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Environment

How Does Crop Biotechnology Help Food Security?

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In the U.S. food is taken for granted. There are well-stocked supermarkets and no shortage of cookbooks and eateries to indulge appetites. This bountiful supply allows Americans to focus more on the aesthetics of food and, to an increasing degree, where and how it is produced. For the millions around the globe who do not live in an affluent society, the main concern about food is more basic: Getting enough of it on a consistent basis. For many in Africa and Asia, this entails growing cash crops and staple foods. As the Gates Foundation points out, agricultural enhancement in the developing world is also the key to a better life:

When farmers grow more food and earn more income, they are better able feed to their families, send their children to school, provide for their family’s health, and invest in their farms.

One way to do this is through biotechnology. Note that I said ONE WAY, not the only way. Nor is this just my opinion. Global sustainability guru Jeffrey Sachs has said this. One of the most frustrating aspects of the GMO debate is how it is framed. Forget the cranks who dominate the discourse--I'm talking about smart, influential thought leaders who simplistically portray GMOs as a well-meaning technology that hasn't delivered on its grand promises. A prime example is Jon Foley's recent essay, titled, "GMO's, Silver Bullets and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking." He starts off:

To begin, GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This is a narrow (dare I say reductionistic) way of looking at food security. Feeding the world's poor, as Foley knows, also requires improving their livelihoods. It's about lifting their incomes, helping them break the vicious cycle of poverty. There's much that goes into that economic development equation but in Africa and other areas of the developing world, the role of commodity crops as an income generator for small farmers is crucial. To cite one example, look at what happened after Bt cotton was introduced in India. (I'm not talking about a certain popular urban myth.) Recent studies show that Indian farmers who turned to genetically modified cotton have increased their yields, lowered their input costs and as a result, boosted their household incomes. Does that not contribute to food security? Nor is this the whole story. As University of California plant geneticist Pamela Ronald notes:

To understand why farmers have embraced GE crops and how they benefit the environment, consider genetically engineered cotton. These varieties contain a bacterial protein called Bt that kills pests such as the cotton bollworm without harming beneficial insects and spiders. Bt is benign to humans, which is why organic farmers have used Bt as their primary method of pest control for 50 years. Today 70–90 percent of American, Indian, and Chinese farmers grow Bt cotton. Recently, a team of Chinese and French scientists reported in the journal Nature that widespread planting of Bt cotton in China drastically reduced the spraying of synthetic chemicals, increased the abundance of beneficial organisms on farms, and decreased populations of crop-damaging insects. Planting of Bt cotton also reduced pesticide poisonings of farmers and their families. In Arizona farmers who plant Bt cotton spray half as much insecticide as do neighbors growing conventional cotton. The Bt farms also have greater biodiversity.

It's puzzling to me that such benefits are ignored by GMO skeptics who profess a deep interest in human welfare and more enlightened environmental stewardship. In his piece, Foley goes on to make additional arguments against GMOs that some agricultural biotech proponents have already responded to. It's important to bear in mind that this is a young technology. Sometimes the value of a scientific enterprise is not appreciated until years down the road. Have GMOs lived up to the hype of their most exuberant advocates? No. Does any new technology? Perhaps the naysayers should check back in five or ten years. Maybe food security for those who need it most will be more strengthened with new advances that will be harder to ignore by the GMO-averse champions of sustainability. UPDATE: Due to time constraints, my critique of Foley's piece was narrowly focused. In the comments, David Ropeik makes a good point, which was also raised in a series of tweets (starting here) by University of Wyoming's Andrew Kniss. UPDATE 2: Science writer and futuristRamez Naam has weighed in with his response to Foley's essay. UPDATE 3: University of Wyoming's Andrew Kniss has also put up a post addressing one of Foley's claims.

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