So farmers aren’t actually stupid, after all.

Well, I never thought that in the first place but some people must, given the  insistence that growing GE crops brings no economic benefit. You’d have to be a pretty poor businessman to pay out top dollar for a seed that brings no return, and of course it turns out that our farmers are no rubes.

I was able to get the data I needed from a fairly predictable source: farming states have universities that specialise in ag and lots of professors there spend their time analysing farming practices to see what is working, what is not and making recommendations for improvement (science at its finest!).

I tracked down some interesting research done by a prof at one of those ag schools, Stephen Metzger in North Dakota, which gave a great insight into this exact issue. You can find the report here it lists the direct and indirect costs of growing GE and non-GE soy; that’s a crop which is “roundup ready” rather than insect resistant so it nicely isolates a single genetically engineered modification for examination.

The quick summary is this: yes, GE seeds do cost more than ‘traditional’ seeds – a whopping 70% more – but the bottom line shows that the GE crop is 15% more profitable than the traditional one.  That’s make or break for many farms.

The full report makes interesting reading (and it is very short with a refreshing absence of opaque discussion) and it has some very interesting insights.

Two things that stand out are that, while GE crop yields are no greater, growing traditional crops results in a much greater use of  herbicides as well as 16% greater fuel consumption (understandable, since more tractor journeys to spray the crop use more fuel). There are a number of other small extra expenses which contribute to the higher cost but seeing those two leads me to conclude that GE crops have benefits which go beyond simple economics; reduction in fossil fuel use is an objective we need to keep in mind.

I was interested to find out the makeup of the extra herbicides applied to the traditional crop so I wrote to Prof Metzger and asked. His response was that “The herbicides that would be most commonly used with non-GMO soybeans would be Result, Flexstar and Raptor, which would be applied on the plants and Authority/Spartan, which would be applied to the soil”.  It’s enough for now to note that these herbicides cause just as much hyperventilation among the anti GMO crowd as does Glyphosate but I will leave it for another time to look into the relative properties of these poisons versus roundup.

Of course, the best way to reduce pesticide use on soybeans is not to grow them at all which, given that their use is mainly to produce bio-diesel and animal feed, would be my preferred solution. On the other hand, the range of alternative uses for soy is so vast and diverse that perhaps a redirection rather than cessation would be the best way.

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2 Responses to So farmers aren’t actually stupid, after all.

  1. nancyuen says:

    Although you were using soy as just an example of GE crops that are used in great quantities by many, many farmers, I’m going to just pick on one small aspect of it: the use of soy as the new “miracle” plant.
    This essay reminds me of potential problems with soy as a product in itself. I was speaking to someone recently who told me that the ingestion of soy products increases blood estrogen levels in adults (women and men) and children, which can seriously interfere with the body’s development (in children) and function, especially in susceptible populations (women with high risk of certain types o breast cancer, for instance), so it might not be a very good food crop at all. Soy may be useful as an additive (ie, cooking oil), but not as a food in itself (ie, tofu and soy “milk”). The alternative use you mentioned, biofuel, still creates carbon when burned in traditional internal combustion engines as a fossil fuel replacement, so shouldn’t that be reduced, as well, since we certainly don’t need to spew any more carbon into the atmosphere, do we? It actually sounds as if soy production ought to be limited in some fashion, so these uses of it would be reduced, prompting us to further our energy technology to find suitable, less harmful substitutes. We may be better off for it in the long run.
    Would you be in favor of seriously restricting the use of soy, then?
    Soy and corn are the two giants in industrial agriculture these days. Would you consider a comparison between the uses of soy and corn: their relative merits and potential risks? Which would be the more “useful” crop, do you think, for humankind to pursue, if at all?


  2. Pingback: Maybe Rupert Murdoch should just buy Greenpeace now. | ecoscienceblog

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