Unchain Agricultural Biotechnology

Population growth and climate change demand increases in agricultural productivity — increases that can only be achieved through the use of modern biotechnology. Yet excessive and scientifically unjustified regulatory restrictions hamper the development of more productive crop strains, particularly where they are needed most.  So argues Penn State biology professor Nina Federoff in today’s NYT, and she’s right.

In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.

Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.

Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Conservatives are often criticized for adopting ideologically or politically motivated positions on scientific questions — and they should be. But the Right has no monopoly on the politicization of science. As the debate over agricultural biotechnology shows, progressives can be just as guilty, and the effects can be just as grave.

It has been clear for decades that the means through which a crop strain is developed has no bearing on the health or environmental risks such a crop could pose. The scientific consensus here is broader and more stable than on climate change and other contentious environmental questions. The National Academy of Sciences, British Royal Society and EU have all concluded that modern biotech techniques are no more dangerous than traditional crop modification methods. Nevertheless, due to progressive environmental activism and fear campaigns, crops developed with modern biotechnology are subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. As Federoff notes, a reactive precautionary stance may have been justified years ago when biotechnology was new, but there is no scientific justification for such a position today. Yet progressive environmentalists continue to oppose modern agricultural biotechnology — and the supposed defenders of scientific integrity have little to say about it.

UPDATE: Chris Mooney thinks I sideswiped him unfairly with the final link of this post.  I disagree, and have responded in the comments to his post.  My comment is reproduced below.

Chris —

I’m sorry you thought it was a sideswipe, but I think the charge was justified. I ran a search on your blog for “biotechnology” on your blog and little of substance comes up. While you acknowledged the problem of anti-science anti-biotech activism in your book, you’ve had very little to say about it since. Why is this a problem? Because the anti-scientific anti-biotech view has very real consequences. You may like to think that liberals are open to science on this issue, but why do we see no evidence of this in actual policy? Why are GMOs subject to greater regulatory scrutiny than their non-GMO equivalents? Why has no “liberal” administration done anything about this? Sure, the anti-Greenpeace activism hasn’t prompted a broad social movement, but it hasn’t had to. As the article to which I linked discusses, the current regulatory process adopts the precise anti-GMO bias that the NAS and its foreign equivalents have warned against. Given this fact, I think it’s fair to find your relative quiet on this issue rather conspicuous.