Biotech Crops Safe and Pro-Poor Say FAO Economists


Two U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization economists, Terri Raney and Prabhu Pingali write a sharp article in the September issue of Scientific American (sub required) on how genetically enhanced crops can and do help poor farmers in developing countries. I can't quote everything, but one particularly good point the FAO economists make is that scientific evidence shows that currently available biotech crops are not harming either people or the natural environment. To wit:

The chief food-safety concerns are are fears that allergens or toxins may be present and that other unintentional changes in the food composition may occur. Yet to date no verifiable toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of transgenic foods have been discovered anywhere in the world (emphasis mine). National food safety authorities of several countries have evaluated the transgenic crops currently being grown commercially and the foods derived from them, using procedures based on internationally agreed upon principles, and have judged them all safe to eat.

Environmental concerns center on the spread of transgenes to related crops or weeds ("gene flow"), the development of herbicide-resistant weeds, the development of insect pests resistant to the Bt toxin (which has long been used as a pesticide, particularly by organic farmers), harm by insect-resistant crops to nontarget organisms, and indirect environmental effects that come about because transgenic crops lead to different cropping practices.

Scientists disagree about the likelihood and potential consequences of these hazards. Gene flow, for example, is acknowledged to be possible when transgenic crops are grown close to related plants, but the transgene will persist and spread only if they give the recipient plant a competitive advantage. Such gene flow could inflict economic harm by, for instance, making a product ineligible for a status such as "organic." What would suffice to constitute ecological harm is more controversial.

Thus far, none of the major environmental hazards potentially associated with transgenic crops has developed in commercial fields. Herbicide-resistant weeds have been observed–although not necessarily caused by growing transgenic crops–and so far they can be managed by alternative herbicides. The lack of negative impacts so far does not mean they cannot occur, of course. Scientific understanding of ecological and food-safety processes is incomplete, but many of the risks highlighted for transgenics are similar to risks inherent in conventional agriculture as well.

Raney elsewhere argues that biotech crops can be pro-poor.

The economic evidence available to date does not support rhe widely held perception that transgenic crops benefit only large farms; on the contrary, the technology may be pro-poor. Nor does the available evidence support the fear that multinational biotechnology firms are capturing all of the economic value created by transgenic crops. On the contrary, the benefits are shared by consumers, technology suppliers and adopting farmers, although non-adopting farmers are penalized as their competitors achieve efficiency gains they are denied.

Her whole article on the pro-poor potential of biotech crops here.

With regard to gene flow, researchers have long recognized that the issue is not confined to genetically enhanced crops; it occurs between conventional crops and other plants as well. For more on gene flow see my column "Transgenics Gone Wild!"

For another report on the pro-poor nature of genetically enhanced crops take a look at this 2006 one by the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities.

NEXT: Quote of the Decade

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  1. Ron, what do you have to say about recent claims that biotech is, in fact, Godzilla?

  2. Virtually ALL the food we eat is GMO, other than unmodified ancestral crops like wild rice. Whether a crop is genetically modified by selectively breeding or by using science to insert tailored genes, the effect is the same: the food has been changed to be more beneficial to people.

  3. Whether a crop is genetically modified by selectively breeding or by using science to insert tailored genes, the effect is the same: the food has been changed to be more beneficial to people.

    Not just selective breeding jh, but MUTATION breeding! DNA has been directly manipulated in plants for thousands of years, it has just been manipulated in a way that produces random genetic change vs. deliberate genetic change.


    Seriously, though, I think the best thing in terms of agriculture we can do for the poor is to get rid of US agricultural subsidies. All this talk about development projects and improved methods and “maybe they just have lower IQs” talk suffers from the fatal flaw of ignoring the gun in the room.

  5. Warty: I suspect tired irony. Unfortunately, the NGO distorters of biotech crop science are ceaseless in their disinformation campaigns so I must continue to report on the topic. For short list of distorters see Greenpeace, the Organic Consumers Association, the Sierra Club, the Center for Food Safety and on and on and on.

    I continue to report in this area because I have confidence that scientific evidence will eventually triumph over environmentalist disinformation.

    jh & Rex: Of course you’re right. As I have pointed out before some 2300 crop varieties produced by mutation breeding (that is, blasting them with radiation and chemicals to see what comes up) are grown today, many by organic farmers. No one has been harmed by these crops so it’s tough to see how much more precisely targeted genetic enhancement could be more “dangerous.”

  6. No one has been harmed by these crops so it’s tough to see how much more precisely targeted genetic enhancement could be more “dangerous.”

    Ron, Ron, Ron–logic doesn’t get people to support Luddite causes. Fear does. And attacks by killer tomatos.

  7. Norman Borlaug argues that GMO crops are the logical and necessary route to follow in order to improve yields and reduce hunger and deforestation.

    He comments “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”.

  8. Not surprising that these anti-science anti-technology fanatics are [usually] on the left. Really, who are the ultraconservative reactionaries now?

  9. I think the intellectual property issues that surround GMO are the interesting ones.

    If I get to tell a farmer that he can’t replant seeds that are the result of his labor because the original seeds came from my lab I believe that I have overstepped my intellectual property claim. (And I will need the governments guns to enforce that claim).

    I believe this side of the issue is a large reason for the opposition to GMO… the collusion between big agri-business and government against the small farmer.

  10. Neu Mejican: Don’t condescend to farmers. If they don’t think that biotech crops provide them with more benefits than costs, they won’t plant them and they’ll stay with traditional conventional and landrace varieties. So IP is a big problem, it’s one that the market (that is, actual farmers) already no how to solve, just refuse to plant the biotech seeds.

    BTW, seed saving has not been a big issue in the U.S. since the advent of hybrid corn in the 1930s. Can’t save those seeds since they don’t breed true.

  11. yrr, correction, “So if IP is a big …”

  12. Neu Mejican: BTW, I am not saying that companies don’t try to claim over broad patents; they do. But that’s why we have patent lawyers. So with regard to patented pig link you shared with us, the same thing I said about crops and farmers goes for pigs too.

  13. Don’t forget to add Sepultura to that list, Ron.

  14. In fact, a number of economic studies show that farmers capture a larger share of the economic benefit of transgenic crops than do seed sellers.

    The case of cotton in the U.S.
    An African analysis here.

  15. Warty: LOL. Thanks.

  16. Ron,

    I don’t disagree (for the most part) with your (overly simplistic) analysis…but I still find the IP issues the interesting aspect of the GMO debate.

    fwiw, “Don’t condescend to farmers.” I would never condescend to farmers. My grandfather, a rancher/farmer, had one of the highest IQ’s of anyone I have ever met…he would explain to you how you have oversimplified the issue regarding the interaction between IP, ag-business, market choices, and the independent farmer.

  17. Sepultura:

    Strip-mine the amazon
    Of cells of life itself
    Gold rush for genes is on
    Natives get nothing


    Ain’t what’s so bad
    Like all technology
    It’s in the wrong hands

    Not to say this is a deep analysis, but they seem to be focusing on the IP issue as well…

  18. Neu Mejican: I might let your grandfather condescend since I actually grew up on a dairy farm, but don’t you try. Overly simplistic, ha!

  19. Ron,

    I remembered that about your background.
    That is why I said grandpa would’ve explained it to you…

    Me, as a city slicker, not gonna go there.


    But I will continue to describe any free-market bumper sticker you use as overly simplistic.

    In the real world the agricultural economy has all sorts of market distortions that result from collusion between large monied interests and the government. The IP issue is a point of leverage.

  20. Neu Mejican: Point of leverage–to what end? With all due respect, I fear that you’re simply repeating anti-biotech slogans against IP–the kind of stuff Jeremy Rifkin did back in the 1980s.

    Again,if farmers didn’t like biotech it wouldn’t be the fastest expanding new ag technology in recent history.

    Be careful that you don’t fall for overly simplistic anti-biotech propaganda.

    And yeah, you are completely correct that ag is one of the most screwed up sectors of the world economy for all kinds of reasons, not least because of government subsidies.

  21. Ron,

    Point of leverage–to what end?

    Controlling markets.
    Not that is necessarily a winning strategy (see the RIAA).

  22. Urhm,

    “Not that that is necessarily…”

    Of course, even if you can’t completely control a market, you can influence it. IP is a point of leverage that can be used towards that end.

    To keep it overly simplistic.

  23. Ron, do you own stock in any agricultural biotechnology firms?

  24. Since IP is itself a state-granted privilege in massive violation of free market principles, it’s odd to say the market will solve the problem. The market only operates in the interstices of a state capitalist economy, the limited portions where market competition is still allowed by Monsanto’s goon squad (aka the government). The only way to solve IP is to kill it.

  25. it occurs between conventional crops and other plants as well.

    Hey I remember making that point…and then being jumped on by therou and Biologist.

    Hey therou and Biologist…FUCK YOU! You were wrong and I was right!

  26. This is one of the most informative articles on GMOs I have ever encountered. Thanks Ron for mentioning Jeremy Rifkin. He regularly makes rounds in Africa to speak against modern crop genetic engineering. In an article in the Washington Post last year, Rifkin wrote that agricultural biotechnology is losing relevance. He argued that gene slicing is taking its place. I commented on the article in my blog, GMO Africa. The anti-biotech crowd has never provided any scientific justification for their opposition to genetically modified crops. They only engage in generalities. Agricultural biotechnology being a new phenomenon is bound to generate opposition just the way it happened with the introduction of computers. Physicist Freeman Dyson, in an article “Our Biotech Future”, has explained this issue in depth. Let’s stop scare-mongering about GM crops. They have their place in the society.

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