University of Canterbury researchers have found that the biotechnologies used in north American staple crop production are lowering yields and increasing pesticide use compared to western Europe.
A conspicuous difference is the adoption of genetically modified/engineered (GM) seed in North America, and the use of non-GM seed in Europe.
The team, led by UC Professor Jack Heinemann, analysed data on agricultural productivity in north America and Western Europe over the last 50 years.
The Western Europe and North America make good comparisons because these regions are highly similar in types of crops they grow, latitude, and access to biotechnology, mechanisation and educated farmers.
The findings have been published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.
“We found that the combination of non-GM seed and management practices used by western Europe is increasing corn yields faster than the use of the GM-led packages chosen by the US.
“Our research showed rapeseed (canola) yields increasing faster in Europe without GM than in the GM-led package chosen by Canada and decreasing chemical herbicide and even larger declines in insecticide use without sacrificing yield gains, while chemical herbicide use in the US has increased with GM seed.
“Europe has learned to grow more food per hectare and use fewer chemicals in the process. The American choices in biotechnology are causing it to fall behind Europe in productivity and sustainability.
“The question we are asking is, should New Zealand follow the US and adopt GM-led biotechnology or follow the high performance agriculture demonstrated by Europe?
“We found that US yield in non-GM wheat is also falling further behind Europe, demonstrating that American choices in biotechnology penalise both GM and non-GM crop types relative to Europe.
“Agriculture responds to commercial and legislative incentive systems. These take the form of subsidies, intellectual property rights instruments, tax incentives, trade promotions and regulation. The incentive systems in North America are leading to a reliance on GM seeds and management practices that are inferior to those being adopted under the incentive systems in Europe.
“The decrease in annual variation in yield suggests that Europe has a superior combination of seed and crop management technology and is better suited to withstand weather variations. This is important because annual variations cause price speculations that can drive hundreds of millions of people into food poverty.
“We need more than agriculture; we need agricultures – a diversity of practices for growing and making food that GM does not support; we need systems that are useful, not just profit-making biotechnologies – we need systems that provide a resilient supply to feed the world well,” Professor Heinemann says.