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The GM Reactionaries

PALO ALTO – People everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the use of what Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science” – the “science of things that aren’t so” – to justify government regulation or other policies. It is a specialty of self-styled public-interest groups, whose agenda is often not to protect public health or the environment, but rather to oppose the research, products, or technology that they happen to dislike.

For example, modern techniques of genetic engineering – also known as biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification (GM) – provide the tools to make old plants do spectacular new things. Yet these tools are relentlessly misrepresented to the public.

More than 17 million farmers in roughly three dozen countries worldwide are using GM crop varieties to produce higher yields with fewer inputs and lower environmental impact. Most of these new varieties are designed to resist crop-ravaging pests and diseases, so that farmers can adopt environmentally friendlier no-till practices and use more benign herbicides.

Critics of GM products insist that they are untested, unsafe, unregulated, unnecessary, and unwanted. But the facts show otherwise.

For starters, there is a broad and longstanding consensus among scientists that recombinant DNA techniques are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier methods for genetic modification, and that gene transfer using these precise, predictable molecular techniques does not present any risk per se.

After the cultivation of more than a billion hectares of GM crops worldwide – and the consumption in North America alone of more than two trillion servings of foods that contain GM ingredients – not a single case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem has been documented. Meanwhile, the benefits of GM-crop cultivation include higher yields, lower use of chemical pesticides, and biofuel production.

Far from being under-regulated, GM plants (and other organisms) have been subjected to expensive, discriminatory, and unscientific over-regulation that has limited the commercial success of maize, cotton, canola, soybeans, and papaya, among other crops.

In fact, opponents often assert that commercial cultivation of GM crops has been a disappointment, because it has offered little direct benefit to consumers. But many advantages have already been realized. And GM crops currently in development will deliver even more direct and easily identifiable consumer benefits.

Consider, for example, that, because GM crops require less chemical pesticide, fewer farmers and their families risk being poisoned by runoff into waterways and ground water. From 1996 to -2009, the amount of pesticide that was sprayed on crops worldwide fell by 393 million kilograms – 1.4 times the total amount of pesticide applied annually to crops in the European Union.

Furthermore, lower levels of mycotoxins in pest-resistant corn mean fewer birth defects, such as spina bifida, and less toxicity to livestock. Such staple food crops also can be modified to contain additional nutrients.

No-till farming techniques, in which the soil is not plowed, mean less soil erosion, less runoff of agricultural chemicals, and lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions by mechanized farm equipment. From 1996 to 2009, the shift to biotech crops reduced carbon emissions by 17.6 billion kilograms, the equivalent of removing 7.8 million cars from the road for a year.

GM crops also have significant economic benefits. Higher yields and lower production costs have reduced global commodity prices (corn, soybeans, and derivatives), resulting in higher farm income, enhanced supplies of food and feed products, and more readily available high-quality calories.

Indeed, farm income grew by nearly $65 million from 1996 to 2009, as biotech crops increased global corn and soybean production by 130 million and 83 million tons, respectively, owing to higher yields and, in Argentina, second cropping of soybeans. As a result, by 2007, global corn and soybean prices were nearly 6% and 10% lower, respectively, than they would have been had farmers not embraced these crops.

Given their benefits, GM crops’ “repeat index” – the proportion of farmers who, after trying a GM variety, choose to plant it again – is very high. The boost to farm incomes and farm security – which translates into higher household incomes and improved standards of living – is particularly important in developing countries, where income levels are lowest but per-hectare benefits from planting GM varieties have been greatest.

But GM crops do not benefit only those who grow and consume them. According to a 2010 study, fields of insect-resistant GM corn have an “area-wide suppression effect” on insects, benefiting neighboring fields containing conventional corn varieties.

The researchers calculated that, from 1996 to 2010, cultivating GM varieties increased farmers’ profits in three US states by roughly $3.2 billion – $2.4 billion of which accrued to farmers whose nearby fields had not been planted with GM varieties. The farmers planting the conventional varieties benefit disproportionately, because they do not have to buy the more expensive GM seeds.

Future generations of GM crops will bring even more benefits – but only if they are allowed to flourish. To that end, consumers must understand that GM crops hold great potential, while posing negligible risks, and governments must adopt regulatory policies that face facts and reject pathological science.