Science in Society Archive

Global Status of GMO and Non-GMO Crops

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho takes you behind the latest, most blatant scientific disinformation campaign to show how GMO crops have remained a minority sector in food production and shrinking from overwhelming consumer rejection; in contrast, non-GMO sectors are rapidly taking over the global food market, the largest, agro-ecological farming, is also the most sustainable, resilient and climate friendly, and currently produces over half of the world’s food

Scientific disinformation on GMO plumbs new depths

Scientific disinformation on GMOs is rife; more so and more blatant than any other area where science has become enmeshed with corporate profit. The battle to reclaim people’s food rights intensifies worldwide as the failures and hazards of GMOs can no longer be concealed behind the relentless propaganda. Within the past 18 months, learned societies, science journals and sundry scientist have joined the fray, spreading false claims that the scientific debate is over and GM food is proven safe, that GM crops are a great success with more miracles on the way, and needed to feed the world [1-4] (see our response to one of them [5] Scientific American Disinformation on GMOs, SiS 60).

This most recent global disinformation campaign has been carefully orchestrated. Anne Glover, a molecular biologist at St. Andrews University in Scotland, was appointed the European Commission’s first chief scientific advisor in 2012, and since then, used a series of interviews with EurActiv news network to promote GMOs. In an open letter addressed to Glover, Dr Brian John of GM-Free Cymru wrote [6]: “Your claim that there is no evidence of adverse GMO impacts is a lie.” He referred to a recent list compiled by GM Free USA [7] consisting of more than 1 400 scientific papers on various adverse health and environmental impacts of GM crops and related pesticides, and a statement signed by nearly 300 scientists declaring there is no consensus on the safety of GMOs [8] (Scientists Declare No Consensus on GMO Safety, SiS 60). And I-SIS has produced our own comprehensive report on the health and environmental hazards of GMOs especially in the light of the new genetics,  recommending individuals, families and local communities everywhere to institute their own ban on GMOs [9] (Ban GMOs Now). John’s timely letter [6] was released just before Glover went on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

On 14 March, five plant scientists published a report [10] for UK’s Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister, recommending a new programme of “independent research to field test “public good” GM crops,” to “support innovations to benefit consumers and the environment.” It also calls for the current “stringent” regulations of GMOs to be relaxed. Sir Mark Walport, UK’s chief scientific advisor took the opportunity to warn that “people will go unfed” without GM crops. As Geoffrey Lean reminds us [11], the current drive results from secret meetings of EU prime ministerial representatives called by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, which decided to “speed up” the spread of GM and overcome public opposition. Barroso subsequently appointed Glover as his scientific adviser. 

The report [10] was another travesty, and clearly a desperate, last ditch attempt to foist GM crops on the world.  All five supposedly “independent” plant scientists who authored the report turn out to be mouthpieces of the biotech companies and funded by them [12]. Sir David Baulcombe at Cambridge University works as a consultant for Syngenta, which gives his department research funding. Syngenta’s GM maize GA21 could go into UK farms as early as next spring.  Jonathan Jones at Sainsbury Laboratory, the centre of Britain’s GM research, is part-funded by former Labour science minister, Lord Sainsbury, one of UK’s biggest GM supporters with shares in the industry.  Jim Dunwell at University of Reading was a founder member of biotech industry-funded group CropGen, its mission “to make the case for GM crops and food.” The two remaining authors are John Pickett at Rothamsted Research and Pere Puigdomenech at Universities of Cambridge and Barcelona. Rothamsted is heavily involved in GM research, listing Aventis, Dupont, Novartis, and Syngenta as partners. Puigdomenech was co-chair of the 7th International Plant Molecular Biotechnology Congress sponsored by Monsanto, Bayer, and Dupont, and has close links with the Sainsbury Laboratory, the John Innes Centre, and Rothamsted Research Station.

If there is any remaining doubt, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) – a developer and facilitator if not supporter of GMOs despite its role as regulator - has just released an economic review of GM crops based on cultivation since 1996, and paints a much less rosy picture. Despite the rapid rise in the adoption of GM corn, soybean and cotton by farmers in the country, questions persist over their economic and environmental impact, the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds and consumer acceptance. So much so that the study concludes [13]: “it is not clear that the first generation GE seeds will benefit farmers indefinitely.”

We need to look behind the hype and falsehoods at the real global status of GMO versus non-GMO crops.

Global acreage and adoption of GMO versus non-GMO crops

According to Industry funded group ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications) – GM crops grew by 5.2 m ha to 175.2 m ha in 2013 [14], a modest 3 % increase.  GM crops are still confined to 27 countries (one less than in 2012), 19 developing, 8 industrialized. Latin American, Asian and African farmers collectively grew 95 m ha (54 % total) compared with 81 m ha grown in industrialized countries (46 %). Herbicide tolerance (HT) crops - vast majority glyphosate tolerant – occupy 100 m ha, insect resistant 26 m ha and 45 m ha stacked HT and insect resistance.

The country with the most GM crops is still the US, where three crops, corn, cotton and soybean, make up the bulk of the 169 m acres (68.4 m ha) planted [13]. This represents 39 % of global area - a startling 84.4 % of the GM area in industrialized countries - and half of the country’s cultivable land. HT soybean comprises 93 % of all planted soybean and HT corn accounted for 85 % of corn acreage while HT cotton is 82 % of all cotton. Insect resistant Bt cotton comprises 75 % of cotton, and Bt corn 76 % of corn.

The global area of agricultural land (FAO statistics 2009) includes 1381.2 m ha arable land (under cultivation of annual crops), 148.4 m ha permanent crops (orchards and vineyards), and 3 355.7 m ha permanent pastures (natural grasses and grazing for livestock such as meadows and pastureland) [15]. The first two are cultivable land totalling 1 529.6 m ha. (The total croplands in 2013 is closer to 1 600 m ha, see below).There are 196 countries in the world [16].

Thus, GMO crops occupy 11.45 % of cultivable land globally, compared with non GMO crops, which occupy 88.55 %. While GMO crops are confined to 27 countries, non GMO crops are grown in practically all 196 countries, and several countries have imposed explicit bans on GMOs within the past year, adding to dozens that have already done so (see [9]).

In October 2013, Federal judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo banned GM corn in Mexico citing an imminent threat to the environment and ruling that transnationals like Monsanto and Pioneer are banned – under pains of criminal charge - from releasing any transgenic maize as long as collective action lawsuits initiated by citizens, farmers, scientists and civil society are working their way through the judicial system [17]. One such lawsuit mounted by Accion Collectiva is intended to make Mexico GMO-Free.

France has explicitly banned the cultivation of Monsanto’s GM maize MON 810 and is seeking permanent ban on planting any GM crop [18]. Poland announced a complete ban on growing MON 810 in February 2014 [19]. Italy has already imposed its ban on the same in August 2013 [20]. Russia is preparing a bill to restrict imports of GMOs and completely ban the cultivation of GM crops in the country [21]. In Australia, the Tasmania state government announced that the state wide ban on GMOs would continue indefinitely [22].  In the United States, Big Island Hawaii has led the way in imposing a ban on testing and cultivation of GMOs [23] (Hawaii's Big Island Leads the Way in Banning GMOs, SiS 61). Towards the end of March 2014, the Karnataka government banned the sale of Bt and hybrid seeds from Mahyco – Monsanto’s Indian partners - following reports of crop failures of nearly 50 % in 7  states, with losses amounting to Rs 230 crore (> US$49.3 million, 1 crore = US$214 431). The state government is pursuing legal action as well as banning and blacklisting Mahyco from supplying Bt seeds in the state [24, 25].

 In addition, hundreds of GM free regions exist worldwide in practically all countries, with thousands of local governments, and tens of thousands of smaller areas [26].

Small-holder non-GMO agro-ecological farming areas total 560 to 600 m ha globally

An important component of non-GM agriculture is organic farming. Globally, certified organic agriculture occupies 37.5 m ha in 2013, with a further 31 m ha in organic wild collection [27]. The regions with the largest areas of certified organic agricultural land are Oceania (12.2 m ha, 32 %) and Europe (11.2 m ha, 30 %). Latin America has 6.8 m ha (18 %) followed by Asia (3.2 m ha, 9 %), North America (3 million ha, 8 percent) and Africa (1.1 m ha 3 %). Australia has the most organic agricultural land at 12 m ha, Argentina comes second with 3.6 m ha and the US third with 2.2 m hectares.

These figures account for a very small fraction of the world’s agricultural production, and are highly misleading because they have left out the small-holder family farmers who are responsible for producing most of the food consumed in the world, and as it turns out most of that is organic, though not officially certified. Thus, organic non-GMO agriculture is in fact by far the largest sector of food production in the world.

Small holder family farmers – an estimated 99% of the 2.6 billion farmers worldwide – cultivate half of the 1.6 billion ha of global croplands, producing 70 % of the food consumed in the world (including their food for themselves and their families) (see [28] Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed In Agriculture, SiS 60). These small farms (1 to 2 ha or less) are much more productive than large farms, as studies over several decades have confirmed.  Among the most successful are diverse agro-ecological farms - which satisfy all the requirements of organic agriculture and more - now practiced on an estimated three-quarters of the global croplands area cultivated by small-holder farmers, i.e., 560 – 600 m ha in Latin America, Asia and Africa [29], producing well over half of the food consumed globally.  Agro-ecological farms are diverse, with an emphasis on indigenous crops and livestock adapted to the local ecology, operating in accordance with the circular economy of nature by maximizing internal input and recycling wastes into resources [30]. These farms are not only highly productive, but also resilient to flood and drought and other climate extremes, while being much better at sequestering carbon and regenerating oxygen and hence perfect for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Practically all UN agencies and a majority of scientists and policy-makers see agro-ecological farming as the way ahead (see [25, 26] and references therein) also [31] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  (ISIS publication) and [32].

GMO versus non-GMO crops in biodiversity

GMO crops are overwhelmingly restricted to just two traits, insect resistance and herbicide tolerance in three major crops, soybean, maize and cotton. They are in fact extreme forms of industrial monoculture, and hence also most vulnerable to pest and disease outbreaks as well as climate extremes.

Non-GMO crops in comparison have diverse, complex and ecologically relevant traits such as drought, salt, and flood tolerance, disease and pest resistance, health-promoting vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, high yielding, biological controls, etc. Most of the food consumed today is derived from some 5 000 domesticated crop species and 1.9 million peasant-bred plant varieties [33].  The biodiversity of food crop species is the best protection against pests and disease outbreaks that devastate monoculture industrial crops.

We should also mention the hundreds of novel non-GM varieties that have been created, many already grown commercially in the 20 years since GM crops were first commercialized [34]; and further non-GMO successes are tumbling out of research institutes all over the world with the help of marker-assisted conventional breeding.                    

Global non-GMO market

Another major indication that the days of GMOs are numbered is that globally, the non-GMO food market is booming. According to a recent report from Packaged Facts, a market research company, global sales of non-GMO food and beverage products will double to US$ 800 billion by 2o17, growth driven largely by demand in Europe and the US [35]. Actually, people in the rest of the world, notably China, are also demanding non-GM food. Police in Huaihua city, Hunan province busted a smuggling ring of ‘US golden corn’ (said to be from Monsanto and Syngenta) via Hong Kong and Thailand, operating since 2003 [36]. Agricultural specialists had detected that part of the seed might be GM (see [37] “Disappearing Rats and Dying Pigs” Are GMOs to Blame? SiS 59), and the Chinese authorities have stepped up checks at the borders. In 2013, China blocked an unprecedented 545 000 tonnes of US corn, because it was tainted by an unauthorized GM variety MIR 162 [38]. In March 2014, Syngenta halted commercial sales in Canada of its GM rootworm resistant corn MIR162 because China and Europe have not approved it, and corn processor ADM and exporter Cargill have refused to handle it [39].

Not only are consumers demanding non-GM food, they want animal feed also to be GM free. In response to the market, GM-free soybean from Brazil for European animal feed industry is available both in sufficient tonnage and quality, according to the ProTerra Foundation, ABRANGE and VLOG, three organizations from the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil, respectively [40], refuting German Poultry Association (ZDG), which said several groups of poultry fatteners and some egg producers gave up using non-GM feed, on grounds that the supply of GM-free material from Brazil is shrinking. Agricultural analysts from Brazil said that the availability of GM-free soybean is increasing rapidly. Ricardo Tatesuzi de Sousa, Managing Director of ABRANGE, the Brazilian Association of Non-GMO Grain Producers, confirmed a 10 % increase in non-GM soya in 2014 compared to the previous year. Forecasts for the biggest soybean-prducing state Mato Grosso predict a 50 % increase over 2013. The volume and quality of GM-free soybean seeds are increasing year by year through the work of Soja Livre Program [41].

Non-GMO movements take off in the heartland of GMO

The GMO-labelling movement has had a high profile in the US; the hope is to unleash the might of consumer power to get GMOs off the food chain. With strong opposition from biotech companies and agricultural groups, it is slowly gaining ground, with labelling bills passed in Maine and Connecticut so far, and dozens still to go through in other states. Meanwhile, businesses have been taking the initiative to go GM-free, with much greater success (see [42] GMO Labelling and Non-GMO Labelling a Win-Win, SiS 61). The supermarket chain Whole Foods, already selling non-GMO and Organic labelled products, announced in 2013 that it plans to label GMO products in all its US and Canadian stores within five years; and cereal giant General Mills said it would no longer use GMOs in its original Cheerios recipe.  Target announced it would phase out GM ingredients by the end of 0f 2014 [43]. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is currently 80 % GM-Free, and expect to be completely GM-free by mid-2014 [44].

The latest to join up is Boulder-based Smart Balance, which announced it has stopped using GM GM ingredients in its 15 buttery spread and hope to be a catalyst for change in the food industry [45].

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization offering America’s only third party verification and labelling for non-GMO food and produce. The ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ seal first appeared on products in 2010, and has become one of the fastest growing labels in the natural products industry [46]. Annual sales topped US$5 billion in 2013, with more than 14 000 products verified, including meat and liquid egg products.

Meanwhile, other eco-labels are also benefiting from the GM labelling fight [47]. Trader Joe’s, a leading natural food retailer in North America, states that 80 % of its products are GMO-free, while all its own brand products are free from GM ingredients. The Organic Monitor, a global research, consulting and training company, sees voluntary GM-free labelling schemes and third party certification as the way forward for American food companies and retailers. The organic food sector, generally recognized as being free from GM ingredient, has consolidated its market share from the battle over GM labelling. Organic food sales in North America passed US$34 billion in 2013. And that does not include local farmers’ markets selling fresh non-GM or non-certified organic foods produced in more than 4 000 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms all over the country [48].

US Farmers abandoning GMOs on simple economics

Modern Farmer magazine discovered a movement among farmers abandoning GMOs in the United States, not for any other reason than simple economics [49]. Crop consultant and farmer Aaron Bloom said of non-GMO seeds, “We get the same or better yields, and we save money up front.” Bloom has been experimenting with non-GMO seeds for five years and discovered they are more profitable.

Farmers can get paid more for conventional corn, and as reconvert farmer Christ Huegerich discovered, conventional corn can produce more per acre. Two years ago, Huegerich planted 320 acres of conventional corn and 1 700 acres with GMO corn. The conventional fields yielded 15 to 30 more bushels per acre with a profit margin of up to $100 per acre. Last year, he planted conventional corn in 750 acres; he gets 50 cents per bushel premium for non GMO corn. The group Farm & Water Watch reported that 61.2 million acres of cropland in the US are plagued by weeds resistant to glyphosate.

The economics of reconverting to non-GMO is easily summed up.

  • Growing one acre of non-GMO corn cost $680.95, compared to $761.80 for an acre of GMO corn according to Bloom, i.e., $80.85 more an acre for GMO corn.
  • GMO seeds can cost up to $150 a bag more than regular seeds.
  • The market for non-GMO foods has grown from $1.3 billion in 2011 to $3.1 billion in 2013, partly because some Asian and European countries don’t want GMO seeds.
  • Grain dealer Clarkson Grain pays farmers an extra $2 a bushel for non-GMO soybeans and an additional $1 a bushel for non-GMO corn.
  • The market for non-GMO seed is growing. Sales at Spectrum Seed Solutions, which sells non-GMO seed, have doubled every year for the last four years. Sales at another company that markets non-GMO seeds, eMerge Genetics of West Des Moines, Iowa, have increased by 30 % a year for five years.
  • Spectrum Seed Solutions president Scott Odle predicts non-GMO corn could be 20 % of the market in five years.

At least 10 companies are listed offering contracts to farmers to grow non-GMO and organic grains in 2014, all offering premiums over GMOs [50].

And if that is not enough, recent media reports have revealed that Monsanto is now focusing on traditional plant breeding instead of genetic modification in the company’s Seminis vegetable seed business [51]. Monsanto also announced a partnership with Danish biotech company Novozymes to “discover, develop and sell microbial solutions that enable farmers worldwide to increase crop yields with less input.”

Article first published 03/04/14


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Tessa Comment left 4th April 2014 07:07:29
Many thanks for this article Precautionary Principle Consultation reminder: European regulations restricting the growth of genetically modified (GM) foods in the UK and across the continent are to be scrutinised in a new cross-party parliamentary inquiry launched today by MPs on the Science and Technology Committee. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) believes that GM is one of several technologies necessary to foster a “vibrant sector” in UK agriculture. But the European Union’s application of the ‘precautionary principle’ has been criticized for holding back development of the technology, despite European Commission reports finding no scientific evidence associating GM organisms with higher risks for the environment or food and feed safety. EU consultation TTIP Nuffield survey - beware of this one Take a look at members interests and beware of Ottoline Leyser :-). GMFuturos, does ISIS want to be represented in some way or maybe send something to Durham University? Forum at Royal Society in June.

Tessa Comment left 4th April 2014 07:07:09
The powers that be are busy planning the bioeconomy, including the OECD.,%202013.pdf See slides 14 and 9 i.e. "Public opinion about any new technology plays a critical role in determining whether the innovation fails or succeeds". Bioeconomy stakeholders meeting 2013 Dublin TRADE DEALS It is crucial the pressure is kept up on the EU regarding the Trade Deals. 2002 2013 I wrote to my MP and was able to ascertain that The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has set up consultative groups of key TTIP stakeholders which meet regularly to inform the Government's approach to negotiations. Apparently these groups include representatives from: business representative bodies, the Consumers' Association (Which?), the TUC and non-governmental organisations such as War on Want and Friends of the Earth. Apparently there is an inquiry into the TTIP being conducted by the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs. See evidence on risks in Trade Deal. I am not sure how these things work but the Committee seems to be contactable here: I hope to contact economists and NGOs to discuss the bioeconomy safety pitfalls (many NGOs are of course well aware of the safety and food sovereignty issues). Corporate Europe Observatory are doing some excellent work in exposing conflicts of interest at EFSA. Jubilee Debt Campaign and World Development Movement are working on the food sovereignty issues and more.