National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy
The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) describes itself as 'a private non-profit non-advocacy research organization'. However, an article in the science journal Nature describes NCFAP as 'a pro-GM industry group' and, looking at the invariably industry-supporting claims emerging out of NCFAP stiudies, it may seem difficult to be certain where reseach ends and advocacy begins.
NCFAP conducts studies in four areas: biotechnology, pesticides, international trade and development, and farm and food policy.
NCFAP's Program Director and Senior Research Associate is Leonard Gianessi. Curiously, Gianessi's only academic qualification appears to be a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Affairs from George Washington University.
Prior to joining NCFAP in October 1993, Mr Gianessi spent seventeen years as a researcher at Resources For the Future (RFF), a Washington-based 'conservation' research organisation with funding from major US corporations. Sponsors include Dupont and Union Carbide as well as a number of oil companies. RFF's Director of Risk, Resource, and Environmental Management is Michael R. Taylor, Monsanto's former vice-president for public policy who was at the centre of a major controversy over conflicts of interest in relation to Monsanto's genetically engineered cattle drug rBGH (Revolving doors: Monsanto and the regulators). Resources For the Future turned their attention to agriculture in 1984 with funding from the Kellogg Foundation.
NCFAP was spun out of RFF as an independent organization in 1992 and Gianessi moved with it. Gianessi's focus was particularly on pesticide use though not exclusively so. In 1999 he was cited as 'a water quality scientist and the developer of the water quality modeling method used to measure feedlot and confinement livestock waste' when he took the Environmental Protection Agency to task for what he called 'a bad case of shoddy data' in their concern over the impact of livestock waste. (The problem with pigs, August 1999)
Mostly though, Gianessi has been involved in defending pesticides - speaking on [Thttp://www.continuingeducation.ncsu.edu/postseminar.html he Value of Pesticides] in US Crop Production, expressing concern about the loss of organophosphate and carbamate insecticides on minor crops, and touting the benefits of herbicide use. CropLife America (CLA), a trade organization representing agro-chemical manufacturers, is among those that have commissioned studies which have inspired often evangelical farm press coverage: 'thank God for the chemicals that beat back the ever threatening, yield-sapping tide of weeds. Because of such chemicals there's food available to feed the world... according to the data compiled in the [NCFAP] report, there's no going back to the good, old, pre-chemical days.'
Gianessi has shown a talent for producing eye-catching figures, arguing for instance that herbicide-free agriculture would require 'up to 7 million workers to hand remove weeds' while still causing the loss of '300 billion pounds of food and fiber'. Organic agriculture on anything but the smallest scale is a non-starter. Herbicides, Gianessi says, are absolutely essential for maintenance of high yields and, 'If we truly wanted to maintain current yields and do away with herbicides, 70 million additional hoe-toting farmhands would be patrolling fields. That would mean one of every four U.S. citizens chopping weeds for a month every year. There just isn't a future for a vast expansion of organic agriculture,' says Gianessi. (NCFAP study touts herbicide benefits)
NCFAP began to focus on GM crops in 2000. Its main biotechnology research programme was launched in the spring of 2001 with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, Monsanto, the biotech-industry funded Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and CropLife America. It is also said to receive money from the US Department of Agriculture.
According to NCFAP, 'researchers began an ambitious project to estimate the realized and potential impacts of 40 separate case studies of biotech crops.' NCFAP's findings were as usual eye-catching. According to the report, during the 2001 crop year, eight GM crops in production had increased crop yields by 1.8 billion kg (4 billion lb), saved growers US$1.2 billion by cutting production costs, and reduced pesticide use by 21 mil. kg (46 mil. lb).
The NCFAP report did not stop there but looked to the future, considering the potential of 27 GM crops in the U.S., some of which were still being developed, to increase annual production, improve farm income, and reduce pesticide use. (PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY: CURRENT POTENTIAL IMPACT FOR IMPROVING PEST MANAGEMENT IN U.S. AGRICULTURE, AN ANALYSIS OF 40 CASE STUDIES, NCFAP, June 200)
The report drew enthusiastic press coverage. One article, National Study Finds Biotech Does It All, told its readers the report showed GM crops meant farmers could 'sharply increase crop production', 'significantly reduce' pesticide use and 'generate truckloads of additional cash' - 'It's a win-win-win combination that reads like a proponent's wildest hope, but is, in reality, the prediction of an expert group based on extensive results from 40 studies of 27 biotech crops all across the U.S.A.' The article described NCFAP's summary report as 'eye-popping', its predictions for the future as 'visionary' and the predicted pesticide reductions (70 mil. lb plus) as 'whopping'. (emphasis added)
Gianessi followed up his 'eye-popping' report with a U.S. speaking tour. The Associated Press reported, 'Leonard Gianessi... has been barnstorming across the country promoting the benefits of genetically modified crops.' (Biotech-advocate Leonard Gianessi meets with Opposition in Sacramento)
Gianessi's findings, however, have been notably at odds with those of the independent agronomist Dr Charles Benbrook, who in a series of studies has shown significant yield losses with GM soya - the main GM crop grown in the U.S.. Benbrook's own calculations suggest farmers are barely breaking even financially, although they are attracted by the ease of the weed management. (Fields of gold? - Biotech's cash benefits may not be what they seem, New Scientist, June 22 2002)
As regard NCFAP's claim of decreased usage of pesticide, a 2003 technical paper by Dr Benbrook analysed all the publicly available US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on pesticide use in the US since 1996 when GM crops were first introduced. Like the NCFAP report it looked at pounds of pesticides applied and found that, while they initially led to a reduction in pesticide use, in the period 2001-2003 GM crops increased use of over all pesticides by over 73 million pounds. This directly contradicts the NCFAP estimate for 2001, as well as undermining its 'visionary' predictions of 'whopping' pesticide decreases in the future.
As a former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the U.S. National Academy for seven-years, Benbrook represents an authoritative voice on agricultural science and some see the funding of NCFAP's biotechnology research as driven by a need to to contradict the findings emerging out of Benbrook's research as well as to provide the industry with positive data.
In fact,one of Gianessi's first interventions in the biotech arena came in October 31, 2000, when he circulated via the Internet a critique of Benbrook's review of the benefits assessments on genetically engineered Bt crops developed by the EPA as part of the reregistration of Bt crops. Benbrook in responding to some of the major points raised in Gianessi's critique considered some of the criticisms both 'disingenuous and unfounded'.
NCFAP's eye-popping statistics have not only been brought into question by Benbrook. In the same month that the NCFAP report was published, the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its own extensive analysis of the economic performance of GM crops in America. This revealed a completely different picture. The USDA report went so far as to conclude, 'Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.' (more on the USDA report)
There has been no shortage of funding for NCFAP's biotechnology studies. In 2002 NCFAP's funders once again included the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the Council for Biotechnology Information, CropLife America, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Monsanto, as well as Aventis, Bayer, DuPont, and Syngenta.
And Gianessi and his team have also been funded to look beyond the U.S.. NCFAP received funds from Monsanto, Syngenta, EuropaBio and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation to estimate the potential impacts of GM crops on European agriculture. According to the UK-based biotech-industry lobby group ABC, 'NCFAP's proven methodology and strong ties to European researchers made it an ideal organization to conduct the first comprehensive study of how biotechnology could impact European agriculture.'
Despite the fact that only Spain has any commercial GM crop acreage, and there appears to be no market for GM foods amongst European consumers, NCFAP's study reported that the 'widespread adoption of plant biotechnology in maize, oilseed rape, wheat, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, sugarbeets and stone fruit in Europe would result in significant yield increases, savings for growers and pesticide use reductions. All together, the nine biotech crops would increase yields by 8.5 billion kilograms per year, increase grower net income by 1.6 billionEuro per year and reduce pesticide use by 14.4 million kilograms per year, compared with existing practices that would be replaced.' The 'same methodology that NCFAP researchers used in its U.S. work' is apparently employed in the European study. (Plant Biotechnology: Potential Impact for Improving Pest Management in European Agriculture)
In April 2004 NCFAP sponsored Greg Conko of the right wing lobby group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) to go on a lobbying trip around farmers in those States in Australia which were making decisions in relation to large-scale GM trials being sought by Monsanto and Bayer. The itinerary for the NCFAP-sponsored tour was organised by the U.S. Embassy. (AUSTRALIA: U.S. FACING TOUGH BATTLE FOR GE CROPS, IPS-Inter Press Service, April 1, 2004)