The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has issued a report saying that Monsanto's new drought-tolerant corn, DroughtGard, might not yield farmers the gains they hope for in dry years.
Conservationists have watched with deep concern as genetically modified crops such as DroughtGard are introduced, fearing — rightly, as it turns out — that fragile grasslands in the central and western Dakotas will continue to be plowed up and planted.
Historically, these lands have never been financially feasible to farm, in part due to a lack of rainfall in the area. Cattle grazing instead has been their primary purpose — thus preserving the same grasslands that ducks, pheasants, songbirds and other wildlife have utilized since time immemorial.
But high commodity prices and a federal farm bill that to date has virtually guaranteed farmers a return on their investments in breaking new ground — regardless of the ultimate yield — have driven farmers to open up new lands to agriculture.
Now the UCS has issued a report saying that improved breeding of seed types and better farming practices are better alternatives to improving total farm yields than projected developments in engineered crop genetics.
“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 senior scientist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Despite many years of research and millions of dollars in development costs, DroughtGard doesn’t outperform the non-engineered alternatives.
“If we were to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison today, we’d find that breeding and improved farming practices have increased drought tolerance in corn about two to three times faster than DroughtGard,” said Gurian-Sherman. “Classical and newer forms of breeding are also far cheaper.”
Arguably, the UCS has a dog in this fight, in that public research dollars it seeks in the new Farm Bill likely would trickle down to some of its members.