6.4 MYTH:

GM crops reduce energy use


GM crops are energy-hungry

“We have tried to have more efficient farming, with fewer people, more machines and a greater dependency on pesticides, fertilizers, GM crops and energy, using 10 kilocalories to produce one kilocalorie [of food delivered to the consumer]. But that is only possible if there is cheap oil. The system basically is bankrupt, which is why we need to change it to a more modern, advanced system, which will create energy, rather than consume it, and is not dependent on fossil energy, but more on people and better science.”
– Hans Herren, development expert and co-chair, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology, (IAASTD), a three-year project on the future of farming involving more than 400 experts from across the world32

In the US food system, 10 kilocalories of fossil energy are required for every one kilocalorie of food delivered to the consumer.33 Two-thirds of that energy goes into producing synthetic fertilizers and on-farm mechanisation.34

There is widespread agreement that the energy consumption of agriculture must be radically reduced. GM proponents claim that GM crops can help in that process. As evidence they cite a report by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, directors of PG Economics, a consultancy firm to the agrochemical and biotech industry.35,36

Brookes and Barfoot offer as a major reason for this claimed reduction in energy use the no-till farming method that is used in the cultivation of GM Roundup Ready crops. The idea is that no-till reduces the number of tractor passes that farmers have to make across their fields in ploughing.

But data from Argentina comparing the energy used in growing GM Roundup Ready soy and non-GM soy showed that, while no-till did reduce farm operations (tractor passes across the field), the production of GM soy required more energy in both no-till and tillage systems. The reason for the increase was the large amount of energy consumed in the production of herbicides (mostly Roundup) used on GM soy.37

Proven methods of reducing the amount of fossil energy used in farming include minimising the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, selecting farm machinery appropriate for each task, limiting irrigation, and using agroecological techniques to manage soil fertility and control pests.33

Organic farming systems use just 63% of the energy required by chemically-based farming systems, largely because they eliminate the energy required to produce nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides.38

Organic, low-input, and agroecological farming is well suited to the Global South. A study in Ethiopia, part-funded by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), showed that compost can replace chemical fertilizers and that it increased yields by more than 30%. The crops had better resistance to pests and disease and there were fewer difficult weeds.39

6.4.1. Peak oil and gas make GM crops redundant

According to some analysts, peak oil – the point when the maximum rate of extraction is reached, after which production goes into terminal decline – has already arrived. Peak gas is expected around 2020.26 Peak oil and gas mark the end of chemically-based agriculture because nitrogen fertilizers are synthesised using large amounts of natural gas, and pesticides (including herbicides) are made from oil.

GM firms constantly promise new crops that are not reliant on the chemical model of farming. But GM seeds are created by agrochemical companies and are heavily dependent on pesticides and fertilizers. According to industry data, two-thirds of GM crops worldwide are herbicide-tolerant40 – in other words, they are designed to rely on high doses of herbicide. Many of the newest GM crops are engineered to tolerate several different herbicides (see section 5).

Agriculture cannot continue to depend on non-renewable and increasingly expensive external inputs. Future food production will reduce or eliminate pesticide use and rely on renewable biologically-based fertilizers – such as compost and animal manure – produced on the farm or locally.

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