GM corn’s value is in reducing losses
"A lot of farmers assume that if it's transgenic, it's great in terms of yield, but we know that putting a transgene into a corn hybrid isn't always successful," says Lauer. "You don't want to pay $75 dollars more per bag of seed to produce 12 bushels less per acre."
However, even among poor-performing groups of GM corn, there are individual varieties that perform quite well, Lauer notes. "It depends on how the transgene interacts with the underlying germplasm," he says. "My message to farmers is that every hybrid has to stand on its own."
Where transgenic corn clearly excels is in reducing production risk. The researchers found that every GM trait package - whether single gene or stacked genes - helped lower variability. For farmers, lower variability means lower risk, as it gives them more certainty about the yield levels they can expect.
This makes sense, explains Lauer. "The traits themselves don't add to yield. What they do is protect the yield, so any kind of yield advantage we can get from [a variety of hybrid corn] will be protected from pests," he says.
Lauer equates choosing GM to purchasing solid-performing, low-risk stocks. Just as safe stocks have relatively low volatility, yields from GM crops don't swing as wildly from year to year, and most important, their downswings aren't as deep.
GM crops help reduce downside risk by reducing losses in the event of disease, pests or drought. Economists Shi and Chavas estimated the risk reduction provided by modified corn to be equivalent to a yield increase ranging from 0.8 to 4.2 bushels per acre, depending on the variety.
Risk reduction associated with GM corn can add up to significant savings for farmers - as much as $50,000 for 1,000 acres, calculates Lauer. "It depends on the price that farmers can receive for corn," he says.
The two factors quantified in this study - yield and production risk - are just a part of the overall picture about GM crops, says Lauer. He notes there are other quantifiable values, such as reduced pesticide use, as well as ongoing concerns about the safety and health of growing and eating genetically modified foods.
"There's a lot of concern about this biotechnology and how it's going to work down the road," says Lauer, "and yet farmers have embraced it and adopted it here in the U.S. because it reduces risk and the yield increases have been as good as - or some would argue a little better than - what we've seen with regular hybrid corn."
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