NYT Article Understates the Benefits of GMOs

An Oct. 29, 2016, article by Danny Hakim in The New York Times gives a decidedly skewed view of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is based on the author’s presumption that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were supposed to accomplish two things: (1) increase crop yields; and (2) reduce the use of chemical pesticides.  In essence, Hakim sets up two straw men and proceeds to knock them down using questionable analysis.

Hakim compares crop yields in the United States and Canada, where GMO use is widespread, with yields in Western Europe, where GMOs generally are not allowed.  He finds that North America had “gained no discernible advantage in yields” relative to France, Germany, and other European countries.

As an example, Hakim includes a chart showing that the trend lines for yield increases of rapeseed in Europe and canola (a variety of rapeseed) in Canada are parallel, so that both added a similar amount of output per hectare. What he neglects to explain (or perhaps doesn’t appreciate) is that the percentage increase in European yield from 1995 to 2014 was modest. It rose from about 3.1 metric tons (MT) to 3.7 MT per hectare, an increase of approximately 19 percent.[i] Canada’s yield grew about the same quantity per hectare – from 1.4 MT to 1.9 MT – but the percentage increase was much greater at roughly 36 percent.  This is because Europe grows winter rapeseed under conditions that allow for high yields, while Canada grows spring canola under conditions in which lower yields are the norm.

So which farmers experienced a greater increase in profitability? Compared to their 1995 earnings (assuming constant prices), European famers managed to increase their per-hectare revenues by 19 percent. Canadian famers, on the other hand, achieved an increase that was almost twice as high – 36 percent. Casual observation would suggest that Canadian canola growers have become relatively more profitable over time than their European colleagues. One factor that appears to have increased Canadian profitability is the planting of GMO seeds.

As for Hakim’s argument that herbicide use has increased in the United States, especially on soybeans, it’s not clear that this is a bad thing. Most of the soybeans grown in North America have been genetically modified so that they are not harmed by Roundup (glyphosate), an herbicide that kills many weeds. Roundup has the advantage of being less toxic than some other herbicides, and it breaks down quickly in the soil. Anyone who has spent hours in a soybean field on a hot, humid day pulling weeds by hand is not likely to object to the idea that the same result could be achieved by modern biotechnology.

The bottom line is that Hakim largely ignores the reality that many thousands of individual farmers make decisions each year regarding which seeds to plant and which agronomic practices to use. The fact that so many farmers choose to plant costly GMO seeds (in countries where they are allowed) indicates that the added expense produces a real benefit. It seems improbable that those agricultural entrepreneurs all are making poor decisions about what is best for their businesses. The safe assumption is that users of biotechnology expect it will lead to a marginal increase in revenue that is greater than the marginal increase in cost. In the real world, it looks like the use of GMOs is being driven by favorable economics.

Mr. Hakim may think that GMO “technology has fallen short of the promise.”  The marketplace, however, understands things very differently.

[i]The data included in the article are in graphic form, so it’s not possible to determine precise numbers.