By Sheldon Krimsky

Reading news accounts, blogs and scholarly papers about genetically-modified crops is like obtaining two distinct and contradictory world views in your head simultaneously.  Setting these views side-by-side creates cognitive dissonance.  One view describes how beneficial GM crops are for increasing productivity, reducing pesticide use, lowering food costs, and helping farmers in the developing world.  The other view tells us that GM crops are unsafe, inefficient, unsustainable, and damaging to agro-ecosystems.  When I published Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment in 1996,  my co-author and I were largely agnostic on the conclusions of many of the controversies pertaining to GMO benefits and risks. But now the data are coming in.1

In January 2008 the International Secretariat of Friends of the Earth (FOE) issued a report titled "Who benefits from GM Crops?"  The very day the report was carried by the media, efforts to neutralize or negate its message could be found in the press and on the blogosphere.  The New York Times carried an Associated Press story titled  "Developing countries grew more biotech crops in '07," based on a report from the pro-biotech International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.2

The heavily footnoted 45-page FOE report, based on extensive empirical data obtained from various countries and international agencies, provides evidence enabling the reader to evaluate the claims made by agri-business on the status of GM crops. I shall summarize the salient points that speak directly to the growing GM-hype promulgated by multinational agribusinesses, trade associations, and the Rockefeller Foundation that has invested in transferring GM technology to the developing world.

Myth # 1

GM crops are revolutionizing world agriculture.

FOE Findings:

"Despite more than a decade of hype and failed promises, the biotechnology industry has not introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought tolerance or salt-tolerance. Disease-tolerant GM crops are practically non-existent.  In fact biotech companies have made a commercial success of  GM crops with just two traits-herbicide tolerance and inset resistance-which offer no advantage to consumers or the environment."

Myth # 2. 

GM crops will reduce the use of pesticides.

This particular myth arose because some GM crops contained the gene for an insecticide (a toxin from the bacteria bacillus thuriengensis-Bt), which was supposed to reduce chemical pesticide use.

FOE's Findings:

"In the United States, the unexpected adoption of Ready Roundup crops combined with the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds has driven a more than 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate on major field crops from 1984-2005."

Along with this effect comes glyphosate resistant weeds and the use of herbicides more toxic than the relatively benign glyphosate to combat weed resistance.  Bt cotton has not reduced pesticide use in India according to FOE's findings.

Myth #3 

GM crops are needed to address the food needs of growing populations.

FOE's Findings:

"...the majority of GM crops are not destined for hungry people in developing countries but are used to feed animals, generate biofuels, and produce highly processed food products in rich countries."

Myth #4

GM crops are helping small farmers.

FOE's Findings:

"In 2007, the available evidence suggests that GM crops have had mostly neutral or negative environmental, social and economic impacts on the farmers and countries that have accepted them."

The world community has been mixed on the adoption of GM crops, with significant growth in the US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China and Paraguay fostered by the financial interests of large seed companies, but significant restraint on the part of European nations. Over 80 percent of the GM seeds used in the world are designed to be herbicide tolerant and must be used with chemical herbicide inputs. Unfortunately, FOE's sober analysis will not eradicate the "cognitive dissonance" because consultant studies funded by agri-business continue to report that pesticide use is lower and farmer wages are higher from GM crops. As for the consumer, be careful what you read (caveat leptor).  The FOE report quotes the French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy:  "The trust is that we have doubts about the current benefits of post-resistant GM0s; the truth is that we have doubts about the controlled dissemination of GMOs; the truth is that we have doubts about the health and environmental benefits of GMOs."3

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but eventually good data reveal the truth.


Sheldon Krimsky is President Ad Interim of the Council for Responsible Genetic and Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Tufts University.


1. Sheldon Krimsky and Roger Wrubel.  Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

 2. Associated Press. "Developing countries grew more biotech crops in '07". New York Times, February 14, 2008.

 3. French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, At a meeting on environmental issues at Le Grenelle, October 25, 2007.

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The purpose of the Genetic Bill of Rights is to introduce a global dialogue on the fundamental values that have been put at risk by new applications of genetics.
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The purpose of the Genetic Bill of Rights is to introduce a global dialogue on the fundamental values that have been put at risk by new applications of genetics.
View Project