The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times featured a major article by Danny Hakim titled “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of GMO Crops.” Hakim is an investigative reporter who has primarily been an economics correspondent. He apparently interviewed quite a number of experts before writing the piece, but he got his main point completely wrong. None of the major biotechnology seed vendors are marketing GM seeds to improve yield, so there is no “promised bounty.”
And while the lengthy article cites a lot of data both in the US, Canada and Europe, it manages to lump together statistics from completely different climates and growing regions, so that his final conclusions are pretty confused. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at what experts have already written.
Molecular geneticist Nina Federoff, who has been a science and technology adviser to Secretaries of State Condaleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton, as well as having had a distinguished research career, writes in Hakim’s Effort to Skewer Biotech Crops in Sunday’s NY Times, that GM crops were never intended to improve yield.
Writing in the Western Producer, Stuart Smyth says New York Times Ignored GMO Crop Benefits, and goes on to list the benefits by crop and region. Farmers would not be spending money on expensive seeds if they didn’t realize some benefits.
Nathaniel Johnson, writing in Grist on What the New York Times Missed in its Big GMO Story, points out that by lumping together farm statistics from North America where we grow GMO crops with data from Western Europe (where they mostly do not) is very misleading. Not only do the climates differ, but the pests do as well. He suggests Hakim ought to look at all the available evidence rather than just cherry picking data that suits his narrative.
And weed scientist Andrew Kniss writes “Straw men and selective statistics: Did the New York Times botch its critique of GMO Crops?” where he calls Hakim’s statistics “borderline disingenuous.” He notes that the figures he cites are convoluted and misleading, because they aren’t even in the same units, and comparison of total pesticide use in France versus the US ia absurd because the US is so much larger. More to the point is the usage per acre. Kniss converted them to the same units and found that the total herbicide use per hectare is and has been less in the US than in France. They may be the same in the final year measured (2012).
Following Kniss’s argument further, Kevin Folta, Professor and Chair of Plant Science at the University of Florida writes “Rehashing a Tired Argument” in his Illuminations blog, along with another article “Some Actual Yield Data” that clearly shows the yield improvements provided by crop when biotechnology traits are added. He noted that Hakim lumped together insecticides, fungicides and herbicides as “pesticides” and only reports the total pounds rather than separating them out, which makes a great different, especially when the lower impact herbicides like Roundup are included. Folta was recently awarded the Borlaug CAST Science Communications prize.
And, of course, Monsanto responded to Hakim’s sloppy reporting, noted that they had talked with him several times while he was developing the article, but that he chose to cherry-pick a few data points to fit his preconceived views. Monsanto’s article refers directly to the peer-reviewed literature. For example, Qaim and Kouser showed that insect resistant GMO cotton increased family income and food security. And Brookes and Barfoot (2016) showed that conservation tillage made possible by glyphosate tolerant corn and soybeans removed 22.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, unlike Hakim’s assertions, GM crops have reduced pesticide spraying by 8.2%.
Finally, even Mother Jones magazine, which normally takes an anti-biotechnology stance comes around wiht two articles. One by Tom Philpott takes a predictably anti-GMO stance as he always has, but in a more nuanced article, Kevin Drum accuses Hakim of “lying with statistics.”
And the ever ascerbic Steven Novella writes The Times gets it wrong on GMOs, noting that the journalist started with a preconceived conclusion and then selected facts to support his erroneous conclusions.
Finally, Professor Jayson Lusk notes that farmers are consistently choosing GM crops because they provide financial benefits despite their higher costs.
In this article, I have summarized most of the blistering opinions on Hakim’s feature article (and one which praises it) but it would seem that scientists and science writers have consistently found the article to be wanting. However, all of the references are linked here and you can read them and decide for yourself.