Assessing Genetically Engineered Crops

Back in 2009 when I did my pessimistic analysis of innovation over the past decate (“Innovation, Interrupted” in the old BusinessWeek),  I was easily able to reach a conclusion about most technologies for the time frame I was looking at.  For example, I could say quite straightforwardly that gene therapy had fallen far short of expectations for the 1998-2008 period.

There was one technology that was very difficult for me to assess, however, and that was genetically-engineered crops. Clearly genetically-engineered became a commercial success over the past decade.  However, there was intense dispute about whether they actually boosted agricultural productivity, correctly measured.  James McWilliams writes:

Few topics in the food world are debated as contentiously as genetically engineered (GE) crops. Advocates hyperbolically charge that GE seeds will feed the world through increased crop yields, save the environment by eliminating pesticides, and make poor farmers rich. Detractors, deeming these seeds the diabolical feedstock for “frankenfoods,” argue that they’ll destroy biodiversity, afflict us with allergies, drive poor farmers to suicide, and foster “superweeds” that’ll choke out native flora and fauna.

When I wrote my story last year, I punted on GE crops. I couldn’t decide whether they should be put in the good category or shortfall category, so I left them out. Since then, people have raised all sorts of objections to the innovation shortfall thesis, but no one has ever mentioned GE crops.  

Now, a new report from the National Research Council provides a bit more weight on the positive side.  The report, which calls itself “the first comprehensive assessment of the effects of GE-crop adoption on farm sustainability in the United States,”  is generally upbeat. For example, one conclusion is that

Farmers who have adopted GE crops have experienced lower costs of production and obtained higher yields in many cases because of more effective weed control and and reduced losses from insect pests.

However, the report goes on to say that

The effect GE crops have had on prices received by farmers for soybean, corn, and cotton is not completely understood….There is a paucity of studies of the economic effects of genetic-engineering technology in recent years even though adoption has increased globally.

One table in the report suggests that the global adoption of GE crops leads to a 1-3% decline in commodity prices. That’s economically significant, but it’s not enormous, especially over the period when the price of corn, say, has fluctuated so widely.

I’m still not ready to put GE-crops in the ‘big success’ category of innovation. But I’m going to go back and take another look at it.


  1. L.A.O. says:

    What a task you’ve laid out for yourself.

    I probably should not comment because my bias is extreme on one side of the issue, but I must say that the utter lack of contingency planning is what distresses me most. Some Asian nations were persuaded to forfeit their food producing capabilities based on a presumption of ever cheap imports, with disastrous consequences when markets shifted — this type of high risk approach seems to be increasingly typical in human endeavor, and GM food for the sake of yield, with no clear respect for genetic diversity, strikes me as one of the riskiest schemes ever to be deployed.

  2. If GM crops cut costs, then they help farmer’s bottom lines.

    There could be unintended consequences, however e.g. if GM a plan so it is pest-resistant it could cause it to produce pesticides in it’s pollen…

    Which in turn could weaken honeybees…

    Which in turn could (mmmmaybe?) be the cause of CCD (honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder)… Which threatens the entire world food supply.


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