Fear of GM crops does not stand up to facts
Henry Miller and Graham Brookes say the benefits outweigh risks, as experience shows
Henry Miller and Graham Brookes
People everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the use of what Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir dubbed "pathological science" to justify government regulation or other policies. It is a speciality of self-styled public-interest groups, whose agenda is often not to protect public health or the environment, but rather to oppose the research, products or technology they happen to dislike.
For example, modern techniques of genetic engineering provide the tools to make old plants do spectacular new things. Yet these tools are relentlessly misrepresented to the public.
More than 17 million farmers in roughly three dozen countries worldwide are using genetically modified crop varieties to produce higher yields with fewer inputs and lower environmental impact. Most are designed to resist pests and diseases.
Critics of GM products insist they are untested, unsafe, unregulated and unnecessary. But the facts show otherwise.
After the cultivation of more than a billion hectares of GM crops - and the consumption in North America alone of more than two trillion servings of foods that contain GM ingredients - not a single case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem has been found.
Far from being under-regulated, GM plants have been subjected to expensive and unscientific over-regulation that has limited the commercial success of the crops.
Commercial cultivation of GM crops offers many advantages. Consider, for example, that, because GM crops require less chemical pesticide, fewer farmers and their families risk being poisoned by run-off into waterways and ground water. Furthermore, lower levels of mycotoxins in pest-resistant corn mean fewer birth defects.
No-till farming techniques mean less soil erosion, less run-off of agricultural chemicals, and lower fuel consumption.
GM crops also have significant economic benefits. Higher yields and lower production costs have reduced global commodity prices, resulting in higher farm income.
But GM crops do not benefit only those who grow them. A 2010 study found that fields of insect-resistant GM corn have an "area-wide suppression effect" on insects, benefiting neighbouring fields.
Future generations of GM crops will bring even more benefits - but only if they are allowed to flourish. To that end, consumers must understand that GM crops hold great potential, while posing negligible risks, and governments must adopt regulatory policies that face facts and reject pathological science.
Henry I. Miller is Wesson Fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Graham Brookes is co-director of the UK-based PG Economics Limited. Copyright: Project Syndicate