Genetically engineered food–the food we’re eating. A savior or a sacrifice? That’s the question on many lips. We have been given many arguments as to the supposed benefits of this new application for technology. We were told that genetically engineered (GE) food would save us money and revolutionize the farming industry for the better. Yet a new report published by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Genetically Engineered Food Alert reveals that the proof may not be in this particular pudding.

Fact is, the introduction of GE corn has caused deep cuts in farm income since 1996.

Since its establishment in US agriculture, engineered corn has cost farmers $659 million in corn price premiums, while profits generated totalled $567 million during the same investment period. The study, authored by Dr. Charles Benbrook, also finds that for every acre of Bt corn, farmer seed expenditure has increased by 35 percent over conventional corn seed.

Not only is GE corn not saving money but it appears that farmers have been subsidizing the high costs of research and development associated with the commercialization of GE corn varieties. These costs, the report concludes, have contributed to the direct transfer of net income from farmers directly to biotech companies. In other words, who’s making money? Big biotech. The report studied the impacts of the Bt corn premium relative to increases in earnings for biotech companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred (up seven per cent), Monsanto (nine) and Syngenta (18).

GE Wheat: Not Worth it

In February 2002, the University of Saskatchewan released the results of a study that finds the costs of growing GE wheat greater than the economic benefits. The results are concerned with the loss of export markets for wheat if genetically modified varieties were to be mixed with conventional ones. Costs incurred by Canadian wheat farmers besides loss of markets would include a technology fee, making the prospects for cultivating GE wheat highly uncertain. This study, although it deals with economic risks and not directly with biotechnological ones, confirms what Canadian environmental, farm, consumer and civil society groups have been claiming: that genetically engineered wheat is a bad idea!

Operation Enduring Biotech Seeds

In its efforts to assist Afghan farmers rebuild after the devastation caused by years of military conflict, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been funding farming projects since November 2001. The Agence France Press reports that genetically modified seed has been given to farmers in a small village 30 miles north of Kabul. One US official claims that the seeds planted have been successfully grown, showing yields of 300 per cent greater than normal. Although one might be tempted to ask what "normal" yield constitutes, USAID officials are pleased that farmers will be planting 200 tons of GE seed next year.

China Relaxes GM Rules After US Pressure

Soon after its official entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, China announced strict regulations concerning genetically engineered crops. According to new rules, which were to be enforced as of March 20, 2002, imports of GE crops required certification by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture proving their safety with regards to humans, animals and the environment. Without proper certification, China refused to sign any commercial deals.

These new regulations threatened markets for US soy growers and Canadian canola farmers. China is the world’s largest importer of US soy, a market estimated at $1 billion US. For Canadian canola farmers, the potential annual losses from exports to China could have cost them $2 billion. While Canadian trade officials were concerned about potential impacts on the oilseed market, American trade negotiators aggressively urged China to loosen new import rules. As a result, an interim agreement was struck allowing exporters to continue shipments of GE crops beyond March 20 for those who had already initiated application procedures.

About the Author

Elisabeth Abergel is a food and biotechnology analyst with a PhD in environmental studies. She is a trained molecular biologist and currently teaches at York University in the department of multidisciplinary studies.