A proponent’s perspective on genetically modified crops
By the time you finish this column, approximately 15 children will have died from malnutrition. Before you sleep tonight, over 20,000 people will have died today from hunger. Know how many individuals have ever died from eating genetically modified food? Zero.
As society moves further away from an agrarian-based economy, most people have lost any direct connection to their food production, and therefore have no experience to refute outrageously false claims. Opponents of genetic engineering typically voice concerns in one of three main areas: pesticide use, seed dispersal and farming techniques. I hope to explain why GM food is safe, fair, and actually improves the soil.
Perhaps the most common argument against GM crops is the assertion they use more pesticides. This assertion is wrong. Sugar beets and cotton are two common GM crops whose traits have enabled farmers to dramatically reduce the amount of pesticides they use.
Additionally, farmers of corn and soybeans, the largest crops in the U.S., now routinely only use Roundup, instead of a cocktail of multiple different herbicides, which are harder on the environment. Finally, pesticides cost farmers money. Whether you farm five or 5,000 acres, reducing expenses is important. Farmers do not spray pesticides unnecessarily and GM crops allow farmers to spray less frequently, with milder chemicals.
Another frequent claim relates to “evil” seed companies. The argument suggests large corporations like Monsanto or DuPont force farmers to rely exclusively upon these companies for seed purchases. This argument has some truth. Similar to pharmaceutical companies who invest billions of dollars developing new drugs, the agriculture industry has spent years of effort and millions of dollars developing specific plant traits. A patent is placed on the technology used to generate this seed and rightfully so. Without patents, innovation suffers because companies have little incentive to invest in research and development. Patents do expire though, and Monsanto’s patent for first generation Roundup Ready Soybeans will expire this fall, so farmers could plant their own GM soybeans next year. Other GM crop patents will eventually expire, allowing these farmers to grow their own seed as well.
Furthermore, farmers can choose to plant non-GM seed, which seed companies still sell. The latest data suggests U.S. farmers prefer GM crops, as over 93 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton is grown from GM seed. If farmers were truly worried about seed supply, they wouldn’t use GM seed so extensively.
Perhaps the ultimate nutrition trump card is the word “organic.” Organic farming has caught the country by storm and many people equate the word “organic” with responsible farming, but conventional farming techniques are arguably better for the soil and more productive. Organic farming uses soil tillage as a primary means of weed control, which works well before crops are planted, but top soil is typically lost due to wind or water erosion. Especially in highly erodible areas, this farming technique thwarts the accumulation of organic matter in the soil. GM crops allow farmers to control weeds before and after emergence. Similar to organic farming, cover crops are also increasingly used between crop rotations. This technique keeps the soil in place, increases organic matter, and retains nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil. Regardless of farming technique, farmers desire the best possible soil; without good soil, crops will not grow.
Even in Hawaii, conventional and organic farmers can coexist peacefully. My goal was not to change your shopping habits or diet. What you choose to eat is completely your prerogative. I simply desired to refute some false claims regarding GM crops and courteously discuss a few important topics.
TJ Menn is a Master in Public Policy student from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) of Government who is here on a Dubin Fellowship working with Governor Abercrombie’s Policy Office and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. T.J. grew up on a farm in western Illinois and his family farms hundreds of acres of corn, soybeans, hay, and cattle pastures. After graduating from West Point in 2005, he attended flight school and flies helicopters for the Army. He has deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, and expects to teach Economics at West Point when he graduates from HKS in May 2015. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Abercrombie administration, the HDOA, or the U.S. Army.