(Beyond Pesticides, June 12, 2012) Monsanto’s new drought tolerant corn, DroughtGard, reduces crop losses only modestly during moderate droughts, and will not reduce the crop’s water requirements, according to a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report finds that traditional breeding and improved farming practices have done more to increase drought tolerance, and that further improvements in genetic engineering are unlikely to solve the drought problem in coming years.
Monsanto’s advertising campaigns touted its intention to develop seeds that yield “more crop per drop,” but there is no evidence that DroughtGard will help the crops or farmers use water more efficiently. The report, High and Dry: Why Genetic Engineering is Not Solving Agriculture’s Drought Problem in a Thirsty World, finds that during limited testing DroughtGard ””the only crop genetically engineered (GE) for drought tolerance approved for commercial use, containing the engineered gene cspB”” reduced crop losses by about six percent. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) analysis of data supplied by Monsanto show that DroughtGard produces only modest results, and only under moderate drought conditions. The report estimates that DroughtGard does not improve water use efficiency. By comparison, breeding and improved farming practices have increased drought tolerance by roughly one percent per year over the past several decades. UCS calculates this is roughly equal to or better than what the new GM corn has demonstrated.
Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all water extracted from rivers and wells, making drought a serious and costly problem for farmers. An extreme drought still plaguing Texas triggered a record $5.2 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 alone. Monsanto’s new corn is not likely to provide any practical help under such conditions, even by the company’s guarded claims. In terms of crop yields, DroughtGard will increase overall corn production by about one percent because it is likely to be of practical value on only about 15 percent of U.S. corn acreage. Breeding and improved farming practices increase corn production by about 1.5 to 2 percent annually.
According to the report, DroughtGard is further handicapped by the fact that it will work well only under moderate drought conditions, and climate scientists predict that drought frequency and severity likely will increase in some regions as climate change worsens. The fact that drought is not predicable also makes it difficult for farmers to decide whether it is worthwhile to buy DroughtGard seed prior to the growing season.
“Farmers are always looking to reduce losses from drought, but the biotechnology industry has made little real-world progress on this problem,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D., a senior scientist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Despite many years of research and millions of dollars in development costs, DroughtGard doesn’t outperform the non-engineered alternatives.”
Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn hybrids are in the final phase before commercialization in on-farm field trials. The company hopes to roll the product out commercially next year. The evidence suggests that alternatives to GE ””classical breeding, improved farming practices, or crops naturally more drought-tolerant than corn, such as sorghum and millet”” can produce better results, often at lower cost. Drought is a significant problem for agriculture in the U.S. and globally. Last year, extreme drought in Texas and throughout the U.S. South wiped out crops and left livestock without pasture or hay, with damages to the agriculture industry calculated at more than $5 billion.
The U.S. has in recent times moved to deregulate GE crops without fully understanding the human health and environmental consequences, and without sufficient evidence to support the claims made by the technology. Another recent report highlights scientific research and empirical experiences around the globe that demonstrate the failure of GE seeds and crops to deliver on their advertised promises to increase yields, reduce pesticide usage, and tolerate drought with “climate ready” traits.
Most recently, USDA is considering deregulating GE corn engineered to be tolerant to 2,4-D as a means of controlling weeds that have become resistant to Roundup (glyphosate). GE crops tolerant to Roundup have proliferated over the last decade and have directly resulted in resistant “super weeds.” Beyond Pesticides and dozens of other organic and environmental organizations wrote comments to USDA, urging the agency to not allow this new strain of GE corn to enter the environment.
The U.S. decision to welcome and deregulate GM crops fails to take into account several scientifically-validated environmental concerns, such as the indiscriminate nature of genetically modified gene flow in crops, a heavy reliance on faulty data, and a high degree of uncertainties in making safety determinations. It also overlooks the problem of herbicide-resistant weeds and insects, as well as the widespread corruption of conventional seed varieties by GE strains, along with documented severe economic injury to farmers and markets. There is also an oversight of possible health consequences from eating GE foods, despite the fact that long-term health effects of consuming GM food are still largely unstudied and unknown.
Fortunately, GE crops are not permitted in organic food production. For more information about why organic is the right choice, see our Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience Guide and visit the Organic Program page. For more information on the failure of genetically engineered food, read “Genetically Engineered Food: Failed promises and hazardous outcomes,” from the Summer 2011 issue of Pesticides and You, or go to our Genetic Engineering web page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.