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Biotech and the “Greening” of Agriculture

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | June 12, 2010

During 2009 I was a member of a National Resource Council (NRC) committee assessing the impact of genetically engineered (GE) crops in US agriculture. When I joined the committee I thought that the main finding will be those of economists, like myself, who realize that GE crops did a lot of good by increasing yields and reducing costs. The two main types of GE crops that have been adopted widely are pest-resistant varieties that control insects and herbicide-resistant varieties that allow the use of herbicides like RoundUp to control weeds. GE varieties have been adopted to a large extent in corn, soybean and cotton in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Argentina and to some extent in India and China; they haven’t been adopted in wheat and rice, and the European Union has practically banned the use of GE varieties.

As expected, we found that the use of GE varieties reduces the cost of pest control and the losses from pests, and enhanced flexibility in farm management. We also found that use of GE varieties increased workers’ safety. Many economic studies also documented that adoption of GE varieties has a significant impact on yield (especially in developing countries where they solved pest problems that couldn’t have been solved otherwise) and this increase in yield led to significant reduction in commodity prices. In other words, consumers — especially poor ones — benefited from GE crops because food products become cheaper.

An important example is expansion of soybean production in Argentina, frequently as part of a double-cropping system, which was feasible because of the adoption of herbicide-tolerant varieties. This increase in production enabled meeting the increased demand for meats in Asia associated with their economic growth, mitigating increases in prices or expansion of agricultural land that would have occurred otherwise. Another example is cotton — a crop where adoption of GE varieties was widespread globally (in the U.S., China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and many more nations). The yield effect in developing countries was spectacular. Actually acreage in many countries declined and during the food crisis of 2008 and 2009 this was the only agricultural commodity whose price was low by historical standards. Moreover, the economic gains from GE varieties were shared between the seed companies, farmers, and consumers (it varies by crops and countries).

To my surprise, the main results of the report were not the economic ones, but rather the environmental ones. In addition to the obvious benefits of control of agricultural expansion because of higher yields, the report suggests that adoption of GE has fewer adverse effects on soil, water, and biodiversity than the non-GE varieties. That adoption of herbicide-resistant varieties enhances the adoption of conservation tillage practices that improved the soil retention and quality and probably improved surface-water quality. Adoption in insect-resistant crops led to replacement of broad-spectrum insecticides and their impacts on health, and may lead to favorable impacts on beneficial insects. There is very little evidence of gene-flow problems. Obviously there are concerns over the emergence of resistance, mismanagement of GE crops, but this is part of the challenge of further improvement in practices and regulations that face agriculture.

The report suggests that both on economic and environmental grounds, GE varieties provide significant benefits, and that these applications of modern knowledge in molecular and cell biology should expand to other crops. My own research suggests that if some of the barriers for the adoption of GE crops in European countries, as well as some African countries, would be removed, the increase in supply would enable us to counter some of the significant food commodity price rises that occurred in 2007 and 2008. Furthermore, the report and my own research documented that there are many other beneficial traits in different stages of development, such as improved nutritional quality, drought tolerance, and increased shelf life. New traits can improve the digestibility of soybean to reduce the GHG emissions of animal production (less land and less farts). However, the European banning of GE varieties in 1999, and excessive regulation, seems to slow the development of new traits and especially their commercialization. Thus, GE varieties have significant unrealized potential.

GE crops are applications of some of the basic tools of modern molecular and cell biology to agriculture. They take advantage of our better understanding of the DNA and the inner workings of the cell. These technologies became the major tools in medicine, but in agriculture they got a bad name — “Frankenfood”. A lot of the traditional techniques in crop breeding were much slower and much more crude. People replace one variety with another without understanding all of the consequences, whereas with GE varieties we replace one gene at a time.

The demonization of GE crops is tragic because of their potential and the challenges that face humanity. Population growth and increased incomes are likely to increase the demand for food. Energy shortages may lead to increased demand for fuel produced from crops (modern biofuels as well as good ol’ wood). Adaptation to climate change will require the capacity to quickly and accurately modify crop systems.

Agricultural biotechnology provides an incredible arsenal of tools to address these challenges with much less deforestation and scarcities than otherwise. Of course, biotechnology is not the only solution. It can complement organic farming that relies much less on pesticides. It can provide new tools that enable multiple cropping. It can be part of systems that enhance precision in farming that utilize less input, minimize pollution and result in more productivity.

Comments to “Biotech and the “Greening” of Agriculture

  1. Did your studies look into the effect of GE crops on insect and animal populations? Soil is one thing, and pest control may be beneficial, but when the balance of these insect and “predatory” animal populations are changed, often the repercussions will be seen much further up or down the food chain, or into the future. The implications of these GE crops will not be fully realized for at least a generation, and as ecosystems cannot yet be accurately modeled with computers, there is no true scientific method to prove or disprove these claims. Food for humans is one thing, but let’s not let that race allow us to justify destroying the fragile balance that allowed us a bounty in the first place. Not to mention the power that we will give over to a Corporation to tip this balance when we allow them to patent GE crops. Is there a larger price to pay for these miracle crops?

    Thanks for the informative article, please respond if you have time.

    • Hi Nick.

      Good question, and while I’m by no means an authority on the matter I have had the opportunity to research these issues and discuss them with various ecologists, and hope that I can help answer your question.

      It is true, a significant drop in insect populations would be a major concern for predator populations (birds and bats, generally), however first you must consider what the modified plants truly are replacing. Food crops use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in order to maintain high yields. Even organic food crops rely on organic versions of these chemicals, and for good reason: insect populations explode otherwise, with the potential to wipe out entire crops. GE crops allow for less of these harmful toxins to be sprayed on crops, mitigating the direct effect they have on surrounding organisms, their runoff into the water system, and their contribution to global air pollution.

      As for the failings of computer modelling, I actually helped a friend who was working with computer models to create a crop regime for a client (there are different types of pest control GE modifications and they need to be rotated with relative frequency in order to help control insect adaptation–those buggers have such a short lifecycle that populations can evolve quickly if given the chance). I got to see first hand what computer modelling could do and while you’re right–nothing is certain until tested in the field, computer models can help you narrow down which ideas to test.

      GE crops have received extreme scrutiny and extensive testing, and continue to do just that. The one good thing about the heavy grudge society seems to have against them is that they are constantly being studied–hot topics publish and sell! I don’t know about you, but it does make me feel better when I eat anything non-organic (believe it or not, most of your food contains GE soy, corn or canola–unless you’re very careful).

      Finally, about corporations. Damn the man, huh? Well, yes, there is obviously money in creating GE crops–if there wasn’t, why would anyone bother doing it? But consider it through for a moment: if food manufacturers buy GE crop products, its because its cheaper and/or more widely available. If GE crop products are cheaper and/or more widely available, it’s because they are favoured by farmers and/or produce higher yield. If they are favoured by farmers and/or produce higher yield, they must be more profitable than the alternative. If they are more profitable than the alternative, then whatever the cost for purchasing those seeds, it doesn’t matter–no one has been hurt along THIS chain.

      Now, you’ve obviously read that and said to yourself “but wait, when someone wins, someone else has to lose.” True. Obviously the expansion of GE crop producing corporations has to be pushing someone else out–but the fact is it’s not a mom and pop shop you’re ‘overthrowing’. Agriculture has been around much too long for that, so unless it’s some sort of organic/grassroots seed harvesting organization, it’s just another corporation (or, more likely, part of the same old one. When the iPad steals the market, the PlayBook is developed and released soon after… see what I mean?)

      Okay, I hope I managed to touch on most of your questions. I could go on for ages and really shouldn’t… what I will say is that there is a lot of information out there–read a few (or many) publications. Reviews such as the one Prof Zilberman mentioned working for are plentiful, informative, and up to date. While they are generally quite thick, you can always skip to the chapter summaries of each section and then go back and read only the ones you really find interesting.

      I want to close by saying that while I argued almost exclusively FOR GE crops here, there are obviously cons (everything has a downside). The publications I mentioned generally address both sides of the coin, and you can always do further research yourself. Happy hunting!

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