Agroecosystem study implies genetic modification neither helpful nor necessary for yield gains and sustainability

Agroecosystem study implies genetic modification neither helpful nor necessary for yield gains and sustainability
Used under creative commons license from Oculator

Wow. This seems likely to cause a long-term stir, and I’m quite sure vociferous critiques from many quarters (though likely mostly from the usual suspects). University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann and his team have found that

…Relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g., Western Europe), the U.S. agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields or conservative on environmental impact. This has not been a trade-off for sustainability, as annual fluctuations in maize yield alone dwarf the loss of caloric energy from extreme historic blights. We suggest strategies for innovation that are responsive to more stakeholders and build resilience into industrialized staple crop production.

In terms of making a splash and what the big, viral attention has been about, though, this excerpt from their abstract buries the lede. In an interview with the journal’s publisher, Prof. Heinemann elaborates:

Our most significant findings were that:

–GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the U.S. are poor in comparison to Europe.

–Herbicide reductions can be achieved in European countries that do not adopt GM crops. In contrast, use is rising in the U.S., the major adopter of GM crops. Chemical insecticide use is decreasing in both agroecosystems, but more more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the U.S. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the U.S. when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.

I have not reviewed the findings in depth yet, myself. You, like me and everyone else, should go read the study. Interestingly, their results seem to back up the results of my WSU colleague Dr. Chuck Benbrook. Last year, Dr. Benbrook concluded that “Herbicide use is much greater on GE acres compared to conventionally managed acres planted to non-GE cultivars,” meaning that overall pesticide use in the U.S. has gone up, even though insecticide use has gone down. Although Heinemann et al. do rely in part on Chuck’s results, they also point out that “The short-term reduction in insecticide use reported in the period of Bt crop adoption appears to have been part of a trend enjoyed also in countries not adopting GM crops… reductions attributed to GM crops (Fedoroff 2012) are in question… similar if not more impressive reductions have been achieved in countries not adopting GM crops.”

It will be quite interesting to see how this plays out. Dollars to donuts that someone, at least, accuses them of being “unscientific," returning to the tired trope of conflating “I disagree with you/you’re wrong” with “You’re not conducting science.” It is quite possible (indeed, *likely*) that “good science” will be wrong (our own methods are premised on a “false positive” rate of at least 5%, if not much more), so proving (or believing) that someone is wrong has no little bearing on whether they’re “scientists” or “conducting [good] science.” Proving that they are asking or doing something wrong most likely means they made errors, which again is distinct from not practicing science. (Even good scientists make errors; should all science with any errors be declared “not science” or simply “wrong”?) Even phrasing a question in a way you consider incorrect, illegitimate, or (horror of horrors), insufficiently objectively does not mean they’re not practicing science. In my opinion, such charges should be made when there is verifiable malfeasance. In any case, check it out yourself, and decide if the “good science” is now telling us concretely that [the studied] GM crops are not necessary, sufficient, efficient, or even effective for sustainable or food-secure/food-sovereign systems.

Originally posted on AgroEcoPeople.