NovaNext, the web journalism site for the long-running PBS science series Nova, has published a superb article, "GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides." The article carefully explains why biotech crops are good for both people and the environment. It opens by describing recent efforts by Cornell University plant breeder Walter De Jong to create a virus resistant potato variety. It's really good reporting and well worth your time. To whet your appetite I provide a few selections from the article below:
Between 1996 and 2011, Bt corn reduced insecticide use in corn production by 45% worldwide (110 million pounds, or roughly the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools). …
"There is not a single documented case of anyone being hurt by genetically modified food, and yet this is a bigger problem for people than pesticides, which we know have caused harm," [Idaho potato farmer Duane Grant] says. "I just shake my head in bewilderment at the folks who take these stringent positions that biotech should be banned."
In the decade after Monsanto pulled their GM potatoes from the market, dozens of long-term animal feeding studies concluded that various GM crops were as safe as traditional varieties. And statements from science policy bodies, such as those issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, and the European Commission, uphold that conclusion. Secondly, techniques to tweak genomes have become remarkably precise. Specific genes can be switched off without lodging foreign material into a plant's genome. Scientists don't necessarily have to mix disparate organisms with one another, either. In cisgenic engineering, organisms are engineered by transferring genes between individuals that could breed naturally. …
I first encountered De Jong on April 4, when he sat on a panel about GMOs in New York City hosted by the advocacy groups GMO Free NY and the Wagner Food Policy Alliance. The modest awkwardness that endears him to farmers didn't charm the audience. As De Jong explained how scientists create GMOs, they began to murmur, lost amidst De Jong's scientific jargon and meandering delivery.
De Jong did, however, liven up during a discussion in which Jean Halloran, a member of the panel from the Consumer's Union, suggested that farmers in the developing world could ditch pesticides, not use GMOs, and increase yields. "We favor a knowledge-based approach rather than a chemical-based approach to increasing production," Halloran had said.
De Jong did not find this solution realistic and asked, "Do you want to be the African farmer who has to apply insecticide every week—really nasty stuff—without protective equipment?" The question hung in the air for a second, and the panelist beside him repeated the no-chemical mantra.
Weeks later, De Jong tells me the panel opened his eyes. He was shocked at how people who don't live near farms feel entitled to advise farmers, especially on environmental matters. "There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism," De Jong says. "Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids' kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest," he says. "My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GM live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails."
"I find it so tragic that, by and large, crop biotechnologists and farmers want to reduce their pesticide use, and yet the method we think is most sustainable and environmentally friendly has been dismissed out of hand." He pauses as he recalls the event and says, "There is no scientific justification for it—it is just as if there is a high priest who decided, 'Thou shalt not be GMO.' " …
Multiple US federal agencies, driven in part by the public's fears, ask for proof on safety and efficacy beyond a point that feels reasonable to some scientists. For example, people worry that inserted genes will spread to wild crops, but reported occurrences have been exceedingly rare and their existence is debated among the scientific community. As agencies examine and re-examine all imaginable scenarios, public sector projects and small businesses crumble under the pressure of paying employees while taking in no revenue. "Some of the regulations required for crop approval are not science-based, and they have crippled the ability of the public sector to deploy GMOs for public benefit," De Jong says, "I can make a transgenic potato for less than $50,000, but I cannot afford to pay five to ten million dollars to go through regulatory hoops."
By demanding excessive regulations and thus boosting regulatory costs, the activists make sure that a few big companies maintain near monopolies on modern crop varieties.
For more background see my article, "The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops."