Why Genetically Modified Crops?

Terry D. Etherton

Recently, a compelling and persuasive article was published by Dr. Jonathan D. G. Jones in a scientific journal (the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) entitled “Why Genetically Modified Crops“.  In the article, Dr. Jones shares his exasperation over the widespread misrepresentation of genetically modified (GM) plant science.  Importantly, he presents that rationale (that is widely accepted by the scientific community) that adopting GM crops is essential for agriculture in the future because it reduces its environmental impact by reducing pesticide applications and conserving soil carbon by enabling low till methods.  Dr. Jones concludes with the perspective that “it would be perverse to spurn this approach at a time when we need every tool in the toolbox to ensure adequate food production in the short, medium and long term”.

The paper published by Dr. Jones reaffirms the need for the global village to maximize crop yields going forward.  It is estimated that at least 50% more food production will be needed by 2030.  And, this will have to achieved without “adding” additional cropland (i.e., destroying tropical rainforests and wildlife habitat), with more expensive energy, looming water availability issues (I have not written much about this but shall in the future), and the ever-present uncertainty of climate change.

A report published in 2009 “Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture” by the Royal Society presented the rationale for how science and technology could increase crop yields and made the recommendation that improved farming methods and the use of ALL available and approved biotechnologies be used to increase the yield potential of crop varieties.

My encouragement is that you read the article by Dr. Jones.  Tellingly, the article concludes with a poignant message:

“GM is a method to introduce new genes that can improve crop performance. In the last 14 years, both GM HT (herbicide tolerance) and insect resistance have been enthusiastically adopted by farmers in the USA, Argentina, Brazil, India and China. The outcomes have broadly been positive; easier weed control, better insect control with reduced insecticide applications, increased carbon sequestration by low till agriculture, and increased farm incomes. However, activists in Europe have greatly retarded adoption of GM, and the public has been misled by unwarranted criticisms of the technology from its opponents. This is unhelpful at a time when we need to use all available technology to secure food supplies over the next 20–40 years.

Europeans should consider the following questions about GM. First, why is so little consideration given to the costs of not using GM? For example, in the UK alone, farmers spend  approximately £50 million per year to control late blight, and a 10 year delay in solving the problem thus costs £500 million. The major beneficiaries from any such delay are the fungicide manufacturers such as Bayer and Syngenta, and the major losers are consumers. Second, European politicians generally support the desirability of strengthening the European bioeconomy, but how are we to compete successfully with the USA when our regulatory burden is so much more severe? Companies such as Monsanto are the major beneficiaries from excessive and expensive regulation; it increases the barriers to entry from competitors, and maintains their monopoly position. Third, EU taxpayers spend considerable sums both nationally and Europe-wide on plant science and technology that could result via GM in EU crops with better performance and reduced environmental impact. However, excessive regulation is preventing EU taxpayers from benefiting from their own investment—why? Finally, EU regulations on import of GM crops are influencing policies in developing countries and retarding the deployment of solutions to problems of food availability and quality. How can the harm that results from these European anti-GM prejudices be justified?”

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