Scientists can, and should, keep debating the dangerousness and unpredictability of genetical interference in food production, the effects of GMOs on pesticide usage and its possible relation to cancer and other diseases. On a more fundamental level, however, the most important question is the following: why would we even want genetically modified instead of organic food on our plate? The main answer, proponents claim, is that GMOs are necessary to enhance the amount of global food production as they are one of the if not the only viable solution at increasing yield and thus at fighting global hunger. Much of the GMO discourse rests on this assertion, which means that when it is debunked as a myth, the whole argument for the need of genetically engineering our food almost totally succumbs in the blink of an eye.
Following the Second World War, modern yield-increasing agriculture methods were gradually introduced throughout the world, which, so argued agribusiness giants and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations who supported them, would reduce world hunger. In reality, this so-called “Green Revolution” gave rise to an unseen amount of control over the global food production by a handful of Anglo-American companies, in the process of which wealthy landowners became richer and poor peasant farmers remained poor. The same companies and organisations who were at the forefront of the Green Revolution, using basically the same arguments, then went on to foment the “Gene Revolution.” While they further consolidated their grip on the global food supply from the mid-1980s onwards, they argued that at the same time, GMOs would increase yield, reduce pesticide usage and be the ultimate solution to global hunger and poverty. This argumentation implied that, by opposing or even criticising the GMO project, one de facto supported genocide against the world’s poor.
Over the last couple of years, two decades into the Gene Revolution, however, it has become crystal clear that GMOs have failed on their promise. In July 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based non-profit science advocacy organisation with a membership numbering hundreds of thousands of professional scientists and private citizens, published a report on “biotechnology’s broken promises” called Failure to yield. The organisation carefully examined the record of genetically modified (GM) crops in the US, where they have been commercially grown since the mid-1990s and where the best and most extensive data on GMOs is available. Specifically, they reviewed the data of soybeans and corn, the main GM food crops. “Despite proponents’ claims,” the authors concluded, “genetic engineering has actually done very little to increase the yields of food and feed crops. Given such a track record, it appears unlikely that this technology will play a leading role in helping the world feed itself in the foreseeable future.” Although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data do show rising crop yields nationwide since the 1990s, the study found that most of the gains cannot be attributed to the adoption of GMOs. For instance, USDA data showed a 28% increase in corn production per acre between the periods 1991-1995 and 2004-2008, but the Union of Concerned Scientists discovered that only 3-4% of that growth was attributable to the genetically engineered Bt corn, as opposed to 24-25% that had resulted from other factors, such as traditional breeding.
A 2013 article published in the International Journal of Agricultural sustainability, too, found that “relative to other food secure and exporting countries (e.g. Western Europe), the US agroecosystem is not exceptional in yields.” By comparing agricultural productivity of staple crops such as maize, canola and wheat between North America and Western Europe over the last 50 years, the authors maintain that “the US (and Canadian) yields are falling behind economically and technologically equivalent agroecosystems matched for latitude, season and crop type.” Contrary to the often-made claim that Europe’s reluctance to embrace GMOs is causing it to fall behind the US, the opposite is thus in fact the case.
More recently, more mainstream outlets, too, are starting to point to the failure of GM crops to increase food production. In 2001, the USDA had already admitted that “the application of biotechnology at present is most likely […] not to increase maximum yields. More fundamental scientific breakthroughs are necessary if yields are to increase.” Fifteen years later, however, those “fundamental scientific breakthroughs” remain absent, as is now acknowledged in mainstream publications. In 2016, the US National Academy of Sciences released a report about the “experiences and prospects” of GM crops. Although the Academy does not exclude potential yield increases in the future (without backing that claim up with evidence, it should be mentioned), it agreed with the above-mentioned studies, namely that “the nation-wide data on maize, cotton and soybean in the United States do not show a significant signature of genetic-engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.” That same year, the New York Times, the establishment “paper of record,” conducted its own comparative research between North American and Western European agricultural productivity in a study that used data from the UN, and too concluded that “the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields – food per acre – when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers such as France and Germany.”
Furthermore, by analysing data from the US Geological Survey, the Times study also discovered that overall pesticide usage had increased, not decreased, since the adoption of GMOs in the US. Although the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi had fallen by a third, “the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent. By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage – 65 percent – and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.” Not only has insecticide and fungicide usage thus dropped twice as fast in a technologically comparable but quasi GMO-free environment, the results suggest that usage of herbicides only declines in GMO-poor agroecosystems. Therefore, another argument of GMO apologists, that GM technology would reduce pesticide usage, is thereby called into question as well. And indeed, the Times study mentioned that herbicide use in soybeans, a leading American GM crop, had skyrocketed since the adoption of GMOs in the US, having grown two and a half times in the last two decades, at a time when planted acreage of the crop grew by less than a third. This was not new information for sceptics, though. A 2012 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe discovered that, paradoxically, “herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 239 million kilogram increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011.” Recognising that insecticide use had fallen, the author calculated that over this same period of time that GMOs were gradually introduced in America, overall pesticide usage actually rose by 7%. ….