Opinions On Genetic Engineering That Aren't Worth A Bean

Opinions On Genetic Engineering That Aren't Worth A Bean - Forbes

Just in time for Earth Day in April, a Stanford Magazine article about the farming of soybeans offered a rich harvest of factual inaccuracies and misinformation.  The piece, by Judee Burr, a Stanford University senior majoring in “earth systems” (whatever that is) and philosophy, reflects more philosophy — of a certain biased sort — than science.  Ordinarily, the misguided maundering of an uninformed undergraduate would hardly deserve to be dignified with a response, but Burr’s errors and misrepresentations are typical of much of anti-technology, New Age pseudo-scholarship.
The gist of the article is that “there are serious issues with the way some soy is grown” that pertain to the use of the techniques of genetic engineering (also known as genetic modification, or GM); more specifically, that “extensive [genetic engineering] crop use is actually an environmentally dangerous practice”; that genetically engineered “crops also make farmers dependent on the agricultural biotechnology companies that synthesize their seeds”; and that “eating the right kind of soy is choosing soy products that are produced locally and organically.”  Then, moving from the merely inaccurate to the absurd, Burr manages to blame the cultivation of genetically engineered soy for the deforestation of the Amazon.
Her views are more appropriate to a newsletter from some anti-technology, back-to-unspoiled-Nature NGO (which is where we suspect she’ll end up after graduating from Stanford) than a publication from one of the world’s most prestigious research universities.
The truth is revealing and also more interesting than Burr’s sophomoric prattling:
Seventy per cent of the world’s production of soy is genetically modified and most is used as a source of animal feed.  The area planted to soy in South America has increased rapidly over the last 15 years (by 160% in Argentina and Brazil combined between 1996 and 2010).  The primary reason for the expansion in global soy production and the use of genetic engineering technology (mainly to make soy tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate) is economics.  World demand for soy has grown significantly and as the price of soy has increased, genetic engineering technology has allowed farmers to produce the crop more easily, cheaply and profitably.  The use of the technology boosted soybean farmers’ incomes by a total of $28.4 billion between 1996 and 2010.
As to Burr’s allegations that Brazilian rainforest and savannah have been cleared to grow soybeans, the expanded cultivation has been driven not by the desire to farm soybeans but for livestock production.  Again the reason is economics — the economics of alternative enterprises for people in the Amazon forest regions of northern Brazil.  Because livestock production is highly profitable, it has been the most attractive use of land following forest clearance.  Once the grazing land has become exhausted farmers may choose to exchange, rent or sell the land for soy production.  (There is a delicious irony here:  The anti-genetic engineering views of Europe, where there is a demand for the use of certified non-genetically engineered soybeans and derivatives for use in the EU livestock sectors, have actually encouraged deforestation in South America:  Those market pressures have encouraged the cultivation of non-genetically engineered soybeans on newly-cleared land in the northern Brazilian region specifically because it is more remote from the mainstream soy-producing states in central and southern Brazil where genetically engineered soybean production dominates, in order to avoid “contamination” by the latter.  In other words, some of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest for soy cultivation can be traced to the baseless antagonism to genetic engineering and the demand for non-genetically engineered production of soybeans in the EU.)
The cultivation of genetically engineered soybeans delivers important environmental benefits relative to alternative conventional production systems, not only in terms of reduced negative impacts associated with herbicide use, but because it facilitates “no-till” cultivation, which releases lesser amounts of greenhouse gases (compared to conventional methods), reduces soil erosion (a significant problem in many parts of Brazil) and contributes to improved water conservation.
Burr misunderstands the concept of “monoculture,” the widespread or near-universal cultivation of a single crop variety, a practice that makes the entire harvest vulnerable to exposure to a new pest.  First of all, it has nothing to do with whether the variety was produced with modern genetic engineering or any other technology.  Second, there is no such thing as “a single variety of GM soy.”   Individual farmers typically choose to grow several of the thousands of soy varieties now available to them (which have been bred to suit a wide variety of local conditions).  The “genetically engineered” aspect of any plant variety refers to a trait – such as pest-, herbicide- or drought-resistance – that has been incorporated into the plant specifically via recombinant DNA, or gene-splicing, techniques.  The majority of soybean seed varieties have been modified with these newer techniques because farmers have found that the use of these seeds makes their harvest more secure and enhances their bottom line: In about three dozen countries worldwide, more than 17 million farmers are using genetically engineered crop varieties; and seed suppliers are eager to supply what their customers want.  (Burr’s misrepresentations of these issues are strikingly similar to those of Greenpeace, the prototype of high-profile mendacity, irresponsibility and militant activism on myriad environmental issues.)
While much of Burr’s article is demonstrably inaccurate and slanted, some of it is merely puzzling.  She writes, for example, that genetically engineered “crops also make farmers dependent on the agricultural biotechnology companies that synthesize their seeds.  Unfortunately, the world’s largest producers of soy — the United States, Brazil and Argentina — rely heavily on [genetically engineered] soybeans.”  But genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, make farmers dependent on biotech companies; countries (or individuals) that “rely” on genetic engineering do so because the technology is safer and more productive than the alternatives.  Farmers make choices about which crops and varieties to grow based on economic (and in some cases, cultural) factors; if they prefer, they can easily choose to grow seeds that were produced with older, “conventional” techniques of genetic modification.  This concept is no different from individuals who get to choose whether to buy a PC or a Mac, or whether to buy a tractor as opposed to ploughing with oxen.  Is there anything sinister about consumers’ and businesses’ “dependence” on Microsoft and Apple?  In any case, Burr appears to be ignorant of the fact that the majority of soybeans grown in South America come from farm-saved seed and are not purchased from seed companies at all.
During the past two decades, genetically engineered crops have been grown cumulatively on more than 1.25 billion hectares worldwide, and North Americans alone have consumed more than 3 trillion servings of foods that contain ingredients from them.  Burr may embrace the myth that there is genuine controversy over the safety of the crops and foods derived from them, but there is no credible evidence at all that genetically engineered crops or ingredients have disrupted a single ecosystem or caused health problems for consumers or farm workers.  In fact, the health risks associated with genetically engineered crops tend to be lower than those for conventional or, especially, organic crops, because of the lower levels of cancer- and birth defect-causing mycotoxins (in genetically engineered corn compared to organic corn in particular.)  Also, with the reduced need for spraying chemical pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops, the health risks – primarily poisonings — for farm workers and their families are significantly lower than for conventional crops.
During her fabulously expensive years at Stanford, Burr has failed to grasp a lesson that is critical to scholarship, and to life: You need to know what you don’t know.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  Graham Brookes is an economist and co-director of U.K.-based PG Economics Limited.



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