Interview on Economics of GMOs

I was recently interviewed by the website The Daily Meal on GMOs.  Here is what I had to say:

“The world is facing many challenges,” says Lusk. “(They include) a growing world population, climate change, and droughts in many areas of the U.S., just to name a few.  Biotechnology and genetic engineering do not hold all the answers, but all tools should be on the table to sustainably address these societal challenges."

On a domestic level, proponents of GM products see the opportunity to develop strain-resistant crops that cost less to manufacture. These lower food costs would benefit the farmers, and in turn would reduce the cost of foods for the retail consumer.

"In the U.S., about 90% of all corn and soybean acres are planted with GE varieties,” says Lusk. “These were decisions made by real-life, flesh and blood farmers. No one was (or is) holding a gun to their head. The fact that farmers willingly adopted GE varieties at such a fast clip (even while paying a premium price for them) reveals their belief that it is in their best interest to do so.  The scientific evidence shows that adopters of GE corn, soy, and cotton have enjoyed slightly higher levels of profitability.”

The support from that last claim, incidentally, comes from numerous peer-reviewed studies.  For a summary of the early research on the topic, see this USDA report, which shows that profitability tends to be either similar or higher among GMO adopters.  Even in cases where measured profitability is similar for GMO adopters, these simple measures often do not take into consideration the value of risk reduction or value of time saved by the farm operator.  We ultimately have to look at the decisions farmers made, and it seems quite clear corn and soybean farmers believe themselves better off adoption GE varieties.

The article goes on to interview Jeffrey Smith, a long time anti-biotechnology crusader.  The article seems to give the impression that we couldn't profitably produce corn or soy without government subsidies.  I am aware of no good research that would support that assertion.  

Then, Smith is quoted as saying the following:

“Independent research confirms that average farmer profit does not increase with GMOs,” Smith writes.  “And numerous examples of closed markets and suppressed prices have followed the introduction of genetically modified crops worldwide. In Hawaii; for example, GM papaya was blocked by Japan. Prices dropped from $1.29 per kilo to about $.80, and in spite of increased papaya consumption in United States, papaya production in Hawaii dropped by 40 percent.”

I wonder which "independent research" he is referring to?  As I indicated above, you can find some studies indicating no profit gains from biotech adoption.  But, what does the cumulative evidence in the peer reviewed journals suggest?  Not what Smith claims.  And, why are 90% of corn/soy farmers so dumb as to adopt a more expensive technology that isn't making them better off?

Also, to suggest that adoption of GM papaya in Hawaii hurt that industry because the Japanese blocked imports is just silly.  Hawaiian producers adopted a genetically engineered papaya that is resistant to a virus that was devastating that industry.  Yes, Hawaiian papaya growers would have been more profitable had Japan not reacted the way they purportedly did.  But, how profitable to you think Hawaiian growers would be if they had no papayas to sell at all?