Opinion: NYT oversimplifies GMO’s impacts

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Big Ag Watch

A corn field on a central Illinois farm on Aug. 22, 2013. In the United States, roughly 90 percent of all corn comes from genetically engineered seed.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Every now and then, one of the big urban daily newspapers — Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times et al. — will wade into one agricultural issue or another.

Usually, these tomes are huge multi-reporter, multi-page, multi-graphic affairs that detail some issue with a fervor usually reserved for supermarket tabloids. Most recently, The New York Times took a turn in the fishbowl when it declared: “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops.”

All that was missing were about three explanation points.

Often, the core of these stories is that big ag is fundamentally evil. The New York Times story did not disappoint on this front.

The gist of the NYT story is that “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

The NYT treatment of GMOs as a black-and-white issue is simplistic. There are way too many variables — farming techniques, pests, soil types, weather, country economics, policy — to compare the use of GMOs in the U.S. with the European Union’s desire to keep its nations GMO free.

Still, NYT tried. The story goes on to suggest that non-GMO crops in the European Union and Canada stack up favorably when it comes to the yield comparison of U.S. GMO row crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton. It also says that U.S. producers use pesticides like there is no tomorrow in comparison with the E.U. and Canadians.

And like any good supermarket tabloid, it tossed in a scare by suggesting that “pesticides are are toxic by design — weaponized versions, like sarin, were developed in Nazi Germany — and have been linked to developmental delays and cancer.”

And for good measure, it warned of the evil dangers of agricultural consolidation.

Well…

I can usually tell whether some piece of reporting has struck a nerve among the agricultural community by gauging my email inbox — the more traffic the more angst. Backlash from the NYT report lit up my email box with lots of complaints in the form of press releases and statements from industry and trade associations alike.

Now, I’m not one to give GMOs a blanket pass as the greatest things since sliced bread. For example, as I recently blogged, there is the possibility that Monsanto may be either over-stating or over-selling the benefits of dicamba-resistant soybeans.

But the NYT story simplifies what is a very complex issue. The response from the American Soybean Association was typical of the pushback to the newspaper.

The American Soybean Association said The New York Times’ analysis of pesticide chemical use did not take into account that the U.S. has nine times more arable land compared with France — so of course looking at raw numbers, the U.S. would have higher pesticide usage.

The association goes on to say:

Additionally, while he has no problem drawing sensational and plainly false links to sarin and Agent Orange, the author fails to distinguish between even the most basic types of chemicals used. For example, over the past two decades, farmers have excelled at replacing more toxic herbicides with less toxic ones, even when applied at a higher poundage.

The article also lacks any mention of reduced or eliminated tillage as a result of increased use of GMOs on American soybean operations. Our farmers live on their land, drink from the wells, and rely on productive soil that will yield for their children and grandchildren as well. GMO technology provides for weed control without tilling the soil multiple times. This has dramatically increased the use of conservation tillage, reduced soil erosion, improved water quality, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

To its credit, NYT reporters reached out to Monsanto’s chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, for the company’s reaction ahead of publication. Fraley mostly read The New York Times the riot act, suggesting reporters were “cherry-picking” facts to cast the company in a bad light.

Ok. One could write books on the ongoing debate on the subject of GMOs. And no matter what I say here, it is not going to settle the issue one way or another. But The New York Times got it wrong — at least on the yield issue.

Increased yields in row crows have not been a function of yield-specific traits into corn and soybean seeds, but rather a byproduct of other GMO traits like drought and insect resistance.

Look, the NYT piece suggests GMOs are a single entity to be either rejected or accepted full-cloth.  That’s hokey. I argue that GMOs should be evaluated on a crop-by-crop basis on its relative merits. It is not a slam-dunk that non-GMOs are better.  Want some proof? With its rejection of genetic engineering, Europe has been breeding crops via mutagenesis, which has its own set of problems, notably a greater possibility of creating random genetic unknowns.

So, take that NYT article with a huge grain of salt.

Farmers use GMOs because they believe they provide an economic advantage. Period. That’s something the #NEVERGMO crowd will probably never  understand. Sorry NYT.


About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch

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