The Cost Of Precaution

Written by Steve Savage

The graph above shows the relative production of these major US row crops comparing the years 1993-1995 (just prior to the introduction of biotechnology enhanced crops) and 2008-10 (the most recent available data which covers a a span which comes 12-15 years after biotech.  Soybean production has expanded 47% in this time-frame while corn is up 58% (far more than the quantity now being diverted for biofuel).  Both of those crops are predominantly planted to “GMO” varieties, while the various segments of the wheat crop remain non-GMO.  Until 2004 it looked as if North American growers would also get to plant biotech wheat, but a vigorous campaign led by Greenpeace succeeded in blocking the technology.  Many major European and Japanese grain buyers were concerned about potential consumer push-back (based on Greenpeace efforts), so they made a coordinated threat to boycott all North American wheat exports if any commercial GMO wheat was planted in the US or Canada.  This was based on the “precautionary principle.”
The wheat industry, particularly the Canadian Wheat Board, asked Monsanto and Syngenta not to go ahead with their plans to sell the improved wheats, and so those often vilified companies put their programs on the shelf at the request of their customer base.  GreenPeace then declared Victory.

The Traits That Didn’t Happen

Monsanto had been developing a “Roundup Ready” version of wheat which would have helped the wheat growers who have grass weed issues.  It was also shown to increase yields and it would have aided in conversion to no-till, and  increased genetic purity for specialty uses.  Syngenta was developing wheat with resistance to a disease called Fusarium Head Scab.  That particular fungus is difficult to control with fungicide sprays, but it can severely hurt yields, and it can diminish the value of what grain is harvested by contaminating it with the mycotoxin, DON or “vomitoxin.”  A major reason that farmers include less wheat in their crop rotations than would be optimal is because of the risks associated with this disease.  The fact that these traits would have increased grower income and reduced a dangerous toxin in the food supply were listed in the Greenpeace internal literature of the day, not as “pros,” but as “campaigning challenges.”

What The Farmers Thought

In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to sit down with dozens of wheat farmers in Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky to talk about these coming traits.  These growers had experience with GMO soy and corn and were very much looking forward to these new products.  I was testing various “business models” for how the traits would be made available because, like soybeans, much of the wheat crop is planted with “Farmer Saved Seed.”
With non-hybrid crops, farmers have the option to simply save some of their previous grain harvest to use as seed.  Typically they buy new, “certified” seed every few years.  With Soybeans, Monsanto took the risky and controversial step of getting growers to sign a “technology agreement” in which they promised not to save the biotech seed but rather to purchase it new every year.  I, and many in the industry doubted that growers would be willing to do this or that the system could be enforced well enough to prevent free-loaders.  After a few, high-profile lawsuits, the new system was widely accepted and no mainstream soybean farmer even questions it today.

Much More Was Lost Beyond The Traits

Before biotech, the soybean seed industry existed mainly as a “price of doing business” for corn seed companies.  Much of the breeding advancement was still happening in Universities (though with precarious funding).  When soybeans became an every-year purchase, the overall investment in the improvement of that crop went up dramatically.  This helped extend the range of the crop into colder Northern regions and dryer Western areas.  We are also now beginning to see the pay-off of the investment in genomics and Marker Assisted Selection – biotechnology enabled updates on “traditional breeding.”  Roundup Ready soybeans were not a “yield trait” as such, but they were far more convenient for busy farmers and easier to “no-till” farm.  So now both soybeans and corn had become much more attractive options for farmers, and in many regions the “loser” has been wheat.

The Wheat That Was Not To Be

The expansion of corn and soy production in the first chart represents a combination of factors.  Growers planted more of their land to those crops, often using their better fields.  They often grew these crops with greater inputs of fertilizer, water because the economic risk was smaller.  In most areas there was a distinct change in the long term trends for these crops that corresponds to the pre-biotech era (before 1996) and the post-biotech era (after 1996).
One way to calculate the real “cost” of the Greenpeace wheat victory is to extrapolate what would have been the production of wheat if the earlier trend lines are extrapolated to 2010.  To do this I took the data from the USDA-NASS at the Crop Reporting District level (usually 9 districts per state) from the years 1984 to 2010.  This allowed me to fit lines for each crop/district covering the Pre-biotech years of 1984-1995 and then a similar 12 year time frame from 1999-2010 as a Post-biotech era.  By comparing what level of production each trend for predicted for 2010, the impact of the non-biotech nature of wheat in a biotech world could be estimated.  Example trend comparisons are shown below for single district examples of corn, soybeans and winter wheat.  Finally those differences are summed for all the districts where data is available over the 27-year time span (238 for corn, 173 for soybeans, 191 for winter wheat, 39 for spring wheat and 6 for durum wheat).
An example of one of many areas where corn productivity increased faster after the introduction of biotechnology through a combination of more acreage being planted and yield progress increasing.

A very typical example of an area where farmers began to plant a great deal more soy when it was improved through biotechnology.

An example of an area where wheat planting and intensity dropped in the biotech era relative to earlier trends.

Many Variables but Major Overall Outcomes

Exactly how trends changed for each crop and region varied widely, but in very few cases did the pre-biotech trend continue unchanged. For every crop some areas were up and some down, but the net effect was an overall shrinkage of US wheat production at a time when global wheat demand is constantly increasing.  The chart below shows that the biotechnology enhanced crop options saw substantial production increases vs earlier trends, + 437 million bushels/year for soy and a whopping + 4.03 billion bushels for corn. Winter wheat overall declined slower than it had prior to biotechnology for a net trend change of +35 million bushels.  Spring wheat, which was much more in the geographic path and time of year of the soy and corn “locomotives,” lost 315 million bushels of “potential” production.

Would Things Have Been Different With Biotech Wheat?

Would that have been different if Greenpeace didn’t “win?”  It is difficult to know because there were other factors in that time frame such as the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 which changed the nature of government crop subsidies and set-aside programs.  Delays in biotech trait approvals for import to the EU and Japan altered global market dynamics as did the wide-spread pirating of Roundup Ready soybeans by South American farmers.
Would Monsanto and Syngenta have cross-licensed their wheat traits to allow an attractive package for farmers?  Would the transition away from a “saved seed” market for wheat have offset the declining public breeding support which continues even today?  It is impossible to know, but the wheat industry has now decided that they don’t want to be denied a technological advantage again.  National wheat grower associations in the US, Canada and Australia agreed to a simultaneous launch of any future GMO wheat so that the Europeans and Japanese could not blackmail them again.  Even so, it is likely to be at least a decade until that happens because the other thing that was lost in 2004 was the continuous years of breeding effort that it takes to incorporate a biotech trait in the complex world of wheat (winter, spring, red, white, hard, soft…..).

How Much Lost Wheat Is That?

The theoretical 315 million bushels of wheat not being produced as of 2010 represents 8.6 million metric tons (in the units of global trade).  That is roughly equivalent to the crop in each of the wheat producing countries Argentina, Egypt, or Italy.  It is more than the total wheat imports that go to each of these major, net wheat importing countries (Japan 5.8MMt, Algeria 6.9MMt, Egypt 8.3MMt, Italy 5.4 MMt, Indonesia 4.5 MMt, Brazil 6 MMt, Iran 5.2 MMt).

Putting This In The Context Of The Current Global Food Price Spike

We just finished seeing a severe spike in prices on the global food trade scene in 2007/8 and a new spike is underway and appears to be continuing – particularly for cereals like wheat which is now within 3% of the previous record (see chart below).  India is considering a wheat export ban this year.  Global wheat demand is expected to double by 2050.
Then, just to add insult to injury, the US congress cut funding for the Global Wheat Genomics Center at Kansas State .  That happens as a new strain of the dreaded Wheat Stem Rust pathogen is threatening wheat crops in more countries every year.
We probably won’t ever be able to make up for what has been lost for one of the world’s most important human food crops.  The catch-up on biotechnology will not be in time to help many poor people survive or to prevent the political instability implications of food shortages.  These are the true “Costs of Precaution,” but they will not be borne by the Greenpeace activists in rich nations.  These very real costs will be borne by poor families in places where wheat can’t be successfully grown.  Greenpeace was happy to take credit for stopping this technology.  I wonder if they are willing to take credit for these consequences.
Norm Borlaug said:  “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”
I’d go with Norm’s “Peace” agenda, not that of Greenpeace.

Graphs from USDA-NASS and FAO Data by Steve Savage.  My email  My website is Applied Mythology.

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.


  1. Things like this caused Greenpeace to lose its charitable status in Canada. They have a penchant for inflicting economic losses, while benefiting no-one but themselves.

  2. I’m not too excited about yet more Roundup Ready crops (although the advantages of no-till and yield gain due to reduced weed pressure are not to be ignored) but the rejection of a fusarium resistant wheat baffles me. The advantages of reduced fungicide use should be obvious to anyone, even someone in Greenpeace. I wish I was surprised that congress defunded the wheat genomics center. I was just having a conversation with someone who thought the problem was that universities are too tied with industry but the real problem (in my humble opinion) is that there isn’t enough public funding.
    Such a sad story…. more people should know about it. Have you thought about taking your analysis of the USDA data to peer-review? I’d sure like to see all of this in a paper format, although the blog format is nice (and even has a sort-of peer-review due to the comments), it would gain additional credibility after formal peer-review. It would be sort of cool to see a paper come from a blog post rather than a blog post come from a paper as is usual. Here’s hoping Karl and I can get some papers from GENERA once we get that going.

  3. Anastasia,
    The herbicide tolerance would have been a great way to get specialized wheat varieties grown with high purity for the baking industry. Its probably too late for that now and the tolerance would need to be to some other herbicide. The fusarium resistance would have been great because that would have made it possible to include more wheat in corn/soy rotation areas. The fungicide use on US wheat is really quite small and the products are extremely safe. It is just that the timing is very tricky so the built-in resistance would be better.
    I believe that what is in the long-term works would be drought tolerance and nitrogen use-efficiency.
    Eric, GreenPeace abandoned science soon after their founding and so they serve no useful purpose in the world

  4. Great article, I’m forwarding it to my friends. I still feel an emotional disgust reaction when I think about “roundup ready” crops, to see so much focus on pesticides when it’s something we eat. However, seeing the evidence and understanding the science is helping my rational side overrule this.
    Unfortunately there are many people who either don’t understand the science or don’t care. Greenpeace for a start. I fear that even though Monsanto has evidence on its side, it hasn’t done enough to reach out to consumers and build that positive emotional connection.
    One small nit – the first chart shows a relative decline in winter wheat and small increases in spring wheat & durum but since the bars are showing the total rather than the change, it takes some reading and puzzling to see this. It could be clearer if only the delta was shown (-2%, 5%, 11%,…) or at the least if a line was drawn at the 100% level to show “unchanged”.

  5. Tyro,
    When a Roundup Ready crop gets sprayed it is with a total of 16 ounces of active ingredient per acre – really a tiny amount and Roundup is very rapidly eliminated from the soil by microbes. Your suggestion on the graph is good.
    Monsanto and really the whole industry and academics did tons of talking about this technology in the decade prior to its commercialization, but most people were not listening. The press just didn’t pay much attention until folks like GreenPeace said the sky was falling. In reality I don’t think there has ever been a technology on this scale that had more careful forethought. I remember attending huge meetings with scientists of all disciplines represented to think through all the safety, environmental and social issues 10 years before the first commercial seed was sold.

  6. Steve – Ten years ago, I confess I was probably one of those that opposed GMOs. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve wised up, thanks to blogs like yours and the work of some sceptical organizations. Even though I am finally learning the facts, I still don’t know a good way to talk about this to my family. As I mentioned, even the terms like “Roundup-Ready” are all focused on the producers and the poisons when my family wants to talk about the baking, eating and sharing. It’s food and they want it to be pure and unsullied – probably why the Organic branding is so successful.
    Do you have any guides or suggestions for how to discuss this with non-scientific, non-academic and non-technical people? The facts of putting food in the bellies of the starving is a good start but with us surrounded by Whole-Foods and luxury goods, it all seems very abstract. I think the facts are with us but I’m struggling with the emotional hooks.
    Thanks for the great work. It’s a tough battle with little public support but I think it can literally save lives.

  7. Okay, there’s a few elements at play here.
    The most important element is that wheat, as a commodity, differs radically from other commodity crops. Imports/exports of wheat are controlled by so few players that it amounts to a near-monopoly. Such as in Canada, with the Wheat Board. When the Wheat Board has a sniffle, everyone gets influenza. Fearing a backlash in exports, they just shut the program down. Other examples abound.
    Then there’s the notion that Monsanto doesn’t communicate with consumers. Ridiculous notion. Wander your grocery store and look for items branded “Monsanto”. You won’t find a durned thing. (Well OK, Monsanto is releasing conventionally-produced germplasm to farmers. I’d like to see what the label looks like.)
    But anyhow, Monsanto sells to farmers, not consumers. Monsanto’s stuff is vastly superior to conventional stuff, but the only market is farmers. Seriously, why should a corporation advertise to people who are not customers? Ludicrous. Which is why Monsanto’s paltry efforts in that segment, and the efforts of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI, coincidentally the same acronym which applies to Confidential Business Information), are doomed to failure.
    The take-home lesson is that stupidity at a fundamental level should be more embarrassing than it is.

  8. Tyro,
    It makes me sad that so many people can’t just enjoy their food without fear or guilt. I understand the challenge of communicating this to people.
    I just put up a document titled “Eight Major Myths About Organic” on SCRIBD. It was a brief document that I wrote for my sister in law who wanted to use it for discussion with family and friends. I have links to a wide variety of things I’ve written at my Applied Mythology site.

  9. The cost of precaution is even more evident when one looks at some sustainability indicators (water, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emission, energy)for major crops. Though the intent of the report was not to (overtly) highlight the benefits of biotech crops, the environmental footprint for biotech crops has gone down. I

  10. Tyro
    I have written a series of articles for the general public that explain the some of the science of GMO’s with very little jargon. They may help you with discussions. They can be found on my website along with links to world expert opinions.

  11. Rob – that’s a very good collection of articles. I’ve read through a half dozen and found them informative and accessible.
    I also appreciate that you included articles on topics like fish farming and not just GMO. I live on the Canadian West Coast so this issue comes up frequently and I’ve always been frustrated by my ignorance. Thanks for the information and especially the citations at the end. I’m sure I’ll be using and forwarding these articles along.

  12. Hi, Robert. Some of the links at your website don’t work for me. I was particularly interested in “How did we get here from there,” but nothing happens when I click on it.

  13. I’d support Anastasia’s suggestion to turn this into a peer-reviewed paper. The information is very interesting, but it’s difficult to use blog contributions in more formal contexts… Either way, thanks for sharing the analysis!

  14. Wayne,
    I really like the Keystone Field to Market approach of using public data to show that indeed, US farmers have been making steady sustainability progress for a long time and are continuing that trend

  15. Two pedantic gripes on an otherwise awesome article
    1) Graph is broken! Y Axis doesn’t match the title – suggests that all crops have increased vastly since the start date.
    2) There’s an apparent loss of 315 Million bushels of wheat and a gain of 4400 (ish) million bushels of corn and soy in the biotech revolution – how much of the loss in wheat is simply a switch to the other crops – how much food exactly is gained or lost – there is no indication of this – I’m not sure one can go so far as to count that 315 Million bushels as a major impact on global prices (other than just for wheat) given that corn falls into cereals – the relationships between the various crops I feel would have been somewhat more dynamic – with biotech wheat wouldn’t we see a reduction in production of either soy and corn (as we’re discussing total production rather than a figure normalized to production area) (even average yield graphs would probably fall into the same trap – if it becomes easier and more profitable to grow corn and soy than wheat then one might expect the most productive fields to be turned over to the production of elite lines of these while less productive fields with a stable history of wheat productivity may be left under wheat some years causing an apparent drop in yield where none exists)
    (end pednantry…)

  16. Yeah, I was going to bring this one up too. I noticed it in the Science news article about it–struck me right away:

    The analysis, led by agronomist Stewart Ramsey of the consulting firm Global Insight, also finds that the amount of energy spent on farming has fallen by 40% to 60%, probably because farmers who plant genetically modified crops are driving tractors less frequently to spray pesticides and herbicides. Irrigated water use dropped by 20% to 50%, the report found, and carbon emissions fell by about 30%. Wheat was the only crop of the four surveyed that did not post big gains in efficiency. More water is being used, and an increase in application of nitrogen fertilizers has meant an increase in energy use and climate impacts per bushel.

  17. I find it odd that wheat sees such a massive jump in energy inputs with very little in the way of increased yield when the reasons behind the jump in energy was more nitrogen applied – is this simply a function of shifting wheat production to more marginal lands that require more nitrogen to get the same yield, or is a higher wheat price driving farmers to apply more N to ensure that yields aren’t limited by this input?

  18. It’s fairly well-known that wheat currently has low yields and (relatively) low prices, which makes a switch to GM corn or soy very appealing, where it can be done.

  19. Ewan,
    Wheat can be grown either as a low risk, low input crop (saved seed, limited N, little or no crop protection chemicals) or more intensively (certified seed with a good seed treament, split application of fertilizer, maybe 1 fungicide spray…). On a per acre basis that will have a higher energy footprint, but on a per bushel basis it generally is better. There has been a big shift to the more intensive wheat culture in places like NW Minnesota. In many other areas wheat is just not planted because the economic returns for corn and soybeans are so much better

  20. Ewan,
    The graph is not ‘broken’. It employs the same methodology as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to artificially magnify artifacts in global warming statistics.

  21. Steve – I’m specifically talking about the wheat energy use and yield per acre graph on page 51 (fig 6.8) of the above linked piece (Wayne Parrott) – energy use per acre goes up significantly in 2005 and stays high, the paper attributes this to increased nitrogen use – it strikes me as odd however that you’d increase nitrogen so much and see no effect on yield (or indeed that you could reduce it so much between 1997 and 2004 and see no impact) – the per acre basis vs per bushel basis you describe doesn’t apply here as they plot average yield/ac vs average energy use/ac – only the energy use line moves indicating that increased use per acre equates to increased use per bushel .

  22. I think by “broken” Ewan means the Y axis on graph 1 is incorrect. It refers to ‘Percent change in harvested bushels’ whereas as it should say ‘Relative production’. For example as the chart stands 100% would mean a doubling of yield since ’93-’95 (100% increase). In actual fact 100% should mean no change since ’93-’95 (current yields same as those in ’93-’95).

  23. I think by “broken” Ewan means the Y axis on graph 1 is incorrect. It refers to ‘Percent change in harvested bushels’ whereas as it should say ‘Relative production’. For example as the chart stands 100% would mean a doubling of yield since ’93-’95 (100% increase). In actual fact 100% should mean no change since ’93-’95 (current yields same as those in ’93-’95).

  24. That’s precisely what I mean – it isn’t necessarily a bad way to plot the data (I’m not sure I understand Eric’s point – Wheat would look a lot worse if deltas were plotted rather than % of ’93-’95 yield) so long as you label your axis right (which is, I fear, about the only thing I learned from ‘A’ level physics, other than that a refrigerator left on and open in a perfectly insulated room will cause the temperature to go up – which has been very useful in keeping my perfectly insulated house warm, although has led to a lot of food spoilage)

  25. In the past others, and not Europeans, that is people mainly in developing countries, or commodity trading nations such as Argentina, the US, Canada, and Australia, have had to pay the price for the EUs obsession with the Precautionary Principle which originated in the German civil service. It’s different r now that EU countries and people are finding the PP has a cost. Their perception of the issue is a little different when they also have to wear the costs of precaution. Eg. see the reactions in Spain, and the German companies bearing losses for unsold vegetables, which are quite vigorous.

  26. Thanks Christian. It is really great to have extra scholarly or topical content in the comments, and this site always want to encourage a wide range of perpectives if they provide substanse.
    Here is a link to an old post at GMO Pundit that gets a lot of traffic. It concerns a very important (IMHO) paper that I had the pleasure to hear Eliza Mojduszka deliver in delightful Ravello in 2005.
    Unintended Adverse Consequences of the 19 versions of the “Precautionary Principle”
    about The Precautionary Principle and the law of unintended consequences
    Calum G. Turvey, Eliza M. Mojduszka
    Food Policy 30 (2005) 145–161
    available online at
    Draft version of Turvey’s paper is downloadable from ICABR 2005 Conference webpage

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