GM crops: Follow the money

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Supposedly objective scientific and economic assessments of the benefits of genetically modified crops are often biased by the fact they are funded by the very organisations they analyse, argues Wenonah Hauter.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Europe, a consumer rights group that promotes sustainable agriculture and resource use. Additional analysis and references related to this op-ed are available in Food & Water Europe's report 'Cooking the Books: A Methodological Critique of PG Economics' 2011 Global Report on GM Crops'.

"The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) has done it again. Their annual 'state of play' report on genetically-modified (GM) agriculture, paid for by a host of vested interests including Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and CropLife International, uses inflated claims and sleight of hand to 'demonstrate' the alleged popularity of GM crops.

For example, having invented the concept of 'trait hectares' to calculate the global uptake of GM that even a child could see doesn't add up (e.g., if one acre of crop has six stacked GM traits in it, the ISAAA counts it as 6 hectares of GM), this year the ISAAA once again relies on material from the controversial Brookes and Barfoot team behind the pro-GM consultancy PG Economics.

PG Economics, which claims to be 'objective and focused on using reliable and substantiated facts,' in fact has significant ties to the biotech industry, calling into question the impartiality of its analysis, which has time and time again been challenged on their manipulation of data.

The illegitimacy of their approach was exposed in 2009 by agronomist Charles Benbrook, whose many roles include executive director of the Board on Agriculture at the US National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences.

Nevertheless, PG Economics enjoys a wide-ranging appeal in pro-GM policy and lobbying circles. As well as being used by the biotech industry to support their marketing strategies, the company supplies consultancy services to the British and the American Soybean Association.

Brookes and Barfoot's work was even used in 2008 by the European Commission to demonstrate elevation in GM yields without reflecting PG Economic's own admission: "In other regions, however, profits were only marginal" (ie, the yield was only higher in one province of the three Spanish regions studied, but GM did not actually improve yields anywhere else).

This is significant as it was an early part of the framing of the debate on devolved GM cultivation decisions (or 'bans,' at that time referred to as 'socio-economic considerations') the EU is still wrestling with as member states look at the evidence of wider negative impacts of GM crops emerging from a host of scientists worldwide.

Some EU members appear to appreciate the relationships – in a 2010 study the GM-sceptic Austrian government explored the socio-economic impacts of GM cultivation and listed Brookes and Barfoot as 'Industry or somehow affiliated to industry'.

The stakes are high, so information matters. During the global food crises of 2007–08 and 2010–11, agribusiness gained massive profits. Pro-biotech interests — particularly industry giant Monsanto — have since launched a variety of public relations strategies, including advertising campaigns and a series of reports touting the benefits of transgenic agriculture to farmers and the environment.

Our analysis finds that the Monsanto-funded reports use questionable methods and present misleading assessments of the impacts of genetically engineered crops.

From 2009 to 2011, Monsanto sponsored annual reports on the global economic and environmental impacts of GM crop varieties published by PG Economics. While the findings in these reports have been well received by industry and pro-biotech groups, a closer look at the 2011 report titled 'GM crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts, 1996-2009' reveals faulty analysis that overstates the benefits of genetically engineered crops, while understating their costs.

The use of creative data methods does not change the fact that GM is not needed to feed the world and that more sustainable and equitable alternatives can be just as, if not more, productive. A more reliable assessment of whether transgenic agriculture fits into a more sustainable and equitable future would require a look at the full range of socioeconomic and environmental consequences.

This means using real-world data where available and fully accounting for negative impacts on crop diversity, non-target species, soils, small farms and people's ability to control their food system. It should also include consideration of how consolidation of market power in the seed, chemical and grain industries affects farmers and consumers around the world.

When this is done, the GM picture is far from rosy, whatever the industry says, or pays others to say, and it's past time for European policy makers to stop relying on such questionable sources. Rampant weed resistance and growing insect resistance in the US and elsewhere are exposing the serious flaws in the GM experiment.

In the past few weeks alone Monsanto has pulled its GM maize out of France and BASF said it would suspend the development of GM crops in Europe, with a member of the company's board saying "it does not make business sense" to continue trying to operate in a market that doesn't want what they have to sell.

The only way the GM industry and their supporters can make GM look good is if they cook the books. The only way they can sell their product is in unlabelled packages in the US and elsewhere so consumers don't now where it is. This smacks of desperation, not success."

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