The true cost of GM food exports

March 2014

Picture of grain elevators behind a bean field
Grain elevators behind bean field, Iowa, US. CC Photo by Carl Wycoff on Flickr
America has achieved quite a reputation for breaking down trade barriers to its exports overseas: subsidies to its farmers to make US crops 'cheap' on the world market and to keep the competition at bay, deals brokered with hard-pressed foreign governments and 'aid' packages both of which promote dependence on US imports and ensure a long-term market, and if all else fails, the World Trade Organisation can usually be relied on to pull unco-operative parties into line. 

The outcome is that big chunk of America's 'fence-row to fence-row' monocultures, which produce huge quantities of food and feed, is sold overseas.  Such exports bolster the US economy and stabilise rural America, and have succeeded in becoming “a central component of global food security”.  GM crops, of course, now feature very largely in these exports. 

As the US government pats itself on the back for these export victories and the benefits accruing to the country, researchers in Harvard paused to do some homework on the real-life costs of this grow-to-export drive.  Their conclusion was that it might not be quite the economic boon touted by the policy-makers. 

The problem is that US agriculture is based on economies of scale and chemicals, and is therefore an intensive producer of pollutants as well as crops. 

Even focusing on just one single pollutant in one single form presented an interesting new take on the subject. 

Ammonia is released into the air from fertilizer applied to fields and from accumulated manure in livestock farms.  It “reacts with other air pollutants to create tiny particles (less than 2.5 microns wide) that can lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma attacks, bronchitis and heart attacks” (Science Magazine).  There is no known safe level of such particles. 

The Harvard team put together the ammonia emissions associated with major crops and meat productions between 2002 and 2009, and factored in real-life influences such as where and when they were emitted, and the ambient temperature, humidity and abundance of environmental reactants.  Then, they looked at the percentages of the crops going for export, and worked out the ammonia-related health-care costs using equations developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

What the team concluded was that agricultural exports cost the US $36 billion in annual ammonia-related healthcare along with 5,100 premature deaths. 

From a government point of view, $36 billion might seem a modest price compared to the total value of US exports.  However, the official export figures don't factor in crop production costs.  When these are subtracted to give the net 'profit' to the US economy, the reality comes out at a gain of $23 billion in exchange for a cost of $36 billion. 

Humanitarian costs were not included in the calculations. 

None of the agri-chemical or biotech industry traders or middlemen are affected by any of these costs of pollution. 

Compare the US situation with Europe.  On this side of the Atlantic attention to fertilizer type used and manure management has led to a drop of nearly 30% in ammonia emissions in the decades 1990 to 2010. 


The Harvard researchers looked only at ammonia in the air.  Intensive farming produces a host of other air pollutants from chemical applications and fuel.  And then there are a stack of agri-toxins which end up in the soil, water, plants, animals and food. 

All of these come at a cost to our health and well-being, our environment, and our future. 

GM crops shore up all these costs and come with their own unique brand of self-replicating pollution to add to the problem. 

According to our very pro-GM Environment Secretary “concerns about the health effects of GM foods are “misplaced”, “a complete nonsense”, and that those voicing the concern about GM “poisons in foods” are “humbugs”.”  That depends on what you measure. 

And, just think what the true cost of ARGENTINA'S MODELO SOJERO (February 2014) might be. 


Fabien Paulot and Daniel J. Jacob, 2014, Hidden Cost of U.S. Agricultural Exports: Particulate Matter from Ammonia Emissions, Environmental Science & Technology

Ammonia Pollution From Farming May Exact Hefty Health Costs, Science 343 17.01.14

Tom Philpott, Are agriculture Exports Killing Us? Mother Jones, 22.01.14

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