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 US 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 US 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 US 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.”