GMOs cut greenhouse gas emissions, says new report (12/10/2005)

Monsanto has commissioned a report from PG Economics Ltd. The report was written by the company’s directors: Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot. Barfoot also heads an organisation called Bioportfolio which has the motto: 'Serving the biotechnology industry' and both Brookes and Barfoot have a long and controversial history of producing reports that do exactly that.

A paper summarising the new report has also been published by the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management & Economics (aka AgBioForum). Although this is being presented to journalists as a peer reviewed journal, it has CS Prakash on its board and it is funded by the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance whose purpose is "to fund biotechnology research... directed at expanding the volume of profitable businesses in the US food and agricultural sector".

The science in the new report is somewhat less than impressive. It's not even clear where half of their figures come from. Most of the references are presentations at biotech conferences and unpublished articles and very few appear to have been peer reviewed. Some of the cited papers are from PG Economics Ltd itself (whose biotech reports are mostly funded by the biotech industry), the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy (described by an article in Science as 'a pro-GM industry group'), ISAAA (industry funded), etc.

The most outlandish claim in the report is that biotech crops are helping to counter global warming. As the article below notes, the report claims:

"biotech crops contributed to significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This reduction results from decreased fuel use, about 475 million gallons in the past nine years, and additional soil carbon sequestration because of reduced plowing or improved conservation tillage associated with biotech crops. In 2004, this reduction was equivalent to eliminating more than 22 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or removing 5 million cars - one-fifth of cars registered in the United Kingdom - from the road for one year."

But reduced plowing or improved conservation tillage - low or no till agriculture - does not require GM crops. The land agent Mark Griffiths quotes the US Dept of Agriculture's own analysis on this:

"Using herbicide-tolerant seed did not significantly affect no-till adoption."

Griffiths comments:

"This finding sits in stark contrast to the claims of those who have attempted to promote GM crops on the back of rising economic and environmental interest in no-till crop husbandry.

As the USDA report points out, the no-till acreage in America had already been steadily rising before the introduction of GM crops. That prior trend has since simply continued. In fact to some degree it has subsequently stagnated according to the USDA analysis.

It has never been necessary to grow GM crops in order to carry out no-till agriculture. In fact the countries that have been expanding no-till agriculture at the fastest rate in proportion to their total arable area are in Latin America, where only Argentina grows GM crops on a substantial commercial scale (no-till was introduced on tractor-mechanised and large farms in Paraguay in 1990 and by 1997 51% of its total cultivated area was 'no-tilled'. The relative figures in 2000/1 are for Paraquay 52%, Argentina 32%, Brazil 21%, and the United States 16%.)."
Ironically, where no-till is associated with GM herbicide-resistant crops, it is being undermined by the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, as a U.S. weed extension specialist noted recently, "With glyphosate-resistant horseweed we've already seen a reduction in no-till acres."

Growing weed resistance also means increased use of chemicals and more tractor movements to deliver them. Another problem generating more chemicals and more tractor movements is that of volunteers. Just published research shows that this can be a significant problem with GM canola (rape) for as long as 15 years after the crop is grown. The study, published by the Royal Society, concluded there was "a potentially serious problem associated with the temporal persistence of rape seeds in soil."

In any case, the claim made by the report for decreased chemical use on GM crops is seriously open to challenge. A 2003 technical paper by Dr Charles Benbrook analysed all the publicly available US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on pesticide use in the US since 1996 when GM crops were first introduced. It looked at pounds of pesticides applied and found that, while they initially led to a reduction in pesticide use, in the period 2001-2003 GM crops actually *increased* use of over all pesticides by over 73 million pounds.

There is also pretty good evidence that the increased corporatising of farms that GM-agriculture encourages globally, not least in developing countries, will result in more machines, larger farms with fewer workers and the growing of export not subsistence crops - all likely to result in an increase in greenhouse gases.

Also, if we really wanted to tackle the climate change impacts of farming, the main area to look at would be nitrogen fertilizers - where most CO2 emissions related to farming are found.

Graham Brookes was also punting the new report at a biotech industry conference going on in London.

Here's today’s conference session:

Here's the full programme:

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