GE Seeds Are a Mixed Bag, Report Says

There’s still no definitive word on whether GE seeds increase farmers’ yields, a new report from the Economic Research Service says.

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CLARIFICATION: After we published this story, Joe Funk, the editor of Seed Today, got in touch with us. He said the number of field test permits a seed company receives doesn’t necessarily relate directly to the number of genetically engineered crops the company takes to market. The permits are for field tests only. Also, for a number of reasons, the permit numbers don’t necessarily reflect that one company has conducted more field tests than another. We appreciate the information Mr. Funk provided, and our article has been revised. More explanation is at the bottom of our story.

After 15 years of increasing use of genetically engineered crops, there’s no simple answer to the question of how the modified crops affect the economics of agriculture, a new report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service shows.

For one thing, there’s no clear evidence of whether genetically engineered crops increase farmers’ yields. 

“Over the first 15 years of commercial use, GE seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials,” the report says. “In fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties…”

Whether GE seeds help farmers earn more from their crops doesn’t have a simple answer either. GE seeds can reduce yield losses due to pests. But whether that results in more profit for farmers depends on how much they spend on the seed, how much of the crop is saved from loss and how much the farmer has to spend on pesticides, the report says.

GE crops are linked to increased use of herbicides like Roundup but decreased use of insecticides.

USDA Economic Research Service
The percentage of U.S. cropland planted in GE crops has increased dramatically in the past 15 years.

Farmers are paying more for GE seed (the price of such seeds has climbed 50% since 2001). But they also receive higher prices per unit for GE crops than conventional crops.

The percentage of acres planted in GE crops has risen steadily since 1996. In 2013 90% or more of all acres planted in corn, soybeans and cotton were GE crops. (The chart above shows the growth in GE crop acreage since 1996)

The study also finds that the majority of GE corn and cotton planted is “stacked,” which means the plants are engineered to have resistance to both insecticides and herbicides. (See the chart below.)

Finally, there’s consumer preference. And the answer here, once again, is “it depends.” The ERS report cites a number of studies that attempt to discover whether consumers will pay more for food that does not contain GE crops. The conclusions vary, and the ERS says “the patterns are not clear enough to draw definite conclusions.”

USDA Economic Research Service
This chart shows the growth in the percentage of U.S. corn acreage that is planted in genetically engineered crops. Bt crops are engineered to resist insects; Ht to resist herbicides. “Stacked” GE crops (represented in yellow in the chart) are engineered to resist both insecticides and herbicides.

 

In an earlier version of this story, we linked the growth of Monsanto’s share of the corn-seed market (which grew from 14% to 35% over the past decade) to the number of permits Monsanto had received to field-test genetically engineered crops.

There is insufficient information in field-test permit data to draw that conclusion, says Joe Funk of Seed Today.

Even though Monsanto has received more than six times the number of permits as its nearest competitor (see chart at the top of the story), this doesn’t necessarily mean Monsanto has taken those crops to market, Funk said. Seed companies may also “bundle” multiple field tests under one permit, so the number of permits does not necessarily translate to the number of field tests conducted.

We apologize for the error.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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