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Pamela Ronald provides a clear, scientist’s view of the GE food and crop debate. My only difference might be with her upbeat tone regarding the future spread of this technology. Particularly when it comes to food crops, the critics have already won a dubious but sweeping victory. They have effectively blocked, worldwide, the planting of GE wheat, rice, potato, and nearly all fruits and vegetables. GE food animals and fish have also been kept off the market. Nearly all of the GE crops being planted today are primarily for animal feed or industrial use. For example, the three biggest GE crops in the United States are soybeans, corn, and cotton, and roughly 98 percent of our soybean meal goes to animal feed, and 88 percent of the corn is employed either for animal feed or as a feedstock for making ethanol.
So while the critics like to depict private companies as somehow forcing GE foods down their throat, the reality is that the biotechnology industry has so far lost nearly every battle when it comes to food crops.
When it comes to food crops, the critics have already won a dubious but sweeping victory.
In the United States, one GE food crop after another has been blocked from commercial use. GE wheat seeds were first field-tested in the United States in 1994, but in 2004 Monsanto decided it could not put them on the market because activists at home and abroad had persuaded consumers they might not be safe. GE rice has never been commercialized for the same reason. GE potato was actually grown on 25,000 acres in the United States and widely consumed between 1999 and 2001, but cultivation was then voluntarily suspended when food-service chains told farmers they did not want to be accused by activists of selling GE french fries. GE tomatoes were cultivated commercially in the United States from 1998 until 2002, but cultivation stopped as consumer anxieties increased. Viral-resistant GE melons have been successfully tested in the United States since 1989, but never planted commercially. The only GE fruits and vegetables grown in the United States are Hawaiian papaya and a tiny share of summer squash and sweet corn.
In the rest of the world, government regulation has criminalized the planting of GE food crops. GE food crops are not legal for planting anywhere in Central or Latin America. In all of Sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa allows the cultivation of a GE variety of white maize. No GE food crops are legal to plant anywhere in South Asia or Southeast Asia. India and Pakistan permit cotton, and the Philippines permits yellow corn for animal feed, but nothing else. China permits cotton, but it does not allow farmers to plant GE wheat, rice, corn, or potato. In most of the world beyond the Western Hemisphere, national governments have not even approved the planting of GE feed or industrial crops. In only 3 of the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is it legal for farmers to plant any GE seeds at all: South Africa, Burkina Faso (cotton only), and Sudan (again, cotton only).
This considerable blockage of GMOs does not reflect any malfunction of the seeds or crops themselves. Critics who talk endlessly of risks never mention that around the world national academies of science and medicine have found no new risks either to human health or the environment from any of the genetically engineered crops so far in existence. This remains the official position of the Royal Society in London, the British Medical Association, the French Academy of Sciences and Medicine, and the German Academies of Science and Humanities. In 2010 the Research Directorate of the European Union produced a report that went so far as to state, “Biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
So what explains the pervasive blockage of GMOs? A continuing campaign of disinformation by individuals—mostly from wealthy and well-fed countries—who fail to appreciate the importance of giving farmers in poor countries better ways to protect against crop disease, insects, weeds, and drought.
A few are now reconsidering their position. Earlier this year, a British environmentalist named Mark Lynas took the unusual step of apologizing for his own role in helping to launch the anti-GMO campaign in the 1990s. He characterized this campaign as the most successful he had ever been involved with but now admits that it was misguided. After taking a more careful look at the science, he came to see GMOs as a “desperately needed agricultural innovation” that is being “strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk.” Ronald’s fine essay might help other doubters come to a similar conclusion.
Robert Paarlberg, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, is author of The United States of Excess.
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