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.