The Economist is running an online debate and we need your vote.
My opening statement:
The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 with food demands expected to rise by 70%. How will we feed them? If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, scarce water will be wasted, greenhouse gas emissions will increase and farm workers will be exposed to harmful chemicals. Clearly, the future of our planet requires that we improve the environmental, economic and social impacts of our global farming systems– the three essential pillars of sustainable agriculture. Genetically engineered crops will continue to play an important role in this future.
After 10,000 years of crop domestication and innovation, virtually everything we eat has been genetically altered and every farm today grows such crops. Genetic engineering (GE) differs from conventional methods of crop modification in two basic ways: it introduces one or a few well-characterised genes; and genes from any species can be introduced into a plant. In contrast, most conventional methods of genetic alteration (artificial selection, forced inter-specific transfer, random mutagenesis and grafting of two species to create a new variety) introduce many uncharacterised genes from closely related species.
There is broad scientific consensus that GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat . The National Research Council, a non-profit institution that provides science, technology and health policy advice to the U.S. Congress, reports that the process of genetic engineering poses a similar risk of unintended consequences as conventional approaches of genetic alteration. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment. In contrast, every year there are thousands of reported pesticide poisonings (around 1,200 each year in California alone; 300,000 deaths globally). The NRC findings have been confirmed by leading scientific agencies around the world. For instance, the Joint Research Centre, the European Union’s scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission, recently concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of GE crops and that the crops currently on the market have not caused any known health effects.
Well-documented benefits of GE crops include massive reductions of insecticides in the environment, improved soil quality and reduced erosion, prevention of destruction of the Hawaiian papaya industry, proven health benefits to farmers and families growing GE crops as a result of reduced exposure to harsh chemicals, economic benefits to local communities, enhanced biodiversity of beneficial insects, reduction in the number of pest outbreaks on GE farms and neighbouring non-GE farms, and increased profits to farmers.
GE crops have also dramatically increased crop yields (more than 30%) in some farming communities.
Because substantial greenhouse gases are emitted from agricultural systems, and because the net effect of higher yields is a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, development and deployment of such high-yielding varieties will be a critical component of a future sustainable agriculture.
In the near future, conservative models predict that planting of Golden Rice, a rice engineered to produce provitamin A, will reduce diseases caused by vitamin A deficiency, saving the lives of thousands of children. Golden rice is likely to be more cost-effective than alternative vitamin A interventions, such as food supplementation or fortification. In Africa, where three-quarters of the world’s severe droughts have occurred over the past ten years, the introduction of genetically engineered drought tolerant corn, the most important African staple food crop, is predicted to dramatically increase yields for poor farmers.
A premise basic to almost every agricultural system (conventional, organic and everything in between) is that seed can only take us so far. The farming practices used to cultivate the seed are equally important. GE crops alone will not provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Ecologically based farming systems and other technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also required. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ecological farming practices using genetically engineered seed will play an increasingly important role in a future sustainable agriculture. Each new variety will need to be tested on a case-by case basis in light of the criteria for a sustainable agricultural system.
There is now broad scientific consensus that GE crops and ecological farming practices can coexist–and if we are serious about building a future sustainable agriculture, they must.
View Charles Benbrook’s opening remarks, here.