September 14, 2014
Genetically Modified Plants: Boon Or Bane?

Madeline Ostrander asks Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World? The correct answer: yes!

The Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit agricultural watchdog group, says genetic engineering will never deliver on promises to feed a growing population and isn’t a trustworthy technology. “The dirty secret of the biotech industry is, after thirty years, they haven’t done anything for consumers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a speech at a national heirloom-seed fair in Santa Rosa, California. “No better taste, no more nutrition, zero benefits,” and a number of “potential risks.”

We could also say that a few decades of cancer research hasn't come up with cures for most forms of cancer and most of the treatments researchers have come up with have horrible and enormously damaging side effects. But is that a reason to give up on cancer research? No.

But genetic tinkering in crops has produced some successes. Notably, Bt corn has lowered the cost of corn production and therefore lowered the cost of livestock feed and therefore of meat, eggs, and milk - at least compared to what their prices would be without Bt corn. Unfortunately, a growing population and corn ethanol have driven up the price of corn. Still, without Bt corn and the price of corn and meat would have risen even more.

Genetic enhancement of crop plants seems like a boon for wild animals and natural habitats. Higher productivity per acre will reduce the number of acres plowed. The least developed countries have populations that are (alas) growing by billions. They are cutting more into the remaining shrinking natural areas. Their growing populations are going to wipe out many species. The planet would be better off if the billions of poor could have genetically enhanced higher productivity crops grown to feed them using smaller farm land footprints.

Debates in Western countries about the risks and benefits of genetic enhancement of crops will only affect the rate of development of genetically engineered plants. China will not slow down its own development of genetically enhanced crops. So the work will get done. Also, as microfluidics, DNA sequencing, and other technologies used in biotechnology drop in cost the number of countries and scientists who will be able to afford to do genetic enhancement will rise. Regulatory obstacles will become less effective as the technology becomes more easily usable by less developed countries.

What worries me: genetically modified plants created for mischief or outright terrorism. Ditto for genetically modified birds, insects, fish, and other creatures. In artificial intelligences do not wipe us out then I expect governments will be forced to fund emergency genetic engineering efforts to build counter-offensive plants and animals to attack organisms which have been sent into their countries to cause havoc.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 September 14 08:28 PM 

jp straley said at September 16, 2014 7:24 AM:

A weed is a plant in the wrong place, right? How about if we install nitrogen-fixing pathways in a few of our favorites, say, corn and beans. I expect they would immediately escape into the wild, outcompeting and driving many wild-types to extinction.

Alank said at September 16, 2014 5:52 PM:

In response to Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, here is this:

Excerpted from a Scientific American guest opinion essay, March 15, 2014:

By David Ropeik (an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School)

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A–producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM [genetically modified] technology. Now two agricultural economists, one from the Technical University of Munich, the other from the University of California, Berkeley, have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health.

Their study, published in the journal Environment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears about the human health effects of Golden Rice thrown around by opponents, none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny. It is absolutely fair to charge that opposition to this particular application of genetically modified food has contributed to the deaths of and injuries to millions of people.

That [opposition] includes Greenpeace, the U.S. Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and several environmental groups who deny and distort the scientific evidence on GM foods every bit as much as they complain the deniers of climate change science do.

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