Home > Fallacies, Foreign Policy, Genetic Engineering, Science, The Atlantic > 200 Years Later: Luddites Still Wrong

200 Years Later: Luddites Still Wrong

New research further damages the arguments of our modern bioLuddites who worry about Frankenfoods and all things genetically modified. James McWilliams writing in The Atlantic summarizes the National Research Council’s findings:

1. Farmers globally have applied less insecticide per acre as they’ve increased their use of Bt seed (seed engineered for insect resistance). Beyond the obvious health benefits, reduction in insecticide application has saved substantial aviation fuel, water (to make insecticides), and plastic containers.  

2. Farmers and their families have been safer from chemical exposure as a result of less harsh pesticides and less time spent out in the fields spraying. The authors of the report hypothesize that farmers pay more for GE seeds in part to protect their families and employees from exposure to harsh chemicals.  

3. The greatest environmental benefit of adopting GE crops may turn out to be the rate at which water is retained as a result of conservation tillage, which herbicide tolerant (HT) crops directly foster. No-till methods also improve soil health, something conventional farming is often accused of ignoring. 

4. Economically, the savings gained from GE adoption generally outweighed the expense, and the economic benefits gained by adopting farmers also extend to non-adopters as well. In controlling so effectively for the corn borer, for example, Bt corn indirectly protects neighboring crops. (A very similar thing happened in Hawaii when GE papaya was introduced to save the crop from a devastating outbreak of ringspot in the 1990s.)

5. The drift of pollen from GE to non-GE plants—a phenomenon that anti-GE advocates often highlight as a chronic problem—turns out to be relatively rare, or at least “not a concern for most non-GE crops.” This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter, but only that drift is hardly a first-order concern when it comes to GE pollen.

Genetic Engineering opponents continue to commit the naturalistic fallacy. GE is really just a more advanced practice of what we’ve been doing to nature since the beginning of agriculture. Guess what? Modern oranges and bananas (even the non-GM ones) aren’t original to nature. Through cross-breeding we’ve changed their genetics and created new fruits. Of course it is important to be careful and continue to monitor the changes we make to nature. This study also pointed out potential problems that can now be better addressed. Everyone should agree that we should continue performing scientific studies like the NRC’s most recent, but to salt the field of Genetic Engineering would destroy one of the potentially great revolutions in human history. 

[update 5/7]: Foreign Policy features an excellent piece on why modern farming is the key to helping the world’s poorest and hungriest.  

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished. 

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

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