GMOs not providing yield or climate change benefits

2009-04-16

in Geek stuff, Science, The environment

White tree in archway

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a new report (PDF) out, arguing that genetic modification of crops has so far failed to increase yields or improve resilience to climate change. The study covers the period of the past fifteen years, during which GM crops have been widely commercially deployed in the United States and elsewhere. It focuses on corn and soybeans, since they are the most commonly-grown GM crops. 90% of American corn is GM, as are 64% of soybeans.

The report also highlights how GM crops are heavy users of nitrogen-rich synthetic fertilizers, and that their use generates nitrous oxide in soil, a powerful greenhouse gas. Producing fertilizer also requires energy and generally uses natural gas as a feedstock.

The report concludes that GM is being over-invested in, relative to conventional breeding techniques and approaches that minimize the use of external inputs. I have argued in the past that genetic modification could be one tool for helping to adapt to a changed climate, and I think that is still true. What this study shows is the importance of rigorous evaluation, as well as somewhat tempered enthusiasm when it comes to the ability of new technologies to yield strong, rapid changes in outcomes.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. April 16, 2009 at 11:49 am

That report link just goes to an E&E news pay wall.

R.K. April 16, 2009 at 11:49 am

You can get the report for free on the UOCS webpage.

Tristan April 16, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Who benefits directly from the development of GMO’s? What incentives are at work? It’s hard to see why GMOs would be developed for the sake of reducing climate change unless either the organization developing them had a mandate towards this, or if there were economic incentives in play to give free market actors the goals we’d like them to have.

Milan April 17, 2009 at 11:26 am

It is not surprising that GMOs have not yet made a difference in relation to climate change, but I do find it surprising that the effect of the technology on crop yields is so marginal.

Tristan April 17, 2009 at 11:40 am

Is increased crop yield required for the producers of GMOs to maximize their profits? Based on this evidence, it appears that if increasing yield is possible, it is not required.

Milan April 17, 2009 at 11:52 am

It would be interesting to have some information from farmers on why they choose the seeds they do.

. May 4, 2009 at 2:15 pm

‘Holy grail’ of genes could protect plants from heat, drought (05/04/2009)

Researchers say they have identified the “holy grail” of plant genes responsible for triggering a plant’s survival against droughts, cold and extreme heat events that scientists say may increase with climate change.

The findings come from a collaboration of scientists in Canada, the United States and Spain, said Peter McCourt, a co-author of the paper, published last week in Science Express.

The gene helps activate a plant hormone called abscisic acid (ABA) that helps plants guard against drought and other environmental stresses.

“For the last 20 years, if not longer, people have been trying to identify the gene that perceives ABA and turns that into a protective response,” McCourt said. “Once we had that, maybe we could finally understand how the hormone works.”

The scientists in the study found four genes for proteins called receptors that link to ABA and set a protective response in motion for the small flowering plant Arabidopsis. Those specific receptors have not been tested in other plants, but other studies have already revealed that modifying the way plants use ABA improves drought resistance in corn and canola.

ABA is not typically used by plants in nature for drought resistance, but the response level may not be that high, due to tradeoffs such as reduced growth. Those tradeoffs are offset by modern farming techniques.

“Those tradeoffs may not be important in a farmer’s field, and so we can really manipulate the pathways to really optimize or tailor it for agriculture,” McCourt said (CBC News, April 30)

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