The Biotech Bugaboo

By Keith Kloor | July 22, 2011 8:06 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, biotechnology, GMOs
  • Pascvaks

    There’s no bout a’doubt it, people are people and that’s just the way it is.  They usually don’t mind, too much, what their neighbors do or eat or whatever, but they get real uptight with anyone who wants them to do or eat or whatever something without their full approval –which usually isn’t very easy to come.  There’s a lot more to the denial in Denialists than the denial of the science of Total Global Change, there’s also the primordial knee-jerk reaction to another baboon getting a little too close to your space or taking liberties (if you know what I mean;-).

  • Keith Kloor

    Lately, your comments are rather hard to decipher. You seem to be doing a lot of free-associating. 

    You do know know it’s possible to be clever and clear at the same time? 

  • Pingback: On Green Dread and Agricultural Technology - NYTimes.com

  • Mary

    I really think Greenpeace has done science a giant favor with this action. They have alienated people otherwise inclined to support them, and they have caused people to speak up who I have not seen support plant scientists before.
    And in the same week that climate deniers + anti-vaxxers + anti-GMO groups were bundled into the “fringe” category by that BBC report, a lot of people are going to have to look at the dogs they are lying with differently….

  • http://www.earthlab.net Brandon Keim

    Yes, there’s a group of people who reflexively oppose any GM plant, and they ignore the fact that food safety arguments are settled. Fine. But I feel like they’re used to dismiss very valid concerns about big, industrial biotech. I.e., if you want a competitive seed marketplace and favor decentralized ownership of resources, or don’t like the idea of Roundup-ready-induced superweed evolution prompting the big U.S. companies to develop crop strains that allow old, toxic herbicides to be used willy-nilly, then you’re some kind of anti-science GMO-hating reactionary.

  • Keith Kloor

    Brandon,

    Your comment eerily echoes what many climate change skeptics most complain about–getting labeled as “anti-science.”

    A couple of things. That group of people who “conveniently ignore the fact that food safety arguments are settled” is pretty big in the green movement, i think and can be reflected in places like this.

    My post should not be read as some implicit endorsement of the industrial bio-tech heavy-handed tactics, or a wave-off of the other issues you raised.

    On balance, though, I would say that GMO’s have more than proven themselves–if your measuring stick is science-based. 

  • Mary

    @Brandon: Unfortunately there are a lot of barriers to this research that often only the deep pockets of companies can cover. The average academic lab can’t get the money to go over the regulatory hurdles, nor enforce the security needed to protect their work from the likes of Greenpeace.
    The same people who wail about the corporations wonder why more academic and non-profit projects haven’t delivered other types of things. Well actually, they have done some smaller projects, or are doing larger ones currently (most people aren’t aware of these projects–or deny their existence when challenged about them).
    And some governments have come out in support of locally adaptable projects: http://www.newsweek.com/2009/03/13/crops-with-attitude.html
    You don’t hear about these, though, because hair-afire activists suck all the oxygen out of the room yelling about Monsanto.
     

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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