Genetically modified crops are taking root at a rate that may surprise those who don’t closely follow the acreage numbers.
Roughly 252 million acres, or 6.2 percent of the world’s total cropland, are planted with GM crops, according to 2006 figures. The growth is largely occurring in developing countries, which currently boast about 40 percent of total GM acreage.
Brazil, China, and India, leaders in many development statistics, are also the three major developing nations implementing GM crops. From 2005 to 2006, India’s GM crop acreage, mostly in cotton, increased 192 percent. But even Iran’s gotten in the game, introducing Bt rice, on somewhere between 25,000-50,000 acres. (The rice contains the genetic material of the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, an insecticide.)
I found this out at a recent talk on the regulation GM crops given by Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. It sponsored by the GM Plants Working Group, a subgroup of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.
Conko’s a leader in the field of GM regulation, and the stats above were less the object of his talk than talking points along the way as he introduced the need for a standardized regulatory system for genetically modified crops. Conko believes that GM crops, when properly regulated, are safe and can be highly beneficial to mankind and the environment, while at the same time making some people a lot of money. In other words, he backs up Monsanto in the current debate over GM crops.
While many don’t share his faith in the safety of GM plants, Conko made the point that the crops have allowed a sharp reduction in insecticide use. In the United States, insecticide use has fallen by 8 percent in field corn, 80 percent in sweet corn, 40 percent in cotton and 60 percent in potatoes. Developing countries have also seen similar reductions in insecticide use.
Herbicides are a different story. Since what’s generally being sold are herbicide-resistant crops, farmers who use GM soy or corn (Roundup Ready or Liberty Link, for example), are spraying large quantities of glyphosate (Roundup) or glufosinate ammonium (Liberty) herbicides. These herbicides kill everything but the herbicide-resistant crops. Conko’s spin on such herbicide-resistant crops ran along familiar lines: that these are some of the least persistent herbicides around, and a transition to them is better for soil health, since they allow conservation tillage, and human health, since they are less toxic than other herbicides.
But Conko’s talk glossed over many of the oft-cited concerns with GM crops. “Every known risk of bioengineered plants also occurs in non-engineered plants,” he claimed. While I won’t argue with his science (since I’m not a molecular biologist) the essential argument he made about regulation seems flawed, since it basically says: Since we don’t highly regulate these other seed types, we shouldn't regulate GM crops either.
Conko notably omitted a discussion of the wider social and ecological impacts of widespread use of GM crops. And while the negative health and ecological impacts of GM crops may be debatable, it's irrefutable that they’ve spread to non-GM corn in Mexico, non-GMO rice in the U.S, and organic crops in Spain, at a cost to farmers. Plus, weeds are developing glyphosate herbicide resistance (see this link for a list). GM crops may not be “Frankenfoods," but these issues warrant serious discussion about how they're regulated.
Coming away from this talk, I want to make several points:
- We need a public conversation about how GM crops in this country should be dealt with. If more than 6 percent of the world’s crops are currently genetically modified - over 135 million U.S. acres - and we’ve still not had a good debate about how to regulate this industry, something is wrong.
- As GM crops spread, there should be discussion on whether research should focus on producing more Roundup Ready corn, or whether it should focus on crafting crops adapted to poor agricultural conditions such as drought areas or specific soil types.
- If GM crops can have positive environmental outcomes, then they are worth real exploration. As long as they are decried but not addressed in the public sphere, the private sector will control the way these crops are developed.
It’s a tragedy that GM crops have become so mainstreamed without any serious discussion. Two hundred fifty-two million acres of GM crops is a lot of land, and this transformation has largely happened out of the public eye. This fact alone makes biotech seem sneaky and underhanded, and naturally leaves one less inclined to trust the soothing assurances of the biotech advocates.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies