PG Economics

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Peter Barfoot and Graham Brookes are co-directors of the UK-based company PG Economics Ltd - "Independent and objective consultants servicing the agricultural, agricultural supply trade, rural and food industries".[1]

PG Economics' reports and press releases - hyping GM

PG Economics has produced a number of reassuring reports dealing with the economic and strategic issues of GMO crops through the food chain. These reports have generated company press releases such as:

  • "GM and non GM arable crops can co-exist in the EU without problems: says new research paper"[2]
  • "Co-existence of GM and non GM crops in the UK can occur without problems"[3]
  • "GM opponents' theory on co-existence 'exaggerated' according to new report"[4]
  • "Coexistence thought possible for maize in Spain"[5]

as well as headlines such as:

  • "New study supports GM crop co-existence"[6]
  • "Consultants say biotech crops easily coexist with conventional and organic"[7]
  • "GM contamination claims 'exaggerated', claims study"[8]
  • "Successful co-existence for GM food crops in 5 steps, new research"[9]
  • "GM crops good for both economy, environment: new report"[10]

For the biotechnology industry, such headlines are, literally, good news, particularly when generated by an "independent and objective" source.[11]

Co-existence report

BioScience UK, the website of GM company Bayer CropScience, made plain its excitement about PG Economics' 2004 report, "Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: the non GM and organic context in the EU"[12]:

Can GM and non-GM crops really co-exist in the European Union? According to the respected economic consultants group PG Economics, yes they can!![13]

BioScience UK did not mention that the report was commissioned by Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe (ABE),[14] an industry lobby group whose members include Bayer CropScience, as well as BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta.[15] Nor was it mentioned by PG Economics in its press release of the report's findings.[16] ABE's commissioning role was mentioned in the report but without clarification of ABE's membership or of the fact that it is an industry body.[17]

Clients

PG Economics says of its customers, 'Our clients come from both public and private sectors. These include the leading biotechnology companies, agro-chemical manufacturers, seed companies & plant breeders, animal feed ingredient manufacturers, breakfast cereal manufacturers, oilseed crushers, food processors, starch/sweetener manufacturers, farmers organisations, UK government (eg, DEFRA) and the European Commission.'[18]

According to PG Economics, the company's "Philosophy and Attributes" include, 'Active customer involvement in the development of consultancy project targets and implementation'.[19]

PG Economics also assures potential customers that from the initial point of contact it will 'endeavour to put forward a proposal to define our methodology and expected outcomes' (see screengrab, right).[20][21]

PG Economics screengrab taken 18 May 2010. The company promises clients to "endeavour to put forward a proposal to define our methodology and expected outcomes".

As well as Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe (ABE), the company's customers are known to have included ABE's UK equivalent, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC),[22] DuPont, American Cyanamid, the American Soybean Association, Novartis, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Monsanto Europe, the European Commission, Cebecco, Weetabix and the UK Government's Cabinet Office Strategy Unit.

Reports suit clients' interests

There is a striking congruence between the known goals of some of PG Economics' client organisations and the findings of the research they have commissioned. For instance, PG Economics' report "GM Rice: Will This Lead the Way for Global Acceptance of GM Crop Technology?" was commissioned by the biotech-industry backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA),[23] which works to achieve the rapid transfer of GM crops into the developing world.

PG Economics' ISAAA report concludes that the adoption of GM rice by developing countries would mean:

for consumers - lower real prices, greater security of supply, and the availability of nutritionally enhanced rice;
for farmers - reductions in costs of production, higher yields, greater flexibility/convenience in production, and additional revenues;
for developing countries - improved food security, improved health and welfare for their people, and environmental benefits.[24]

The only losers from the adoption of GM rice in developing countries, according to the projections in the report, would be (a) those farmers who failed to adopt GM rice and (b) the biotech industry itself which would make little money out of its adoption while losing sales of pesticides. On the other hand, GM rice would be so successful that it would lead to 'spin off' gains 'for adoption of GM technology in other crops' and in encouraging the global acceptance of GM.

In terms of biotech industry PR, the findings of the PG Economics' report read like a dream come true. Its carefully argued conclusions are, in fact, indistinguishable from the industry's own promotional claims.

The key findings of the report, press released as "Co-existence of GM and non GM crops in the UK can occur without problems, says new research paper",[25] were also music to the ears of the customer that commissioned it - the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which is made up of biotechnology companies anxious to see the early introduction of GM crops into the UK. The ABC's member companies are BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta.[26]

Once again PG Economics' press release failed to mention who had commissioned the report,[27] while the report itself failed to make clear that the ABC, whose initials are remarkably similar to those of the AEBC - the Government's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, is a biotech industry body.

Another PG Economics report, which argued that coexistence between GM and organic had been successful without causing problems to non-GM or organic growers in the United States ("Coexistence in North American Agriculture: Can GM Crops Be Grown with Conventional and Organic Crops?"[28]), led to accusations that the company had misrepresented findings of an organic farmers' survey in order to support its premise.[29]

The paper's conclusions were heavily based on a 2002 survey by the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). According to Ken Roseboro, the OFRF survey, in fact, showed 'the exact opposite: that GM crops are starting to cause economic and operational hardships to organic farmers'.

Roseboro writes:

The main problem with PG Economics' findings is that they ignored the fact that the OFRF survey included organic farmers in areas where GM corn and soybeans are not grown. In fact, the survey had 1,034 respondents, but only 100 to 150 (ie a maximum of about 15%) produced corn or soybeans and were at-risk from GM crops.
Farmers who live in Midwestern states, where the majority of GM corn and soybeans are grown, reported significant impacts. In these states, 70 to 80% of respondents reported negative impacts from GMOs. In addition, up to 88% of organic farmers in Midwestern states said they had to take some measures to protect their farms from GMO contamination. By quoting only the nationwide statistics the PG Economics authors, Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, are able to minimise the problems caused to non-GM and organic growers.'[30]

Peter Barfoot's background

That Brookes and Barfoot might feel more sympathetic to the biotechnology industry rather its critics would not be surprising. Not only is their company heavily dependent on both GM crops as a research issue and GM industry customers, but Barfoot has spent most of his career either working in the biotech industry or in businesses dependent on it.

Two years before Barfoot co-founded PG Economics, he launched the website of BioPortfolio Limited, of which he is still the MD. The site claims to be:

a leading provider of business information products and solutions to the biotechnology sector. The company serves millions of clients across pharmaceutical, life science and biotechnology markets with information to help generate competitive advantage.[31]

During the mid-1990s Barfoot was also involved with Meredith Lloyd-Evans of BioBridge Associates - a biotechnology business development consultancy. Barfoot and Lloyd-Evans also jointly authored a paper, "EU Boasts Good Science Base and Economic Prospects for Crop Biotechnology".[32]

Lloyd-Evans is a fervent supporter of 'crop biotechnology', describing Greenpeace's opposition to GM crops as having 'no science behind it' and having 'much more of the flavour of a sustained witch-hunt, based on the same kind of doctrinaire and destructive propaganda that underpinned Lysenko's diatribes against rational plant and animal genetics in the US (mainly aimed at his scientific and political rivals and doubly devastating because of the support he obtained from Stalin), Goebbels's and Goering's campaigns against non-Aryan activities, including science and other pursuits that might lead to national progress, and Pol Pot's dehumanisation of his invented ideological opponents' (AgBioView). Lloyd-Evans has also attacked the 'organic movements' as being 'more like extremist religious cults than logical realists'.[33] On the role of GM critics in relation to the refusal by some African countries of GM-contaminated food aid, Lloyd-Evans says, 'their eco-imperialism is the closest that we in the Western world are now getting to supporting genocide in the third world'.[34]

Prior to working with Lloyd-Evans, Barfoot had a 12-year stint (1985-1995) with the Agricultural Genetics Company, which eventually led onto Axis Genetics. The aim was to produce pharmaceuticals from GM plants and insect resistant GM plants but both projects floundered as a result of the anti-GM backlash of the late 1990s. Axis Genetics was at the centre of that storm as its products included the GM potatoes researched by Dr Arpad Pusztai and colleagues. Pusztai's research showed that Axis's GM potatoes had damaging effects on rats fed on them.

Axis was co-founded by Paul Rodgers. As well as working for Rodgers' company, Barfoot produced a report on GM for another company co-founded by Rodgers - Pestax Ltd. Pestax, like Axis, failed amidst the public backlash against GM. Paul Rodgers' partner, Dr Geraldine Rodgers, has made public statements every bit as extreme and unsubstantiated as those of Lloyd-Evans. Rodgers warns, "Eating organically grown food puts consumers at risk of the following diseases: Food poisoning from: Salmonella, E.coli 0157 and Cryptosporidiosis, mycotoxin poisoning, liver cancer and other cancers (e.g oesophageal) and probably new variant CJD... While everyone's peering at GM foods down an electron microscope we could be in for the much heralded epidemics of cancer courtesy of the organic farming lobby."[35]

Independent and objective?

It must raise questions about the extent to which PG Economics can be styled 'independent and objective consultants' when it comes to issues like the co-existence of GM crops with organic agriculture given that:

  • the clients for its co-existence reports are almost invariably the biotechnology industry or its close associates
  • much of Peter Barfoot's career has been spent in businesses dependent on the success of the biotechnology industry, as well as in an entrepreneurial culture marked by extreme antipathy towards both organic farming and those who raise concerns about GM crops.

Brookes also displays a passionate commitment to GM crops. According to a press report, "A presentation by Graham Brookes, director of the England-based PG Economics Limited, showed hard evidence of the overwhelmingly positive economic and environmental impacts of the crops. Mind you, this is a man whose company gets a paycheck from such pro-GM trade associations as CropLife International and Green Biotech Europe, and who summed up his view of the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva with the couplet 'bloody idiot.'"[36]

"Peer review" claim

It's sometimes claimed that some of PG Economics' work has been "peer reviewed".[37]

This refers to publication in the Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management & Economics[38] - otherwise known as AgBioForum. AgBioForum has the enthusiastic GM proponent CS Prakash on its editorial board[39] and is funded by the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance, whose purpose is "to fund biotechnology research... directed at expanding the volume of profitable businesses in the US food and agricultural sector".[40]

PG Economics screengrab taken 18 May 2010, showing "peer reviewed" claim for a PG Economics paper published in AgBioForum

IMBA has been funded by the USDA since the mid 1990s. It got its USDA grant-funded status with the help of then Monsanto CEO, Richard Mahoney.[41]

PG Economics used to rebut report showing higher pesticide use with GM crops

In 2009 a report was released by the Organic Center in the US, entitled, 'Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years', by Dr Charles Benbrook.[42] The report utilized official, US Department of Agriculture pesticide use data to estimate the differences in the average pounds of pesticides applied on GM crop acres, compared to acres planted to conventional, non-GM varieties.

The report’s main findings were that compared to pesticide use in the absence of GM crops, farmers had applied 318 million more pounds of pesticides over the past 13 years as a result of planting GM seeds. This difference represents an average increase of about 0.25 pound for each acre planted to a GM trait.

The report also found that GM crops are pushing pesticide use upward at a rapidly accelerating pace. In 2008, GM crop acres required over 26% more pounds of pesticides per acre than acres planted to conventional varieties. The report projected that this trend will continue as a result of the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds.[43]

The report stirred a lot of interest and some attempted rebuttals. All of the latter - from the Biotechnology Industry Organization down, drew heavily on the findings of PG Economics Ltd.

For instance, an article published by the pro-GM lobby group Truth About Trade and Technology states, "It's possible to point to statistics that say the exact opposite [to the Benbrook study]. PG Economics Ltd., a well-regarded English consulting firm, recently issued its own findings and said that the use of pesticides on global biotech acreage has dropped almost 800 million pounds--or nearly 9 percent--during the same period."[44]

Curiously, although the Truth About Trade article brands Benbrook's study "activist-sponsored", it fails to mention that PG Economics' work in this area is almost invariably funded by the biotechnology industry. It also fails to mention, possibly because, like other critics, the author failed to read the actual study, that Benbrook includes a review of PG Economics' work within his study (see section, "Benbrook's review of PG Economics' report on GM crops and pesticide use", below).[45]

What's apparent from Benbrook's review is the extreme lengths to which the PG Economics' analysts have had to go to come up with their conclusions. This includes such "creative – and highly questionable – methodological strategies" as disavowing their own "data-driven estimates".[46]

Benbrook's review of PG Economics' report on GM crops and pesticide use

From Dr Charles Benbrook, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center, November 2009, pp. 50-52:

A UK based consulting firm, PG Economics Ltd., has carried out several studies of GM crops funded by the pesticide and biotechnology industries. Their latest was released in May 2009. The PG Economics report uses methods and sources similar to NCFAP, and claims its estimates are based on "the average performance and impact recorded in dfferent crops."
The PG Economics report estimates a 4.6% reduction worldwide in herbicide use attributable to GM crops from 1996 through 2007 (the first 12 years of commercial use). This report [Benbrook's] estimates that GM HT [Herbicide Tolerant] corn, soybeans, and cotton have increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 382 million pounds over 13 years, or by about 10% (NASS [the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service] reports that 3.82 billion pounds of herbicides applied to these three crops from 1996-2008). It is worth noting that the increase in 2008 – the extra year covered by this analysis – was 100 million pounds, or about 26% of the total increase over the 13 years.
The methodology in the PG Economics report is worth a closer look. HT soybeans are by far the most important GM crop in the U.S. in terms of impacts on pesticide use, and so the focus herein is on the PG Economics analysis of herbicide use on conventional and HT soybeans.
The authors begin by noting that there are two primary sources of data on pesticide use in the U.S. – NASS surveys and private farm-level surveys (survey data from DMR Kynetec was used in the PG Economics report).
Their Table 33 reports herbicide use on HT and conventional soybeans for 1998 through 2007 in the U.S., based on Kynetec survey data. In every year, herbicide use was higher on HT soybeans than conventional soybeans. The margin was typically less than 0.2 pounds until 2002, when the margin increased to around 0.3 from 2003-2007.
Estimates of herbicide use on HT soybean acres as reported in the PG Economics report and this analysis differ modestly, and are accounted for largely by the rate per crop year of glyphosate herbicides. Likewise, the PG Economics and this report's estimates of total herbicide use on conventional soybean acres, and the differences between HT and conventional acres, are relatively close for 1998 through 2004. The Kynetec dataset then projects increases in the total rate of herbicide application on conventional acres from 2004 through 2007, despite the continued trend toward greater reliance on relatively low-dose herbicides, as evident in the projections based on NASS data.
This deviation in estimates of herbicide use on conventional soybeans accounts for this report's progressively larger margin of difference in herbicide use rates on HT in contrast to conventional soybean acres.
Despite some differences, it is significant that the industry-sponsored Kynetec survey, as reported by PG Economics, supports the same basic conclusion as this report – HT soybeans have increased herbicide use by a substantial and growing amount.
But curiously, right after reporting the Kynetec results in Table 33, the authors of the PG Economics report state:
"The comparison data between the GM HT crop and the conventional alternative presented above is, however, not a reasonable representation of average herbicide usage on the average GM HT crop compared with the average conventional alternative for recent years."
The PG Economics analysts disavow their own data-driven estimates, asserting that herbicide use is lower on conventional soybean acres in the Kynetec dataset because the majority of farmers planting conventional soybeans must be among those facing the lightest weed pressure. This creative argument, however, is incompatible with the pattern of adoption of HT soybeans across the states. Since 2006, the rate of adoption of HT soybeans varies modestly between states from 81% to 97%, with no clear pattern between states with relatively low weed pressure (Minnesota, South Dakota) and states with much higher levels of weed pressure (Mississippi, Arkansas).
After rejecting the Kynetec survey findings that were based on real data, the PG Economics team then turns to another source for supposedly more reliable estimates – the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy [see below]. The PG Economics team revises its soybean herbicide use projections drawing on NCFAP's faulty simulations, and reaches the basic finding of a 6.8% reduction in herbicide use as a result of HT soybeans.
Similarly creative – and highly questionable – methodological strategies are employed by the PG Economics team in projecting the impacts of other GE crops on pesticide use. Like the NCFAP, the PG Economics team never explains the discrepancies between their estimates and those based on NASS data.
NB: The findings of the PG Economics report were featured at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) 2009 conference and subsequently used by most biotechnology and pesticide industry trade associations in public relations efforts designed to promote awareness of the benefits of GE crop technology. Note that in [a] posting [on the BIO website, 21 May 2009] by Michael Phillips, BIO Vice President for the Food & Agriculture program, the PG Economics report is highlighted as a "counter" to the 2004 UCS report on the impacts of GM crops on pesticide use over the first nine years of commercial use.

Notes

  1. Who are PG Economics Ltd, PG Economics website, acc 18 May 2010
  2. GM and non GM arable crops can co-exist in the EU without problems: says new research paper, press release, PG Economics, 14 May 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  3. Co-existence of GM and non GM crops in the UK can occur without problems, press release, PG Economics, 24 November 2003, accessed July 13, 2009
  4. GM opponents' theory on co-existence "exaggerated" according to new report, press release, PG Economics, 14 October 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  5. Coexistence Thought Possible for Maize in Spain, PG Economics, 21 Oct 2003, accessed 13 July 2009
  6. New study supports GM crop co-existence, Food&DrinkEurope.com, 5 November 2003, accessed 13 July 2009
  7. Stephen Clapp, Consultants Say Biotech Crops Easily Coexist with Conventional and Organic, Food Chemical News, June 14, 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  8. GM contamination claims 'exaggerated', claims study, FoodNavigator.com, 17 May 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  9. Successful co-existence for GM food crops in 5 steps, new research, FoodNavigator.com, 20 October 2004, version placed in web archive 1 March 2005, accessed in web archive 13 July 2009
  10. GM crops good for both economy, environment: new report, Queensland Country Life, 22 May 2009, accessed 13 July 2009
  11. Home page, PG Economics website, accessed 13 July 2009
  12. Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: the non GM and organic context in the EU, PG Economics, 14 May 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  13. "GM and non-GM Crops can co-exist in the EU", says New Research Paper, BioScience UK website, accessed 13 July 2009
  14. Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: the non GM and organic context in the EU, PG Economics, 14 May 2004, p. 1, accessed 13 July 2009
  15. About ABE, ABE website, version placed in web archive 4 Dec 2005, accessed in web archive 13 July 2009
  16. GM and non GM arable crops can co-exist in the EU without problems: says new research paper, press release, PG Economics, 14 May 2004, accessed 13 July 2009
  17. Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: the non GM and organic context in the EU, PG Economics, 14 May 2004, p. 1, accessed 13 July 2009
  18. Who are PG Economics Ltd, PG Economics website, acc 18 May 2010
  19. PG Economics Limited Statement of Capability & Experience, PG Economics, 2006, page 3
  20. home page, PG Economics website, acc 18 May 2010
  21. PG Economics Limited Statement of Capability & Experience, PG Economics, 2006, page 8. Screengrab taken 18 May 2010 here
  22. Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot, Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: case study of the UK, PG Economics, 24 Nov 2003. The title page carries the footnote: "The authors acknowledge that funding for this research came from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC)".
  23. Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, ISAAA Briefs: GM Rice: Will This Lead the Way for Global Acceptance of GM Crop Technology?, PG Economics, June 2002, version placed in web archive 30 Oct 2004, accessed in web archive 18 May 2010
  24. Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, ISAAA Briefs: GM Rice: Will This Lead the Way for Global Acceptance of GM Crop Technology?, PG Economics, June 2002, p. 51, version placed in web archive 30 Oct 2004, accessed in web archive 18 May 2010
  25. Co-Existence Of GM And Non GM Crops In The UK Can Occur Without Problems, Says New Research Paper, PG Economics, 24 Nov 2003, archived on Monsanto website, acc 18 May 2010
  26. About Us, ABC website, acc 18 May 2010
  27. Co-existence of GM and non GM crops in the UK can occur without problems, PG Economics website, 24 November 2003, acc 18 May 2010
  28. Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot, Co-existence in North American agriculture: can GM crops be grown with conventional and organic crops?, PG Economics, 7 Jun 2004, acc 18 May 2010
  29. Ken Roseboro, Biotech, organic coexistence research paper skews facts to support dubious conclusion, CropChoice, Jul 18 2004, version placed in web archive 26 Mar 2006, acc in web archive 18 May 2010
  30. Ken Roseboro, Biotech, organic coexistence research paper skews facts to support dubious conclusion, CropChoice, Jul 18 2004, version placed in web archive 26 Mar 2006, acc in web archive 18 May 2010
  31. About BioPortfolio, BioPortfolio website, archived version of Feb 7 2003, accessed in web archive 18 May 2010
  32. Lloyd-Evans, L. P. M., and P. Barfoot. 1996. "EU Boasts Good Science Base and Economic Prospects for Crop Biotechnology." Gen. Eng. News. 16(13): 16.
  33. What Role Can The Combination Of GM Technology And Organic Farming Methods Have In Sustainable Agriculture And Protecting The Environment?, Online Discussion archives, Monsanto website, November 2000 - February 2001, acc 18 May 2010
  34. Meredith Lloyd-Evans, Fear Mongering the Food Aid, Unpublished Letter to the Editor of The Guardian (UK), 14 Aug 2002, accessed 18 May 2010
  35. Dr Geraldine Rodgers, Eating Organically Grown Food Puts Consumers at Risk of Diseases, BWG Online, 10th October, 2001, archived on Monsanto website, acc 18 May 2010
  36. Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, Up Close and Personal with the Genetic Modifiers (the second page of this two-page article, on which this quote is to be found, is here, Gourmet.com, 31 Oct 08, acc 18 May 2010
  37. home page, PG Economics website, acc 18 May 2010, screengrab here
  38. Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Income and Production Effects, 1996-2007, AgBioForum Vol 12(2) 184-208
  39. Editorial board, AgBioForum website, acc 18 May 2010
  40. home page, IMBA website, acc 18 May 2010
  41. History, IMBA website, acc 18 May 2010
  42. Dr Charles Benbrook, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center, November 2009, acc 18 May 2010
  43. "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years", The Organic Center, November 2009, acc 18 May 2010
  44. John Reifsteck, The Business of Farming, Truth About Trade and Technology website, 20 Nov 2009, acc 18 May 2010
  45. Dr Charles Benbrook, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center, November 2009, pp. 50-52, acc 18 May 2010
  46. Dr Charles Benbrook, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, The Organic Center, November 2009, pp. 50-52, acc 18 May 2010