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Biotech report gets mixed reviews in N.D.

FARGO, N.D. -- The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report that concludes that -- despite implications to the contrary -- genetically engineered crops don't produce more food or fiber per acre of land.

FARGO, N.D. -- The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report that concludes that -- despite implications to the contrary -- genetically engineered crops don't produce more food or fiber per acre of land.

The report, released April 17, is getting mixed reviews in North Dakota, among thought leaders on either side of the genetically modified crop issue.

The report was written by Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist with UCS Food and Environment Program, who says traditional research delivers better results than transgenic crops. Gurian-

Sherman reviews 20 previous studies of corn and soybeans and concludes that herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn hadn't increased yields, while insect-tolerant corn did, "only marginally."

Meanwhile, the yield increases for both crops during the past 13 years is largely a result of "traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices."

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Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist and director of UCS's Food and Environment Program, writing for the report, says that after 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they "haven't helped raise the ceiling on potential yields."

Intrinsic vs. operational

The study makes a distinction between "intrinsic" and "operational" yield.

Intrinsic yield refers to performance under the best possible conditions.

Operational yield refers to yields after losses are subtracted from pests and other factors.

Herbicide-tolerant corn and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) corn have failed to increase intrinsic yields, the report says. But Bt corn provides a "marginal operational yield advantage of 3 (percent) to 4 percent over typical conventional practices." The authors average this increase over years since Bt corn became available in 1996 to come up with a 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent overall yield increase. Meanwhile, corn yields have increased by about 1 percent annually, "which is considerably more than what the Bt traits have provided."

The report doesn't "discount the possibility" of GM crops "eventually contributing" to increased crop yields. But it says it makes "little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense" of conventional technologies "especially in developing countries."

It calls "conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming and other sophisticated farming practices" as "more promising and affordable" for farmers in developing countries."

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Other benefits of GMO

Allan Skogen, of Valley City, N.D., an outspoken proponent of biotechnology, says the report is only the latest criticism.

"First they say it's dangerous; you can't eat it because it's going to kill you. Then they say it's going to take small farmers out of business," Skogen says of critics' tactics. "Then they say it's going to destroy the integrity of the seed business, seed quality. Now they say there's no proven yield increase in genetically modified crops."

Skogen acknowledges there haven't been a "lot of live studies" on yield increases in GMO crops, but that's because traits haven't been promoted that specifically increase yields. That doesn't mean GMO crops haven't allowed advantages through other traits.

"As bad as we've wanted genetically modified wheat, my wheat yields have increased dramatically since we've started raising soybeans, and couldn't raise them until we had Roundup Ready soybeans," he says.

Skogen says in the past seven years, his own proven wheat yields -- mostly following soybeans -- to the 65-bushel-per-acre average vs. the past, when it was a struggle to get 40 to 45 bushels.

"We know that's not due to increased genetics in wheat, right?" says Skogen, who has been a proponent of genetically modified wheat to help the crop compete with other crops.

Skogen says GMO soybeans have allowed for reductions in fertilizer applications in his and other farms in the region. Among other things, it allowed farmers to get away from the wheat-on-wheat and wheat-on-barley rotations. It reduced disease problems and reduced damage from chemicals.

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The Roundup Ready soybeans have cleaned up ground for better wheat results, he says. He also acknowledges that some of these soybean yield increases have been a result of increased moisture.

Worth the benefit?

Meanwhile, Todd Leake, an Emerado, N.D., farmer and a member of the Dakota Resources Council, which was working to publicize the study, says the scientists' report is something of a reaction to the recent promotional efforts of the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act (Senate bill 384), which seeks to put funds into efforts that, among other things, would try to get adoption of biotechnology.

Co-sponsor Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in a recent editorial, co-written with Nobel prize-winning wheat breeder Norman Borlaug, said more funding for biotech research is necessary because the world is "not producing enough" food, citing increased population.

"It's straight into the face of a global effort to maintain biodiversity," Leake says.

Leake, who has grown both Roundup ready beans and conventional beans on his farms, acknowledges that farmers in North Dakota may see benefits from GM soybeans, but "that's not the way the vast majority of people farm" in the world, especially in the developing world. He says the report calls into question whether the money being put into them is worth the benefit.

Leake says that one of the problems with genetically modified crops is that they automatically decrease the diversity in the gene pool. He says influx of GMO corn led to contamination of "in situ" corn in Mexico, which is the center of diversity of corn in the world.

"That's where corn breeders get their genetics for breeding disease resistance or for increasing yields through ordinary breeding," Leake says.

Leake says biotech grains in Third World countries would "control seed" and "force and/or coerce farmers to be dependent on them, large or small."

Leake was credentialed for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resource for Food Agriculture and worked to get the treaty passed in the Food and Agricultural Organization in 2001. Lugar-Casey would put $50 million into the Consultive Group for International Agriculture Research, the United Nations agency charged with carrying out the IPGRFA treaty. The group is responsible for maintaining international ag research centers like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and the international seed banks, including the one at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

"I can't help but wonder if the offering of $50 million to a perennially cash-strapped U.N. agency might influence how the CGIAR administrators view promotion of GM crops," Leake says.

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