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Monsanto, Danforth officials dispute New York Times report on crop yields

Botanist Nigel Taylor checks the stems of cassava plants at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur.
File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Nigel Taylor, a botanist at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, checks the stems of cassava plants.

St. Louis developers of genetically-modified organisms have called into question a New York Times report that compares the yields of genetically modified crops between North America and Europe.

Using data from the United Nations, an investigative report published over the weekend by the Timesclaimed that "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." Agriculture in the United States and Canada has embraced GMOs, while many European countries have banned cultivation of them for many years. The article also cites a National Academy report released this yearthat said there is no evidence that using GM crops have accelerated yield. 

In a statement released Monday, Monsanto said that it's tough to compare yields between large geographic areas, such as the United States and Europe.

"Focusing on a comparison between smaller regions allows for better control of variables and a more accurate comparison," the company said.  It further suggested it would be more fair to compare yield of a GM crop in Ontario, Canada and France, since the two areas are agronomically similar. 

"From a scientific perspective, it's rather incomplete and unfortunately, somewhat misleading," Jim Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, said of The Times' report. 

Some research projects at the center involve GMOs, such as a genetically modified cassava that's being tested in Uganda. 

"You see benefits in yield with certain GMOs that are regional and you see certain benefits that are crop-specific," Carrington said. 

He noted that improvements in yield might be seen in one region of the United States and less so in others because they are grown in different environments. However, even in areas that don't show increases in yield, there may be other benefits.

"The benefit may not be yield," Carrington said. "The benefit is that you can maintain your yield and use far, far less of the synthetic, more generally hazardous pesticide." 

Carrington also took issue with the Times' comparison of pesticide use. France, he said, actually uses five times as much herbicide and fungicide as the United States.

Robert Fraley, Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer, accused the Times of cherry-picking its data. But Glenn Stone, a Washington University anthropology professor who studies GMOs, thinks that's hardly the case. 

"The comparisons not only show interesting trends, but it reminds us that just about everything you can say about this technology depends on what you compare it to," Stone said. "The real question isn't what yields have done since G.M. crops were introduced; it's what they have done compared to what they would have done anyway."

He added that it would have been "more striking" if the report found a good comparison for soybeans. Monsanto's Roundup-Ready soybean, the most widely planted GM crop, has demonstrated a slightly lower yield than non-GM soybeans. 

Stone believes the Times' analysis likely won't have a direct impact on farmers' choices, but he hopes that it could change some of the public dialogue on GMOs. 

"Too often the claims about the potential benefits of GM technologies obscure the many ways that agriculture can grow without them," Stone said.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.