Monsanto’s Kool Aid

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by Ben Lilliston | April 16, 2009 • When genetically engineered (GE) crops were first marketed in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, the central promise biotech companies made to farmers was greater yields. The promise to everyone else was that GE crops would help feed the world. These promises continue today in a new Monsanto ad campaign touting GE crops as the solution to the global food crisis. Now, more than a decade later, it turns out that GE crops don’t deliver.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that after 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to increase U.S. crop yields (with the exception of a marginal gain under certain circumstances with Bt corn). In fact, while yields have increased during this period, these gains are attributed almost entirely to traditional breeding, not genetic engineering. The UCS report focuses on GE corn and soybeans.

“After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven’t helped raise the ceiling on potential yields,” said Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist at UCS.

When considering the staggering amounts of money (including USDA research grants) invested in developing GE crops, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of bang for our buck we could get from investing comparable money in research related to increasing yields through sustainable or organic practices. In February, we reported on a United Nations paper that reported that organic agriculture in African countries had seen increases in yields of more than 100 percent. This type of low-cost, low-input approach using traditional knowledge is also what was recommended in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report issued last year.

The UCS report makes the recent statement by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that developing countries must overcome their resistance to GE crops even more troubling. Vilsack needs to stop drinking Monsanto’s Kool-Aid on GE crop yields. This weekend in Treviso, Italy, Vilsack will attend a gathering of G-8 Agriculture Ministers to discuss the global food crisis. While he’s on the plane, let’s hope he reads the new UCS and IAASTD reports for new ideas on how to feed the world.

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