It is one of the great ironies of our time: wealthy environmentalists want to return humanity to some pastoral ideal in which everyone enjoys fresh farm food and clean air, but they also oppose the very technologies that can help to get us there. Their technophobia is pervasive, whether it’s about nuclear power, which is both the safest and cleanest source of energy known to humanity, or genetic engineering in agriculture, which can raise yields, reduce costs, and benefit the environment.
The roots of this fear of progress lie deep. They go back at least as far as the Enlightenment itself, when the Romantic movement rejected the learned, complex sophistication of modernity in favour of simplicity, intuition and a return to nature. While the aesthetic might be appealing in art and leisure, as a philosophy, Romanticism is elitist and harmful to human development.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a recent study conducted at Purdue University found that rejecting genetically modified organisms in agriculture would harm both the environment and the economy. “Higher food prices, a significant boost in greenhouse gas emissions due to land use change and major loss of forest and pasture land would be some results if genetically modified organisms … were banned,” the university reported in a press release announcing the study.
The authors found that “18-million farmers in 28 countries planted about 181-million hectares of GMO crops in 2014, with about 40 percent of that in the United States”. Using a model that evaluates the economic consequences of agriculture, energy, environmental and trade policies in the US, the researchers considered how eliminating genetically engineered crops would affect the economy and the environment.
The US makes for a good case study, since crops that are in one way or another modified using genetic technologies are widespread in that country. Many crops are genetically modified for various traits, such as yield, taste, appearance, nutritiousness, herbicide resistance, pest resistance and drought resistance. For some crops, like soy, maize (corn) and cotton, the vast majority of the US crop is genetically engineered.
The researchers found that yields would decline across the board. “Eliminating all GMOs in the United States, the model shows corn yield declines of 11.2 percent on average. Soybeans lose 5.2 percent of their yields and cotton 18.6 percent. To make up for that loss, about 102,000 hectares of US forest and pasture would have to be converted to cropland and 1.1-million hectares globally for the average case.”
This would go against the trend. According to some estimates, we have reached peak farmland; that is, the amount of land needed to feed the world’s growing population has begun to decline. This is great news for the environment, of course. In some regions, it will relieve some of the pressure on forests and other wild land, while in others, it will permit land to be returned to nature.
Doing the opposite will have an impact not only on land, but since agriculture is one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, it would significantly affect the atmosphere too. According to Purdue: “Greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly because with lower crop yields, more land is needed for agricultural production, and it must be converted from pasture and forest.”
The lead researcher, Wally Tyner, a professor in agricultural economics, said: “Some of the same groups that oppose GMOs want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the potential for global warming. The result we get is that you can’t have it both ways. If you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, an important tool to do that is with GMO traits.”
Besides the environmental impact, genetic engineering in agriculture has a dramatic economic impact, both on farmers and on consumers. South African small-scale farmers call maize inoculated with genes from a naturally occuring soil-dwelling bacterium that acts as an insecticide iyasihluthisa, which means “it fills our stomachs”. A report I wrote for Good Governance Africa in 2012 quoted a Farmers’ Weekly article to the effect that yields of these crops more than doubled in some cases, and profits rose by a third.
Moreover, the use of GM crops reduced the need for chemical pesticides by 17.6%, which is a cost benefit to farmers and an environmental benefit to boot.
Tyner and his co-authors also predicted a rise in prices if GMOs were banned in the US: “With lower crop yields without GMO traits, commodity prices rise. Corn prices would increase as much as 28% and soybeans as much as 22%… Consumers could expect food prices to rise 1-2 percent.”
Only the uninformed still question the safety of genetically modified crops. Unlike crops derived by selective breeding, inter-species crossing, or mutagenesis (in which radiation is used to spark random DNA mutations that might prove to have desirable effects), scientists know which genes are affected when they splice a specific gene for a desired trait into a crop. Modern genetic modification, called transgenesis, affects only a handful of genes, compared to tens of thousands that are affected by less sophisticated breeding methods.
Unlike other crop breeding methods, GM crops are widely tested to ensure their safety for people, animals and the environment. More than 2,000 studies have concluded their safety, and more than 270 regulatory and scientific organisations support their use. If you want to warn people of potential dangers, it would be more reasonable to demand labels on selectively-bred crops, cross-bred crops or selected mutations, since far less is known about them.
Modern-day romantics might idealise organic farming, but the refusal of organic farmers to adopt modern scientific practices means it actually isn’t the most environmentally-friendly way to farm. As with the bourgeoisie who embraced 18th century Romanticism, their ideals come at a cost which is not affordable for the poor and the hungry. This might all be a forgivable indulgence, if they weren’t determined to impose their aesthetic ideals upon the rest of society, by means of labels, restrictions and bans.
“If in the future we ban GMOs at the global scale, we lose lots of potential yield,” said Farzad Taheripour, a co-author of the Purdue study. “If more countries adopt GMOs, their yields will be much higher.”
For every rational reason – economic and environmental – it is time to reject the backward-looking romanticism of the wealthy but unsophisticated elite, in favour of the progress and prosperity that technological enlightenment brings. DM