The organic food market is growing and according to some studies (pdf file 132KB), this demand is being driven by increasing consumer resistance to genetically modified (GM) foods. This resistance in turn is driven by anti-GM campaigning. In Australia, state government bans on GM food crops prevent the planting of GM corn, soybeans and canola, varieties grown overseas, including in the US.
Recently the Australian organics industry has sponsored a lecture tour by anti-GM advocate and US-based consultant Dr Charles Benbrook.
As part of this tour, Benbrook has made several claims, such as GM crops have been a failure in the US and herbicide use, particularly for GM soybeans, is at record levels. This story was picked up and run by numerous media outlets, including ABC radio.
The only problem is that what Benbrook has said is not supported by the available evidence.
Information on herbicide use is available at the US Department of Agriculture website. This data shows that over the past 10 years the area planted to GM soy has increased and that overall herbicide use has remained steady.
Last year 87 percent of the total area planted to soybeans in the US was planted to GM varieties. Yield was a record high at 42.5 bushels per acre while herbicide use was equivalent to 1996 levels, the year the first GM variety was planted.
In fact, soybean production in 2004 totalled 3.14 billion bushels, making it the largest soybean crop in US history. It is difficult to reconcile these statistics with an out-of-control weed problem as claimed by Benbrook.
While the statistics indicate that herbicide use has not declined in soybeans, there has been an almost complete shift to the more environmentally friendly herbicide, glyphosate. In this regard the GM technology has been spectacularly successful.
Earlier this week a report (pdf file 107KB) from the US National Centre of Food and Agricultural Policy sang the praise of GM technologies, claiming that GM varieties increased yields, decreased production costs and provided $2.3 billion in additional revenue to US farmers.
Interestingly Australia was the first country to release a GM organism, the crown gall bacterium, in 1988. Since then, we have made only one other release, GM cotton, first planted in 1996.
Now grown on 90 per cent of cotton farms, the latest GM varieties have reduced pesticide use (pdf file 2.44MB) by an average 88 per cent, allowing beneficial insects to return to fields and reducing the risk of pollution.
About 35 per cent of the vegetable oil we consume in Australia is from cotton seed. Most of the rest of our vegetable oil is from canola. A Greenpeace anti-GM campaign deceptively targeted GM canola (pdf file 60KB) as the first GM food crop and ignored GM cotton as an existing source of vegetable oil. This campaign led to the state bans on GM food crops with only cotton exempt, on the basis it is grown primarily for fibre.
Incredibly, in Australia we have banned GM varieties that could help us reduce our ecological footprint, through the use of more environmentally friendly herbicides in the case of soybeans and canola.
Ironically, while the Victorian Government has banned GM food crops, Victorian farmers import large quantities (pdf file 152KB) of GM soybeans from the US to feed their dairy cows. Europe is supposedly GM free but imported $858 million worth of GM soya last year, also from the US.
Benbrook’s tour has added to the confusion and fear and included claims at odds with the official statistics. The misapprehension is likely to reinforce opposition to GM technologies and increase market share for organic farmers.
The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics has reported that failure to commercialise GM crops will cost Australian agriculture $3 billion by 2015. Executive director Brian Fisher has said that growth in GM crops overseas will disadvantage Australian grain and oilseed producers as non-GM varieties are more expensive to produce. Furthermore, he has said that current bans are negatively impacting innovation and research in Australian agriculture.
Misinformation from anti-GM campaigning comes at a significant economic and environmental cost. Benbrook and the organics industry may be unintentionally playing an expensive game with Australian agriculture.