New York Times on GMOs

A New York Times article by Danny Hakim came out this weekend arguing that genetically engineered crops (aka "GMOs") have failed to live up to their promise: namely that they haven't increased yields or reduced pesticide use.  

The implications seems to be that Hakim believes farmers shouldn't be using biotechnology or that they were duped into adopting.  Even if we grant Hakim's premises that biotech crops increased herbicide use and didn't increase yield (as I'll detail below, there are good reasons not to fully accept these claims), the conclusions that benefits are "over hyped" seems a bit misplaced.   

To see this, let's consider a different example.  When Apple came out with the first edition of the iPhone, one might too have said its benefits were over-promised.  After all, we already had flip phones to make mobile calls, the iPod to listen to music, the Blackberry to type emails and texts, and so on.  Did the iPhone really offer that much new?  Was it all that much better than what previously existed?

Well, rather than trying to studiously compare features of the new iPhone to all the previous devices, shouldn't we just look and see whether consumers actually bought it?  Look at the millions of decisions of individual consumers who weighted the relative costs and benefits.  It seems millions of consumers judged the new phone to be worth the extra money (indeed, some people stood outside in lines for days to get it).  In short, we know the iPhone delivered on its promise because millions of customers bought the phone and have come back again and again to buy new versions.

This is what economists call revealed preferences.  If we want to know whether people think product A is better than product B, we don't have to survey and ask, we just have to look and see what they chose.  

Ok, what about biotech seeds?  Here is a graph from the USDA on farmer adoption of biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton in the U.S.  For each of these these three crops, adoption of genetically engineered varieties (including both herbicide tolerant (HT) and insect resistant (Bt)) is over 89% of acres planted.  So, when we look at the decisions made by thousands of real-life flesh and blood farmers who have weighted the costs and benefits, they have voluntarily adopted GMOs en mass.  The fact that biotech was so readily adopted by farmers (and is still so widely in use) aught to tell us something. 


Now, one possible explanation explanation is that farmers have no choice - they have to buy the biotech seed.  Yet, as you can read in many places (see here, here, or here), farmers have lots of seed choices.  Indeed, farmers pay hefty premiums to have the biotech varieties.  

Yet, if we are to believe the NYT's story, farmers are paying these higher premiums but aren't getting higher yields and they're spending more on herbicide.  They must be really dumb right?  I'm going to reject the dumb farmer hypothesis, which means that either the NYT's data are wrong or there are other benefits to biotech aside from yield (or some combination of both).  

The data and comparisons used in the Times story to support their claims are pretty crude (comparing national aggregates over time in the US and France).  It is curious they used these data when we have recent, well-done research summaries such as this one from the National Academies of Science.  Weed scientist, Andrew Kniss, has the best, most well-reasoned response to the article I've seen.

Kniss writes:

I have to say this comparison seems borderline disingenuous; certainly not what I’d expect from an “extensive examination” published in the New York Times. The NYT provides a few charts in the article, one of which supports the statement about France’s reduced pesticide use. But the figures used to compare pesticide use in France vs the USA are convoluted and misleading. First, the data is presented in different units (thousand metric tons for France, compared to million pounds in the US), making a direct comparison nearly impossible. Second, the pesticide amounts are not standardized per unit area, which is critically important since the USA has over 9 times the amount of farmland that France does; it would be shocking if the U.S. didn’t use far more pesticide when expressed this way.


It is true that France has been reducing pesticide use, but France still uses more pesticides per arable hectare than we do in the USA. In the case of fungicide & insecticides, a LOT more. But a relatively tiny proportion of these differences are likely due to GMOs; pesticide use depends on climate, pest species, crop species, economics, availability, tillage practices, crop rotations, and countless other factors. And almost all of these factors differ between France and the U.S. So this comparison between France and the U.S., especially at such a coarse scale, is mostly meaningless, especially with respect to the GMO question. If one of France’s neighboring EU countries with similar climate and cropping practices had adopted GMOs, that may have been a more enlightening (but still imperfect) comparison.

Given all of these confounding factors, I wonder why France was singled out by Mr. Hakim as the only comparison to compare pesticide use trends. Pesticide use across Europe varies quite a bit, and trends in most EU countries are increasing, France is the exception in this respect, not the rule.

My take?  As I've noted in previous posts before, it is pretty well acknowledged that biotech likely increased herbicide (but not pesticide) use, though it is important to consider relative toxicity of different pesticides used (which the Times article didn't do as best I can tell).  It is also important to recognize that research shows that adoption of herbicide resistant soy has led to greater adoption of low- and no-till farming practices.  And, while the biotech traits have sometimes been incorporated into varieties that were lower yielding, if you look, on average, at a large number of studies, that yield tends to increase with biotech adoption.   Moreover, as I wrote in a post about a study in Nature Biotechnology: 

the biotech varieties had an important risk-reducing effects, even if they sometimes led to slightly lower yields. Moreover, biotech can save on other inputs like labor. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time hoeing and spraying cotton weeds. That job is (thankfully) now obsolete due to biotechnology.

I don't know whether GMOs have fail to live up to their promise.  That would require us to know something about farmers' expectations prior to adoption.  What I do know is that the vast majority of corn, soybean, and cotton farmers have continued to buy higher priced biotech seeds.  Why?  The NYT article makes no attempt to answer this question.