Henry Miller: Governments must defend GM crops against the naysayers

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.

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 speciality 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 they 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. 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.

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

For starters, there is a broad consensus among scientists that recombinant DNA techniques are essentially an extension of earlier methods for genetic modification, and that gene transfer using these precise, predictable 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. The benefits include higher yields, lower use of chemical pesticides, and biofuel production.

And far from being under-regulated, GM organisms have been subjected to expensive, discriminatory, and unscientific over-regulation that has limited the commercial success of maize, cotton, canola, soya beans and papaya, among other crops.

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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 been realised, 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 pesticides, fewer farmers and their families risk being poisoned by run-off into waterways and ground water. From 1996 to 2009, the amount of pesticide sprayed on crops worldwide fell by 393 million kilos – 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.

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

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

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.

Future generations of GM crops will bring more benefits – but only if they are allowed to flourish. Governments must adopt policies that face facts and reject pathological science.

• Henry Miller is a physician, molecular biologist, and a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Graham Brookes is an economist and co-director of UK-based PG Economics