EXTRACT: For many decades prior to genetic engineering, farmers relied on university agriculture extension scientists to perform tests comparing new and standard crop varieties. But it is increasingly difficult for university scientists to conduct these important tests on GE varieties, because they are prohibited from doing research on GE crops without company permission.
What Seed Companies Don’t Want Us to Know – the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops
Since the release earlier this year of our report Failure to Yield – which showed that genetic engineering (GE) has had only a modest impact on yields of corn and soybeans in the United States-there has been renewed debate about why so many U.S. farmers nevertheless choose to buy and grow GE seed. A recent article covering our report in the leading biotechnology journal Nature Biotechnology (subscribers only), quoted one scientist as suggesting that farmers must be achieving increased yield or other benefits by growing GE varieties, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. This is a common argument in support of the value of genetically engineered crops, so it merits some thought.
I agree that farmers are generally savvy, and can judge the overall performance of their crops. But for the most part they can’t readily determine whether particular crop properties-good or bad-are the result of GE technology. This is especially true for complex properties like yield or drought tolerance.
The problem for farmers is the difficulty in distinguishing between “natural” crop genes and engineered genes. Crop varieties that contain an engineered gene have also been improved through conventional breeding, which works with the genes already occurring in the crop. The GE companies (and public breeders) often use conventional breeding to improve corn, soy and cotton seed, and then stick an engineered gene, such as for glyphosate herbicide tolerance, into those conventionally improved varieties. This is one reason that Failure to Yield relied on controlled field trials – carefully designed and run by academic scientists-to tease out the contribution of the engineered gene to yield.
Farmers are also limited by the particular conditions on their own farm that affect crop performance, and these often vary from year to year. So their observations about crop varieties will often not be widely applicable.
So if farmers have limited ability to distinguish between natural and engineered genes, and their observations are specific to their own farms, where can they go to get the information they need about GE crop genes and varieties? For many decades prior to genetic engineering, farmers relied on university agriculture extension scientists to perform tests comparing new and standard crop varieties. But it is increasingly difficult for university scientists to conduct these important tests on GE varieties, because they are prohibited from doing research on GE crops without company permission. And when scientists do receive permission to do research, it is usually with strings attached that restrict the usefulness of the studies for comparing crop varieties. This was reported in the New York Times back in February, when 26 entomologists complained that they could not get seeds from GE companies to do adequate research on Bt crops. The problem is pervasive. Even as far back as 1999 , weed scientists were also noting restrictions on their research about herbicide tolerant GE crops.
That leaves the GE companies in control of much of the information about seeds and crop varieties that gets to the farmers (and the public) – and what do you suppose they are saying about it? More and more, important information about our crops and the food they produce is coming from companies that are interested in showing only the positive side of their products.