THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
5 June 2012
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), USA
MONSANTO’S “DROUGHTGARD” CORN BARELY A DROP IN THE BUCKET
Report Finds Limited Prospects for Genetically Engineered Crops to Combat Drought and Conserve Water
WASHINGTON (June 5, 2012) Monsanto’s new drought tolerant corn, DroughtGard, reduces crop losses only modestly during moderate droughts, and will not reduce the crop’s water requirements, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report found that traditional breeding and improved farming practices have done more to increase drought tolerance, and that further improvements in genetic engineering are unlikely to solve the drought problem in coming years.
“Farmers are always looking to reduce losses from drought, but the biotechnology industry has made little real-world progress on this problem,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Despite many years of research and millions of dollars in development costs, DroughtGard doesn‚t outperform the non-engineered alternatives.”
Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of all water extracted from rivers and wells, making drought a serious and costly problem for farmers. An extreme drought is still plaguing Texas, triggering a record $5.2 billion in agricultural losses in 2011 alone. Monsanto‚s new corn is not likely to provide any practical help under such conditions, even by the company’s guarded claims.
The report, High and Dry: Why Genetic Engineering is Not Solving Agriculture’s Drought Problem in a Thirsty World, found that during limited testing, DroughtGard – the only crop engineered for drought tolerance approved for commercial use – reduced crop losses by about 6 percent. By comparison, breeding and improved farming practices have increased drought tolerance by roughly 1 percent per year over the past several decades.
In terms of crop yields, DroughtGard will increase overall corn production by about 1 percent because it is likely to be of practical value on only about 15 percent of U.S. corn acreage. Breeding and improved farming practices increase corn production by about 1.5 to 2 percent annually.
“If we were to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison today, we‚d find that breeding and improved farming practices have increased drought tolerance in corn about two to three times faster than DroughtGard,” said Gurian-Sherman. “Classical and newer forms of breeding are also far cheaper.”
DroughtGard is further handicapped by the fact that it will work well only under moderate drought conditions, and climate scientists predict that drought frequency and severity likely will increase in some regions as climate change worsens, Gurian-Sherman said. The fact that drought is not predicable also makes it difficult for farmers to decide whether it is worthwhile to buy DroughtGard seed prior to the growing season.
Finally, Monsanto’s advertising campaigns touted its intention to develop seeds that yield “more crop per drop,” but there is no evidence that DroughtGard will help the crops or farmers use water more efficiently. And the biotech industry’s pipeline for other water-efficient crops is virtually dry.
Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help farmers address droughts by substantially increasing support for public crop-breeding programs in the Farm Bill, Gurian-Sherman said. The Farm Bill also should fund research and offer incentives for farmers to adopt practices that improve drought tolerance such, as organic farming and similar methods that improve the soil‚s ability to retain moisture.
“The fact that DroughtGard may provide modest drought tolerance is a small step forward for the industry, but it‚s being outpaced by other methods,” said Gurian-Sherman. “More Farm Bill investments in public-sector classical breeding and water-saving farming practices would be more cost-effective for taxpayers and farmers, and as the scientific track record to date shows, will help farmers far more than genetic engineering.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
High and Dry: Why Genetic Engineering Is Not Solving Agriculture's Drought Problem in a Thirsty World (2012)
High and Dry is the third in a series of reports highlighting genetic engineering's limitations and demonstrating the importance of increasing public investment in more effective--but often neglected--agricultural technologies. The first two reports in the series are Failure to Yield and No Sure Fix.
Droughts can be devastating to farmers and to the people who depend on the food those farmers produce. The historic Texas drought of 2011 caused a record $5.2 billion in agricultural losses, making it the most costly drought on record.
While extreme droughts capture the most attention, mild and moderate droughts are more common and collectively cause extensive damage. Climate scientists expect the frequency and severity of such droughts to increase as the global climate heats up.
Furthermore, agriculture accounts for the lion's share of water extracted from rivers and wells, setting up conflicts between food production and other uses. Other important organisms, such as fish, also compete with humans for fresh water. So there is a vital need for crop improvements that will increase drought tolerance and water use efficiency (WUE).
Biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have held out the promise that genetic engineering can accomplish these goals, creating new crop varieties that can thrive under drought conditions and reduce water demand even under normal conditions. High and Dry offers an analysis of the prospects for delivering on that promise.
Extent and severity of drought conditions in the U.S. on August 30, 2011. The darker areas are regions of severe to exceptional drought where cspB corn would likely be of little use. (Click on map for larger version with legend.)
A Small Bang for Big Bucks
Though the mid-2000's saw a surge in field trials for crop varieties with engineered drought tolerance traits, as of 2012 only one such variety--Monsanto's DroughtGard, containing the engineered gene cspB--had been approved by the USDA.
The results so far paint a less than spectacular picture of DroughtGard's effectiveness: USDA analysis of data supplied by Monsanto show that DroughtGard produces only modest results, and only under moderate drought conditions at that. The report estimates that cspB corn would increase the overall productivity of the U.S. corn crop by only about one percent. And DroughtGard does not improve water use efficiency.
The evidence suggests that alternatives to GE--classical breeding, improved farming practices, or crops naturally more drought-tolerant than corn, such as sorghum and millet--can produce better results, often at lower cost. If we neglect these alternatives because of exaggerated expectations about the benefits of GE, we risk leaving farmers and the public high and dry when it comes to ensuring that we will have enough food and clean freshwater to meet everyone's needs.
Why Drought Tolerance Is So Challenging
There are several reasons why a GE magic bullet for drought tolerance may prove elusive. Drought tolerance is a complex trait that can involve many different genes, corresponding to different ways the plant can respond to drought; genetic engineering can manipulate only a few genes at a time. And in the real world, droughts vary widely in severity and duration, affecting the crop at different stages of its growth, so any engineered gene will be more successful under some drought conditions than others.
Genes that improve drought tolerance may have other effects on crop growth, some of which may be undesirable--a phenomenon known as pleiotropy. This has been commonly observed with many otherwise promising drought tolerance genes, and is likely a reflection of the interconnectedness of drought response with many other aspects of plant growth.
Molecular biologists try to reduce the negative effects of pleiotropy by ensuring that the engineered genes only become active under drought conditions, but if droughts are prolonged, the harmful effects may be hard to avoid.
If Monsanto's cspB corn can meet these challenges, it will still face market hurdles. For starters, DroughtGard will have to compete in the marketplace with drought-tolerant varieties produced through less expensive breeding methods.
Another challenge for cspB corn is that farmers buy their seeds well before they plant. Because drought is not reliably predictable, many farmers may not want to pay the higher price of engineered drought tolerance just in case drought occurs. This may largely restrict planting of cspB corn mainly to areas where moderate drought is frequent, such as the western regions of the U.S. Corn Belt.
Other factors important for marketing seed include the overall quality of the corn varieties that the cspB is placed in and how these compare to competitors varieties.
Given the status of R&D on GE drought tolerance and water use efficiency and challenging questions about its prospects, UCS recommends that:
- Congress and the USDA should substantially increase support for public crop-breeding programs to improve drought tolerance.
- Congress and the USDA should use conservation programs funded under the federal Farm Bill to expand the use of available methods for improving drought tolerance and WUE.
- The USDA and public universities should increase research devoted to finding better ways to store and conserve soil water, groundwater, and surface water, and better farming methods to withstand drought.
- In particular, organic and similar methods that improve soil fertility simultaneously improve the capacity of soil to store water for crop use during drought, while mulches can reduce soil temperature and reduce evaporation. These methods should be encouraged through incentives.
- Public and private research institutions should devote more funding and effort to improve crops that are important in drought-prone regions in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Researchers at the USDA and public universities should carefully monitor the efficacy and possible undesirable effects of cspB corn. Such monitoring is important because this variety is the first GE commercial drought-tolerant crop, and the resulting information would enhance our understanding of GE drought tolerance.
- The USDA and public universities should expand their research on using plant breeding to improve water use efficiency--a vital concern that has not attracted major efforts from the biotechnology industry.
SCIENCE GROUP FINDS DROUGHT-TOLERANT GMO CORN LACKING
By Carey Gillam, Thomson Reuters, USA
5 June 2012
June 5 (Reuters) - New genetically altered corn aimed at helping farmers deal with drought offers more hype than help over the long term, according to a report issued on Tuesday by a science and environmental advocacy group.
The Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the only genetically altered corn approved by regulators and undergoing field trials in the United States has no improved water efficiency, and provides only modest results in only moderate drought conditions.
“Farmers are always looking to reduce losses from drought, but the biotechnology industry has made little real-world progress on this problem,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist for UCS. “Despite many years of research and millions of dollars in development costs, DroughtGard doesn’t outperform the non-engineered alternatives.”
UCS used data generated by Monsanto, the developer of biotech “DroughtGard” corn approved by regulators in December and an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It said Monsanto’s corn “does not appear to be superior to several recent classically bred varieties of drought-tolerant corn.”
Conventional breeding techniques and improved farming practices have helped boost drought tolerance of corn planted in the United States by about 1 percent per year over the past several decades. The group calculated this was roughly equal to or better than what the new GMO corn has demonstrated.
Monsanto said its new drought-tolerant corn “can help farmers mitigate the risk of yield loss when experiencing drought stress, primarily in areas of annual drought stress, which in the U.S. historically has been the Western Great Plains region.”
Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said, “Specifically, these hybrids with the drought trait can use less water during severe drought stress and have more kernels per ear.”
Monsanto’s Drought Gard corn hybrids are in the final phase before commercialization in on-farm field trials. The company hopes to roll the product out commercially next year.
Drought is a significant problem for agriculture in the United States and globally. Last year, extreme drought in Texas and throughout the U.S. South wiped out crops and left livestock without pasture or hay, with damages to the agriculture industry calculated at more than $5 billion.
Monsanto, DuPont, and other biotech companies have touted crops that perform better in drought as a means to help farmers combat water shortages. The UCS report said that classical and other forms of breeding are more cost efficient and effective than genetic engineering.
“An exaggerated expectation about the capacity of genetic engineering at the expense of other approaches risks leaving farmers and the public high and dry when it comes to ensuring that the United States and other nations can produce enough food, and have enough clean freshwater, to meet everyone’s needs,” the report said.
UCS said that rather than relying on private industry research, Congress and the USDA should substantially increase support for public crop-breeding programs to improve drought tolerance, and should use conservation programs funded under the federal Farm Bill to expand the use of available methods for improving drought tolerance and water use efficiency.
A spokeswoman for the biotechnology industry said genetically modified drought-tolerant crops could still prove valuable.
“It’s too early to make assumptions about drought tolerant technology, while it is still being tested,” said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).
“It’s absurd to assume it‚s an either/or debate. With growers all over the world dealing with climate change and increased demand due to overpopulation, we need to turn to all the means available - including improved seeds and biotechnology to address these challenges.”
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