I know that this months cover story on biotech foods will surprise many of you. A number of consumer and environmental groups have criticized, boycotted, or otherwise rejected genetically engineered foods. I dont agree with them... or with those who maintain that agricultural biotechnology is inherently harmless and needs no oversight. Theres a third perspective. Heres how I see it.
Over the past half-century, American agriculture has become enormously more productive, thanks to the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, sophisticated new means of breeding crops and livestock, and innovations in mechanization. But were paying a price for that success. Among the severe side effects: polluted water and enormous harm to insects, birds, and farmers from pesticides. The same farming practices have decimated rural communities, left pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, and, in some cases, led to perfect-looking-but-tasteless food.
Organic and sustainable agriculture is clearly one of the smartest reactions to the ills of modern farming. It protects the environment by using little or no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and by keeping the soil healthy. Thanks to consumers concerns about pesticides and the growth of huge supermarket chains like Whole Foods, organic farms now produce about four percent of all food grown in the U.S. Although organic food is more expensive than conventional food (in part because of inefficient or greedy middlemen and retailers), and although lower yields mean that it requires more farmland, organic methods are far safer for the environment and farmers.
But organic farming isnt the only solution to agricultures environmental costs. Genetic engineering has the potential to increase productivity, while protecting our water, wildlife, and farmers better than conventional agriculture can. It has also turned the sleepy scientific discipline of plant breeding into a storm of controversy.
Many people oppose biotechnology, arguing that engineered crops pose intolerable ecological risks, that engineered foods might be toxic or trigger allergies, that the technology will help only big farmers and seed companies, that the government is not regulating engineered crops and foods adequately, that engineered crops threaten organic farms, and that moving genes from one organism to another is morally wrong.
I share some of those concerns, but I dont agree that the solution is to reject the technology. Used properly and with adequate government oversight, genetic engineering should be a boon to farmers, the environment, and, especially in developing nations, consumers. Already, a few key genetically engineered cropslike cotton and soybeansappear to be a great improvement over conventional crops. While few farmers have switched to organic agriculture, they have adopted insect-resistant cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybeans faster than any other new technology.
The interview in this issue with CSPIs two experts on biotechnology discusses the hot topic in detail. Instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water, we need to minimize the risks of genetic engineering and maximize the benefits, both in this country and abroad. At the same time, we need to vigorously support organic and sustainable agriculture. Both can help protect our environment from the ravages of modern agriculture.