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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

Do GE Crops Really Produce a Higher Yield?

by Charles Benbrook, Benbrook Consulting Services

The evidence is now overwhelming and indisputable that average yields of Roundup-ready (RR) varieties are about 4-6% less than conventional varieties. The definitive and most recent comparative analysis was carried out by Dr. E. S. Oplinger of the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, who has managed a North Central regional project assessing soybean varietal performance for years. Dr. Oplinger compared yields of 5,172 conventional varieties paired with 3,067 RR varieties in eight states in 1998. The RR varieties yielded between 86% and 113% of the conventional, and average yields were 96% of conventional. There were just two areas where RR did better—Illinois and southern Michigan. Outside these areas the average yield drag was greater, on the order of 6% to 8% (data from "Performance of Transgenetic Soybeans-Northern US," Dr. E.S. Oplinger, M.J. Martinka, & K.A. Schmitz, Dept. of Agronomy, UW-Madison).

This places the minimal average yield drag at about two bushels per acre, or $10.00 (and it was much more on many farmers). That $10.00, plus the technology charge, plus the 2 to 3 applications of Roundup (not the one application which Monsanto alleges), plus the 2 or 3 other herbicides that must be applied, make for the most expensive soybean seed-plus-weed management system in modern history — between $40.00 and $60.00 per acre depending on rates, weed pressure, etc. Not long ago, in 1985, the average seed-plus-weed costs on farms in Illinois was $26.72 per acre (USDA cost of production data), and represented 23% of total variable costs; now, they represent 35-40%. No wonder Monsanto is throwing in free resprays and replanting, and other crop insurance-like benefits as an added bonus.

Every independent set of data I have seen reaches the same conclusion: the technology increases costs somewhat, but imposes a "price" farmers are willing to pay for the simplicity and robustness of the weed management system. They will also sacrifice some net income per acre. This is a perfectly rational reason for farmers to adopt the technology. Weed management is probably the number one challenge soybean farmers face. Monsanto should not be ashamed to cite these reasons in explaining why the technology is being adopted. But Monsanto needs to drop the "feeding the world," "lowering costs," "lowering pesticide use" claims because they do not hold water and will undermine further the reputation of the corporation, and in so doing feed the already considerable cynicism abroad about the trustworthiness of this company.

Things are not getting any better down on the farm. Soybean prices are way down, export markets are soft. As weed shifts continue in areas planted heavily to RR beans, and as resistance spreads to additional weed species (the first signs of tolerant weeds are appearing in several states), farmers will have to increase rates of Roundup applications and intensify use of other active ingredients to fill gaps in control. Costs will rise, the income squeeze will get even worse.

Contrary to a Monsanto scientist's claim, Roundup does not kill everything green except for transgenic crop varieties. If that were the case, most farmers using RR systems would not be applying at least 2, and on many farms, 3 additional active ingredients.

Monsanto is desperate for a new partner to help cover its $700 million plus cost of capital, etc., from the seed mergers of the past few years. Not too many companies are around that can float that sort of cost. There remain a couple of major deals to go in the pesticide and seed industries, and then it will be, for all intents and purposes, over. Expect Monsanto, Zeneca, American Home Products, Novartis, and Bayer to be involved in a few additional mega-deals in the next 12-24 months.

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