The Truth about Biotechnology, Agriculture and Sustainable Development

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wants a more civil debate about them. Britain’s Prince Charles thinks they will lead to “real disaster,” and farmers in India are allegedly committing mass suicide because of them. In case you haven’t figured out what I’m talking about, maybe one of these terms will ring a bell: biotech crops, biotechnology, genetically enhanced seeds/grains or genetically modified organisms. The debate over this “gene revolution” is becoming especially important as global concerns about food security have made nations skittish about food production, supplies and whether biotechnology is a possible solution to their concerns. The issue of food security is so hot right now that just a few days ago the U.N. called for sustainable agricultural spending in Asia, stating that last year’s crisis was “a warning of things to come.”

While the fear-mongering headlines against biotechnology may seem alarming (ie. articles about how GMOs are bad for our health, the environment and the livelihoods of farmers worldwide) there’s another side of the story you most likely aren’t hearing. Biotech crops have a proven track record of alleviating poverty in developing countries and providing a sustainable lifestyle for farmers (and nations) who have adopted this technology. (Note, none of my notes are coming from GMO seed producers or distributors but from secondary sources.)

From a 2008 report issued by the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications:

  • Biotech crops have improved the income and quality of life of small and resource-poor farmers and their families, and contributed to the alleviation of their poverty – case studies are cited in Brief 39 for India, China, South Africa, and the Philippines.
  • The impressive contribution of biotech crops to sustainability is reviewed: 1) Contributing to food, feed and fiber security including more affordable food (lower prices); 2) Conserving biodiversity; 3) Contributing to the alleviation of poverty and hunger; 4) Reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint; 5) Helping mitigate climate change and reducing greenhouse gases; 6) Contributing to more cost-effective production of biofuels; and 7) Contributing to sustainable economic benefits worth US$44 billion from 1996 to 2007. In summary, collectively these seven thrusts are a significant contribution to sustainability and the potential for the future is enormous.
  • Five principal developing countries: China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, with a combined population of 2.6 billion, are exerting leadership with biotech crops, and driving global adoption – benefits from biotech crops are spurring strong political will and substantial new investments in biotech crops in several of these lead countries. [Emphasis mine.]
  • Of the economic gains of US$44 billion during the period 1996 to 2007, 44% were due to substantial yield gains, and 56% due to a reduction in production costs (including a 359,000 tonne a.i. saving in pesticides); the production gains of 141 million tons, would have required 43 million additional hectares had biotech crops not been deployed – a land-saving technology.

And the list goes on. Case studies supporting the report’s findings can be found on the ISAAA Web site.

If you follow the GMO debate carefully, you’ll notice one major, recurring trait to the entire discussion: Emotion vs. sound science. The general public has a misperception that GMOs produce “frankenfoods” that are dangerous to human health. (For what it’s worth, Americans have been eating GMO foods for years with no proven adverse affects.) Also, environmentalists continue to argue that GMO seeds harm wildlife and the environment, a claim that was disproved years ago.

The truth is, science is behind this one, and farmers and governments know it. As recently as yesterday, the Pakistani government made a verbal push for the use of biotechnology in the country’s agricultural sector, saying the nation would have to “focus on genetically modified and hybrid crops to tap true potential of agricultural productivity in the country in the shortest possible time.” And last year, Kenyan scientists recognized the benefits of biotechnology and urged their government to pass relevant laws permitting the planting of biotech crops despite the fact that anti-GMO interest groups have forced other African governments to stall on the issue.

But what about all those poor GM farmers in India who are killing themselves over failed crops, you may ask. If GM crops are so great, why aren’t they able to sustain the harsh environment of India? And if planting biotech crops is supposed to save money, why are Indian farmers in so much debt over GM seed costs? 125,000 deaths is no small number, you may say. Truth be told, I don’t have the time to do the research to sufficiently answer this question and while I could speculate, I’d rather do the necessary footwork first before making declarations. (Having said that, I am available for hire if you want me to take the time to look into this more in depth and write an article about it as I do have the resources to do so). I fault reporters like the one who wrote the article above for not doing the proper investigative journalism required of them. (For what it’s worth, if you do the math you will see that a high rate of non-GM farmers in India are taking their own lives as well due to crop failure and debt, and suicide in general is unfortunately, extremely common in the country. See here for alarming 2007 statistics on farmer suicides in India.)

Is it fair to put the blame on biotechnology in this case? If you want to do that, you’re going to have to provide more facts for me than what I’ve found in the media so far. Referring me to easily accessible, credible, scientific research or studies is much more powerful than simply spitting out numbers because those can be spun either way. Some insight into cultural implications involving suicide and farmer debt should also be further explored, as should India’s environmental challenges, including the country’s current water crisis. In defense of my argument, I think the facts and links presented in this post are sufficient enough to prove that genetically enhanced crops are not the evil products interest groups make them out to be. In fact, GMOs have done a lot of good in improving the lives of many people throughout the world, and have been backed by scientists in various countries.

While I have no problem with people’s personal choices to eat and plant organically, I do have a big problem with people who ignore science in order to inaccurately skew an issue. I equally criticize proponents of biotechnology for not doing enough positive and factual PR to highlight the facts. Niche publications are doing a decent job but the mainstream population continues to be left out of the two-sided conversation and is instead, being bombarded with just one point of view, which happens to be inaccurate. While GM seed manufacturers have made attempts to combat the spreading falsehoods about biotechnology, the scientific arena may have more credibility in the eyes of the general public and should be more vocal in their findings. A simple internet news search shows a drastically larger number of negative stories about GMOs than positive, factual ones. (Due to my familiarity with this issue, I knew exactly where to look for sources portraying the other side of the story and again, I want to stress that none of the facts used in this post came directly from GMO seed producers or distributors but rather from secondary sources.)

The bottom line: The benefits of GMOs cannot be ignored, nor can the science behind them. They have played a big role in sustainable development worldwide, and have improved the lives of many people internationally. Is more research needed to perfect their performance? Yes, I think things can always be perfected and research should continue on a steady basis, especially considering the world’s food supply worries. But are GMOs to blame for farmer deaths, human health risks and environmental damage? If you believe sound science, the answer is obviously “no.”

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