With concerns mounting over global food supply and prices, and the potential impacts of climate change on the frequency of droughts or disease outbreaks, now’s time for using technology to our advantage in food production. With this in mind, the Bush administration included a directive in its proposed $770 million global food aid package that the U.S. Agency for International Development spend $150 million on development farming, including the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, in food-deprived countries. The package awaits congressional approval.
GM crops have long been the subject of much debate, particularly in Europe and Africa. Opponents claim unforeseen hazards in these crops, despite little to no documented evidence of actual problems. But lately, as real pressures trump ideological or hypothetical ones, even devotees of the anti-GM stance are starting to waiver. Earlier this month, the French national assembly struck down a law that would loosen GM restrictions and bring regulations in line with EU guidelines, but only by the most razor-thin of margins: 136-135. The government plans to reintroduce the legislation, and it is expected to pass. As further evidence that the tide is turning for international acceptance of GM crops, the leading investment publication Barron’s recently endorsed GMO-related stocks.
The advantages of GM crops are numerous. For one, due to their disease resistance and climate tolerance, many GM crops produce improved yields compared to their conventional counterparts. A recent report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) estimated that use of GM crops could boost the country’s canola, wheat, and rice crops by up to 10 percent, though some GM canola field trials had increased yields up to 38 percent.
GM crops also may provide a safer food supply in periods of climate shifts. Multinational agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto has been developing drought-tolerant varieties of corn, and through a non-profit partnership recently announced a program to provide the drought-tolerant transgenes to African farmers royalty-free. Last year, Italian scientists used GM technologies to engineer a drought-resistant tomato capable of thriving on less than one quarter of the water required by traditional varieties. Enabling drought-prone regions to safeguard their agricultural production against extreme conditions will go far towards maintaining food supply during critical times.
GM crops can also provide improved disease resistance. Some varieties of corn have been modified to incorporate genes from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) that creates a natural toxin for the European Corn Borer, a major pest responsible for significant crop losses. It is interesting to note that even Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 book Silent Spring, and who many credit with launching the modern environmentalist movement, advocated using a Bt spray as a natural insecticide. Incorporating the Bt gene specifically into the crops most susceptible to damage from insects targeted by Bt provides even more contained and specific application than a spray insecticide.
Caution about technology is generally a good thing. However, when that caution ignores distinct and documented benefits in favor of unproven fears, it should not supercede the addressing of crucial needs. That includes the basic need for food, more pertinent in times of natural disasters, climate change, and soaring prices. Congress should therefore not discourage the use of GM crops where they could be beneficial.