based on India's first GM crop, Bt cotton. According to India's agriculture ministry, however, in 2002-2003, "Bt cotton covered an area of only 38,038 hectares, representing only 0.51 per cent of the area under cotton in the period. In 2003-04, with good monsoon rains, the area under Bt cotton increased to 92,000 hectares. This area coverage is almost negligible compared to over 9 million hectares under cotton crop in the country. This points to the low acceptability of Bt cotton by farmers."
- Analyzing GM cotton farming in South Africa in 2004, Aaron deGrassi of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex noted that ISAAA's GM plantings figures were 20 times higher than even those claimed by other biotech industry sources and more than 30 times greater than those from an academic survey conducted by the University of Reading, UK.
In its current report, ISAAA implies that GM crops in South Africa have been an unqualified success, with the total area planted to biotech crops growing from 1.8 million hectares in 2008 to 2.1 million hectares in 2009-- a 17% increase "mainly attributed to an increase in biotech maize area." The report neglects to mention the 80 percent crop failure of Monsanto's GM maize varieties in South Africa in 2008/2009. According to the African Center for Biosafety, a South African NGO, ISAAA's information on South Africa relies on data from FoodNCropBio, a private biotech consultancy firm that derives its numbers from confidential records of seed sales and estimates based on the "intention to plant." Since the government keeps no official records on the number of hectares grown to GM crops in the country--and since GM and non-GM grain is not stored separately--the figures are nearly impossible to verify.
Overall, ISAAA notes a global increase in GM crop area of 9 million hectares between 2008 to 2009--an increase of 7%. A close look at the numbers shows that the overwhelming majority of this gain occurred in just a handful of countries. With an increase of 5.6 million hectares since 2008, Brazil alone accounts for fully 62% of the total "global" increase. The top three producers of biotech crops--the U.S., Argentina and Brazil--account for 82% (7.4m hectares) of the growth in biotech crop area. One can hardly infer a global fervor for GM crops based primarily on these three countries.
The report also touts the adoption of biotech crops by "small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries," which according to ISAAA's figures reached 13 million farmers in 2009, most of which were Bt cotton farmers in China and India. Without knowing exactly how ISAAA defines "small and resource poor", if one compares this to the total number of smallholders in the developing world[ii]--1.5 billion in 2008 according to World Bank figures--it adds up to only 0.8%. In other words, over 99% of smallholders--who produce much of the developing world's food--do not plant GM seeds. Rather, they rely on diversified cropping systems and traditional plant breeding to produce grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder and animal products that ensure local food security. Such integrated farming systems also produce far more per unit area than do monocultures, since multiple cropping reduces losses due to pests and disease, and makes most efficient use of light, water and nutrients.
In a rather brilliant PR strategy, the seed and chemical industries have managed to parlay propaganda into science through seemingly "non-profit" organizations like ISAAA. Uncritical media coverage of the annual "Global Status" report provides free advertising for these corporations and perpetuates the myth of growing acceptance of GMOs.[iii]Perhaps most insidiously, measuring the "success" of GM crops based on numbers of hectares planted rests on the fallacy that farmers and consumers have made a free and informed choice to grow and consume GM products. In truth--as the battles over the labeling of GM food suggest--an informed and empowered citizenry is the biotech industry's worst nightmare.
[i] "The GM Bubble" Science in Society issue 22,summer 2004
[ii] The World Bank defines a smallholder farmer as operating a farm of 2 hectares or less