- Christopher Preston
"GE crops a flop in the USA." The GeneEthics Network makes this bold statement as part of their recent publicity for the upcoming visit of Dr. Charles Benbrook to Australia. Dr. Benbrook is apparently to tell us "what's really happening with GE crops in North America, and why we should say 'no' to them here". I don't know quite what Dr. Benbrook will tell us about how GE crops have flopped. I do know the claim that GE crops have stalled, flopped or are otherwise being given up by farmers in the US and elsewhere is not infrequently made in letters to the editor, press releases and other statements in the Australia media. However, whenever I look at the situation, I can find little support for the claims made.
We can look at how farmers perceive GM crops by looking at the levels of adoption. If after 10 years GM crops were a flop, farmers should have already decided to stop growing them. A quick look at the area of crops grown demonstrates this is not the case. The statistics on the area sown to GM crops are easy to obtain for soybean, cotton and corn (or maize). They are available from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/field/pcp-bba/).
In 2002 75% of all soybean acreage in the US was sown to GM soybeans. In 2004, that had risen to 85% of soybean acreage and to 87% in 2005. This year, 63.8 million acres of GM soybeans were grown. In 2002, 34% of the corn acreage in the US was sown to GM corn. By 2004, this had climbed to 47% and to 52% in 2005. That means 42.4 million acres of GM corn were grown. In 2002, 71% of the area of upland cotton was GM. This had also increased to 76% of the cotton area by 2004 and 79% in 2005. This year, 10.9 million acres of GM cotton were grown.
Data are not as readily available for the area of other GM crops grown in the US, papaya, canola and alfalfa. The primary source for information on the area of GM papaya, the Hawaiian Agricultural Statistical Service, gives variety information only up to 2002 (www.nass.usda.gov/hi/prisetoc.htm). In that year, between 44 and 48% of the area was sown to GM papaya. That would be just under 1000 acres. For canola, I have had to rely on a range of secondary sources (e.g. http://www.pewbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/display.php3?FactsheetID=2,
http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/environment_select_committee_report.htm, http://www.grdc.com.au/growers/gc/gc53/genescene.htm) that normally cite "industry statistics". These suggest GM canola was planted on 60% of the area in 2002, 75% of the area in 2003 and 84% of the area in 2004. Colleagues in the industry have given me similar estimates for 2004. In 2005, there was 1.1 million acres of canola grown, of which at least 700,000 acres would have been GM. I could obtain no statistics on the area of GM alfalfa, which is being planted commercially for the first time this year. However, I have been told by weed scientists in both Colorado and California that most, and in some places all, of the seed available for 2005 has been sold. There are 22.1 million acres of alfalfa grown in the US, so even a small percentage of that will be a significant area.
Therefore, in total we have over 117 million acres of GM crops in the US. For those, who like me, are more familiar with the metric system, this equates to about 47 million hectares of GM crops. In my local perspective, this is twice the area of grain cropping in all of Australia. If this is a flop, what will Dr. Benbrook count as a success?
Not only is there a large area sown to GM crops in the US, the area sown is continuing to grow each year. This is even true for crops like soybeans and cotton where large percentages of the area have been sown to GM crops for some years.