On November 6th, California voters will be asked to vote on a proposition about labeling of genetically modified (GM) products. On the surface this seems quite reasonable: people should have information about what they consume. In my view, labeling requirements are appropriate when there is undisputed scientific evidence that a food component is damaging, which, for example, is the reason for warning labels on cigarettes. But with GMOs this is not the case. For example, a recent NRC report states that GMOs are as safe if not more safe than conventional food which is also consistent with most of the published research.
Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are already modified as they have been generated through techniques such as selective breeding and hybridization of crops among others. The discovery of DNA and advances in modern molecular biology allow us to develop more refined and precise crop breeding techniques where we slightly modify existing varieties by adding a specific trait. Obviously, genetic engineering is in its infancy, and has already led to major developments in medicine. Even though it has been underutilized in agriculture, existing GMOs have had significant impact. The most popular traits address pest control (Bt varieties) and tolerance to herbicides (Round-up ready varieties). These traits have been adopted with corn and soybeans in the US, Brazil, and Argentina among others and also in cotton in India, China, and some developing countries. Studies show that GM varieties of cotton and corn in developing countries increased in per acre yield by more than 50%, and GMOs contributed significantly to the more than doubling of the production of soybeans.
The importance of GMOs has to be viewed within a global context. Population and income growth have led to increased demand for food and especially meat. Meat production is feed intensive. This and the introduction of biofuel has resulted in increased prices of agricultural commodities. When food becomes scarce (and expensive), it is the global poor that suffers most. Our calculations suggest that the magnitude of the impact of GMOs on reducing food commodity prices was the same or even bigger than biofuels had on increases of these prices (15-30% reduction in the price of corn and soybeans overall). Furthermore, the prices of cotton did not rise with the prices of other commodities in 2008 due to increased supply from the adoption of GMOs. If African nations and Europe would have adopted GMOs, current prices of food would have decreased significantly, and much of the suffering associated with the food shortages could have been avoided. Thus even in its early stages GMOs have made significant contributions to reducing food shortages and saving lives.
Adoption of GMOs is not only good for food commodity prices and the well being of the poor, it is also good for the environment. Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the GHG effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land. There is evidence that by replacing toxic chemicals in India and China, adoption of GMOs directly saved many lives. Reduction of exposure to pesticides and the resulting health effects has been a major cause for adoption in the US.
But what about Monsanto? This company has a monopoly on crucial patents and has made a lot of money from GMOs. This is undisputed. However, studies show that the economic gain from GMOs was divided between consumers, farmers, and seed manufacturers without anyone gaining the lion’s share. Apple also makes a lot of money and no one complains. Of course there is room for increasing access to intellectual property, especially products that are of value to the poor, but labeling GMOs is not the optimal way to achieve this goal.
Now, what about emergence of resistance to GMOs? This is an unavoidable consequence because of evolution. This means that we need to have continuous research in the life sciences to find solutions for potential problems. I believe sustainability is different than Nirvana; we cannot find final solutions that do not give rise to new problems. GMO is a technology that allows us to better adapt to new diseases and climate change. Genetic tools will improve our adaptive capacities to climate change.
The public is divided among individuals who believe that GMOs are bad, others who think they are valuable, and many who are basically indifferent. The last group may not see the damage of requiring labeling of GMOs since they do not see the big loss. However, labels make a difference. A labeling requirement creates a stigma effect that will reduce the demand for GM products and may reduce investment in new GM traits. The net effect will be to slow the development of agricultural biotechnology, and this in turn may negatively affect health, the economy, and the environment. It is actually counter-productive to the many environmental and social goals that we cherish. Therefore, labeling of GMOs will be a step in the wrong direction.