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Environment

The Biotech Bugaboo

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 22, 2011 5:06 PM

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A scientist lays it out in the Guardian:

The term "genetic modification" provokes widespread fears about the corporate control of agriculture, and of the unknown. However, results from 25 years of EU-funded research show that there is "no scientific evidence associating GM plants with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms". This of course does not prove GM methods are 100% safe, but makes clear there is no evidence to the contrary.

As Ronald Baily has observed, some environmentalists who regularly invoke the scientific consensus on climate change have a different standard when it comes to GMO's. So it's worth pointing out an essay (paywalled) in this week's Nature by Jason Clay, a senior vice president with the World Wildlife Fund, who writes:

I'm an environmentalist and am convinced that to increase [global food] production, we can't afford to ignore genetics, as long as it is applied in a responsible way. There has been a lot of debate over genetic modification, but there is in fact huge potential in using genetics through traditional plant breeding to select traits "” techniques which humans have been using for more than 6,000 years. Now we have twenty-first century technology that allows even faster selection. In Africa, staple food crops such as yams, plantains and cassava have been relatively neglected by plant breeders. The genomes of these crops should be mapped as a first step towards solutions to doubling or even tripling productivity, and improving drought tolerance, disease resistance and overall nutrient content. Genetic mapping would allow researchers to identify specific traits and markers within a species, and eventually breed plants displaying them. There are plant breeders in Africa prepared to do this.

Environmental groups that let ideology trump science on genetically enhanced crops forfeit the high ground on issues like climate change. I wish that some of these groups would listen to people like Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who charts an inclusive path:

Both organic farming and biotechnology have a seat at this table. Organic farming began as a response to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and relies on integrated management to control pests and disease. And while organic production practices can be an important component of sustainable agriculture, they cannot address every constraint faced by farmers, including some diseases and pests, challenges posed by climate change, and the need for adequate nutrition.

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