NYT Blasts GMOs on Yield, Pesticide Claims

03:23PM Nov 01, 2016
Trey Kimbrell, 9, harvesting corn
( Lindsay Kimbrell )

GMO technology is often under fire by critics who make various health and safety claims. Proponents typically respond that GMO crops use fewer pesticides and generate higher yields. A recent article from the New York Times, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” is challenging those assumed benefits.

“The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — 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,” according to the article. “To the industry, shifting crucial crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed almost entirely to genetically modified varieties in many parts of the world fulfills a genuine need. To critics, it is a marketing opportunity.”

NYT says it reviewed independent data, academic and industry research to reach these conclusions. However, academia and industry have quickly fired back at the news organization with rebuttals.

Robb Fraley, chief technology officer with Monsanto, wrote a guest column for the Huffington Post. In the column, Fraley argues point by point why biotech does prove its value in a case study that compares France, with no biotechnology, versus Ontario, with biotechnology. Because the two regions are similar in climate and crop maturity, Fraley suggests this is a fair comparison.

“France had both higher yields and a more rapid rate of gain than Ontario before the advent of biotech. In the years since its introduction, however, Ontario’s rate of gain has more than doubled while France’s has plummeted. Now Ontario’s yields surpass France’s,” Fraley says in the Huffington Post column.

Monsanto isn’t the only industry member to speak out. Bayer’s CEO Jim Blome wrote to NYT’s editor with criticism of his own.

“The report focused narrowly on two benefits out of dozens of GM crops,” Blome says in his letter to NYT. “Then it solely used a comparison of French and U.S./Canadian agriculture, ignoring many other comparisons that produce results counter to the anti-GM narrative.”

The American Soybean Association expresses concerns about the focus of the NYT article.

“While it is fair for the Times to point out that GMO technology is not a ‘silver bullet,’ it is important to remember that farmers are practical businesspeople. They look at what will give them the best total return, factoring in yield, seed price, input price and the price of practices like tillage. Farmers are not loyal to GMO technology based on principle, but rather on sound business logic, and overwhelmingly, these men and women have made the determination that GMO technologies make economic sense. The business judgements of millions of individual farmers – made each year for the past 20 years – provide a more complete picture about the benefits of GMOs than the New York Times’ cherry-picked data.”

Academia have showed their displeasure with NYT recently, too. Andrew Kniss, associate professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of Wyoming, recently shared his thoughts and data.

“I have to say this comparison seems borderline disingenuous; certainly not what I’d expect from an ‘extensive examination’ published in the New York Times,” Kniss says in his recent rebuttal. “The NYT provides a few charts in the article, one of which supports the statement about France’s reduced pesticide use. But the figures used to compare pesticide use in France versus the USA are convoluted and misleading.”

One concern Kniss notes is the data NYT uses to compare France and U.S. pesticide use is not in the same units (thousand metric tons for France compared to million pounds for the U.S.). In addition, he says the pesticide amounts are not standardized per unit area. This distinction is important because the U.S. has more than nine times the farmland France does, Kniss says.

The debate about GMO technology is likely to continue. Read the full NYT article here and then take a look at the rebuttals from industry and academia here, here, here and here.

What are your thoughts on the NYT article? Was it fair? Let us know in the comments, or cast your vote on this Twitter poll.