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NYT hatchet job on GMOs shoots first, aims second

Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.

The Oct. 29 New York Times article “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” has drawn widespread condemnation from the agriculture and bioscience communities disputing its basis, key points and Shutterstock_68377594conclusions. Here's mine.

The piece opens with the suggestion that longtime concern about the safety of genetically modified crops — a premise agricultural experts and scientists have been arguing is inaccurate for years — is founded. That virtually no objective evidence-based science exists to undergird such an assertion is overlooked in the piece and in fact is contradicted by the headline on the Times’ own May 17 article “Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds.”

Faced with mountains of objective evidence that disputes GM crop safety concerns, the Oct. 29 article’s author, undeterred, moves to argue we are all faced with a more basic issue we all have somehow missed: “Genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

Nonsense. According to Ken Russell, associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska, national corn yield averages 125 bushels per acre, up nearly 500% since the 1930s and the advent of reliable yield tracking technology. GMO technology, he argues, has a lot (but not all) to do with it. “[M]uch of this improved yield was the result of improved genetics; that is, it occurred because farmers were planting improved varieties of corn developed through plant breeding,” he writes

To be extraordinarily conservative, even if we presume GM technology has had something to do with just a quarter of the crop yield increases we’ve seen in this country since its use became widespread in the early 2000s, the technology has played an outsized role in the greatest run-up in crop yields in human history. 

Too, to limit the exponential value to human life that GM technology has brought to the United States and Canada, as Borlaug the Times piece does, is artificially limiting and ignores the incredible contributions of the technology to alleviating hunger in the developing world. For example, the groundbreaking work in plant breeding done by our own celebrated Norman Borlaug, he of the World Food Prize, is said to have saved -- literally -- a billion lives. For only one of countless examples of the humanitarian impact Borlaug’s work has had across the globe, his development of drought- and disease-resistant wheat more than doubled wheat production in India and Pakistan in the 1970s, saving millions from starvation.

At Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor, one of the nation’s first cluster-based economic development organizations focused on value-added agriculture, I spend a great deal of time with our agricultural research and agbioscience communities in Iowa, which are anchored by Iowa State University and boast some of the world’s top ag and bioscience companies.  Here, some of the world’s top researchers and agricultural scientists work collaboratively with public and private sector stakeholders to contribute solutions to the world’s most pressing food and nutrition challenges. 

The Times’ journalistic disparagement of the work of these men and women and their colleagues all over the world to create technologies that will feed a global population of 10 billion people in 2050 is irresponsible and reprehensible. We should all be grateful that it will not deter those who are working to develop better, more sustainable ways to feed us all.

BrentWillett.org | 515-360-1732

bwillett@cultivationcorridor.org | @brent_willett | LinkedIn.com/in/brentwillett


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