Re: GM crops and a herd mentality (28/2/2007)

We recently drew attention to how a herd mentality can affect the uptake of GM crops not just in the developing world, as shown by the newly published multiyear study of the behaviour of cotton farmers in India, but also in the *developed* world.

In that context we noted how the biotech industry in its promotion of GM crops had abandoned the accepted practice in the US of making new seeds available first to extension agricultural scientists, so they could run controlled trials and advise farmers on their use according to the results. Instead, we noted, the companies had gone direct to the farmers with their PR machines at full throttle. See our comment here

As we've been asked to clarify this point, we've extracted below the comments of a US Extension Specialist, Chuck Hagedorn, from an article written by land agent Mark Griffiths back in January '99 on some of the performance problems emerging with GM crops in the US.

Note, incidentally, that Hagedorn's belief, when he made his comments in Autumn '98, that once a new Roundup resistant weed emerged it would be enough to sober up USDA has proven hugely over-optimistic - see HERBICIDE RESISTANCE OMINOUS THREAT TO COTTON



Research publicised in 1998 by the University of Arkansas and the agro-chemical giant Cyanamid (whose sales of residual herbicides have been badly hit by the new broad spectrum herbicide resistant GM varieties) revealed reduced profit levels and lower yields for GM soya and cotton compared with unmodified varieties.

Surely some mistake. If there were problems with GM crops then US farmers wouldn't be growing them, right? After all penny-pinching American farmers are not technically and financially gullible, are they?

These anomalies led me to an interesting exchange of email correspondence, plus a particularly lengthy transatlantic telephone conversation, in September 1998 with Dr Charles Hagedorn, Professor of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, of Virginia Tech University.

In addition to his academic work, Professor Hagedorn is an Extension Specialist within the Virginia Co-operative Extension Service operated in conjunction with Virginia State University and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The service is part funded by both state and federal governments. As an Extension Specialist Chuck Hagedorn's task is to transfer research findings and agronomic advice from the service partners directly to working farmers in Virginia so that they have access to the best science when selecting crop varieties and designing field management strategies. Similar arrangements exist in other US states.

As a scientist Chuck Hagedorn was not entirely happy with the way US farmers are being drawn into using what many regard as an unproven technology. He agreed to go 'on the record' regarding some of his observations about the way GM crops have been introduced in the States:

"Traditionally, companies in the US introduce a new variety, and our Extension crop specialists (in each state where the crop is grown) then field test the new variety for at least 3 to 5 years. During this field testing process the Extension crop specialists introduce the new variety to farmers in their region and give them unbiased information (the good points and bad points) about growing the new variety. The Ag companies get good information about the performance of their new varieties from this 'traditional' crop evaluation process as well.

With the GM crops, this traditional process has been largely bypassed, mainly due to the rush to try and establish market share with the GM crops. Now, the Ag companies are going directly to the farmers with contracts for growing their GM crops, and the Extension crop specialist is 'out of the loop'. In the US, sales of the GM crops to farmers have gone wild, and farmers all want them - whether they need them or not. This is a classic case of what has been described in the literature as a situation where commercial development and marketing is way ahead of the science.

Our USDA is now deregulating GM crops with great speed, so I don't see the situation changing. It will take some type of major problem (such as a Bt-resistant cotton weevil or a roundup resistant weed) to make USDA take a slower approach. The GM crop advocates, of course, claim that no such problems will occur. I don't think it wise to presume to be in such complete control of biology."

[Griffiths' full article on poor performing GM crops in the US is available at http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpWESSEX/Documents/gmlemmings.htm ]

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