Are Biotechnology and sustainability complementary? The Economist wants your vote

The Economist is running an online debate and we need your vote.
Vote here.

My opening statement:

The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 with food demands expected to rise by 70%. How will we feed them? If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, scarce water will be wasted, greenhouse gas emissions will increase and farm workers will be exposed to harmful chemicals. Clearly, the future of our planet requires that we improve the environmental, economic and social impacts of our global farming systems-- the three essential pillars of sustainable agriculture. Genetically engineered crops will continue to play an important role in this future.

After 10,000 years of crop domestication and innovation, virtually everything we eat has been genetically altered and every farm today grows such crops. Genetic engineering (GE) differs from conventional methods of crop modification in two basic ways: it introduces one or a few well-characterised genes; and genes from any species can be introduced into a plant. In contrast, most conventional methods of genetic alteration (artificial selection, forced inter-specific transfer, random mutagenesis and grafting of two species to create a new variety) introduce many uncharacterised genes from closely related species.

There is broad scientific consensus that GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat . The National Research Council, a non-profit institution that provides science, technology and health policy advice to the U.S. Congress, reports that the process of genetic engineering poses a similar risk of unintended consequences as conventional approaches of genetic alteration. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment. In contrast, every year there are thousands of reported pesticide poisonings (around 1,200 each year in California alone; 300,000 deaths globally). The NRC findings have been confirmed by leading scientific agencies around the world. For instance, the Joint Research Centre, the European Union's scientific and technical research laboratory and an integral part of the European Commission, recently concluded that there is a comprehensive body of knowledge that adequately addresses the food safety issue of GE crops and that the crops currently on the market have not caused any known health effects.

Well-documented benefits of GE crops include massive reductions of insecticides in the environment, improved soil quality and reduced erosion, prevention of destruction of the Hawaiian papaya industry, proven health benefits to farmers and families growing GE crops as a result of reduced exposure to harsh chemicals, economic benefits to local communities, enhanced biodiversity of beneficial insects, reduction in the number of pest outbreaks on GE farms and neighbouring non-GE farms, and increased profits to farmers.
GE crops have also dramatically increased crop yields (more than 30%) in some farming communities.

Because substantial greenhouse gases are emitted from agricultural systems, and because the net effect of higher yields is a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, development and deployment of such high-yielding varieties will be a critical component of a future sustainable agriculture.

In the near future, conservative models predict that planting of Golden Rice, a rice engineered to produce provitamin A, will reduce diseases caused by vitamin A deficiency, saving the lives of thousands of children. Golden rice is likely to be more cost-effective than alternative vitamin A interventions, such as food supplementation or fortification. In Africa, where three-quarters of the world's severe droughts have occurred over the past ten years, the introduction of genetically engineered drought tolerant corn, the most important African staple food crop, is predicted to dramatically increase yields for poor farmers.

A premise basic to almost every agricultural system (conventional, organic and everything in between) is that seed can only take us so far. The farming practices used to cultivate the seed are equally important. GE crops alone will not provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Ecologically based farming systems and other technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also required. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ecological farming practices using genetically engineered seed will play an increasingly important role in a future sustainable agriculture. Each new variety will need to be tested on a case-by case basis in light of the criteria for a sustainable agricultural system.

There is now broad scientific consensus that GE crops and ecological farming practices can coexist--and if we are serious about building a future sustainable agriculture, they must.

View Charles Benbrook's opening remarks, here.


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The problem is that no respectable scientists are wiling to accept the fact that continued human population growth is patently unsustainable on a resource constrained planet.

All we see is a continued blind attempt at maintaining a failed paradigm. We should go all out in a global campaign to stop population growth. BTW, unfortunately more food just makes the problem worse not better. Quite the nasty little dilemma we naked apes seem to have gotten ourselves into.

The Most Important Data Set in the History of Our Species - (population, demographics, and environment)…

By Fred Magyar (not verified) on 02 Nov 2010 #permalink

As with any increase in efficiency the potential for benefit depends on how any gains are used. If the increase in food and nutrition are allocated to raising up the hungry and malnourished there is a benefit to humanity. If the increase is used to increase the numbers of people but not improve their lot then there is a much smaller, possibly no, benefit.

Many countries have adopted excessive family planning techniques to reduce population growth. The countries which don't have it should be encouraged to adopt them.

Fred, you make a good point about population. Population is increasing, but the rate of increase has been going down. And evidence points to reduced population growth in cultures that have their basic needs met. That is, the higher the quality of life, the lower the population growth - and what better way to increase the quality of life of people who are malnourished than to give them more access to better food.

In some cases, government's are doing everything they can to get their citizens to have more kids because they're looking at a population collapse around mid-century.

Well it appears from the opening statements that you're going to be arguing completely different things.

Charles is going to focus only on what has been done (and not even everything that has been done - apparently)

his point @ 27

Does it seek to make full use of local resources and farmer skills? No, HT crops reduce the need for labour and skill, and increase reliance on high-cost, often proprietary inputs from outside the region

Seems a little odd, I would have thought that reducing the need for labor & skill was actually in favor of sustainability - that which is harder to do is less sustainable - and he appears to be ignoring that HT crops replace systems which rely on inputs from outside so are likely neutral in that respect (although if replacing less sustainable options with more sustainable options clearly positive)

His point 30

Bt corn and cotton are largely neutral in terms of crop-livestock integration, and like HT crops do not promote diversity in food production or self-reliance.

Also isn't quite accurate imo - utilizign a Bt crop increases self reliance in that one no longer has to be reliant of insecticides.

I wonder how many of his arguements rely entirely on the fact that GMOs are still all under patent protection - once Bt traits start coming off patent reliance issues disappear - you're no longer beholden unto big-Ag for the trait - alas we're not there yet and so reliance issues can still rear their head.

His final comment also appears to be him conceding defeat already, so congratulations!

Biotechnology can help create new hammers and harden existing ones through marker-assisted breeding and the development of new diagnostic tools, vaccines, biopesticides and soil inoculantsâbut not the way it is being used today on the farm.

So the way it is being used today on the farm (MAS and diagnostics categorically are utilized, biotechnology wins without even having to discuss GM - even if GM wasn't compatible with sustainability GM!= biotechnology) is not the way it is being used today on the farm? Awesome.

Population from 6.7 to 9b, increasing 35%, why food demand increases 70%?

Population from 6.7 to 9b, increasing 35%, why food demand increases 70%?

Projected increases in meat consumption in China and India probably drive the bulk of this. Keep in mind the figures are projections on how the world is expected to progress, not how we'd like it if only everyone would adopt the ideal solution.

Humans currently produce far more food than is needed to feed the world, yet millions of people are still starving. Clearly, starvation is not a problem of production. It's a problem of distribution. Therefore, I find this whole âwe need GMOs to increase production to feed the worldâ argument disingenuous.

If the point is to feed the entire world, then there is no point in investing in expensive technologies, which include GM crops, to increase production. The poorest of the poor will not be able to afford those technologies, so instead, big factory farms will continue to sprout up in the developing world, pushing the indigenous people off their land and exporting the food to rich countries. The poor do not need GMOs, they need food sovereignty. They need the right to grow the food they want to grow in a community of their own, and the right to SAVE THEIR SEEDS. You can't get those rights by pushing technologies that require you to buy seeds every year, buy expensive herbicides, or buy farm machinery.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, organic agriculture is way better than GMOs, simply because the paradigm in which GMOs are engineered still require intensive monocultures, and yes, pesticides and herbicides. All of these things are known to decrease biodiversity, de-stabilize natural food chains, and decrease the ability of organisms to migrate between habitat patches, increasing the probability of extinction.

In contrast, organic agriculture requires a certain amount of biodiversity (planned or otherwise) within the agricultural system in order to effectively control pests and maintain soil fertility. This not only maintains certain organisms, it also provides a traversable habitat for organisms to pass through when migrating between patches of forest/savannahs/etc. For example, it is known that bats and birds are more likely to hang out or migrate through a shade-grown coffee farm, but they cannot survive in a sun-grown intensive coffee system.

Badgley et. al.'s (2007)'s meta-analysis gave strong evidence that organic agriculture can provide sustenance for the world's poor. Cuba, despite its problems, was able to stave off famine when the USSR broke down by switching to an organic agricultural system. Moreover, ecology and evolutionary science has the potential to increase the efficiency of organic agriculture without increasing the capital inputs required by the farmer to grow nutritious food to feed their families.

If our goal is to actually feed the world, then we need to stop investing money into intensive agricultural systems, and that includes GMOs that require farmers to buy in to seeds that canât be saved, that are grown in a monoculture, and that still require pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to grow.

The problem is that no respectable scientists are wiling to accept the fact that continued human population growth is patently unsustainable on a resource constrained planet.

All we see is a continued blind attempt at maintaining a failed paradigm. We should go all out in a global campaign to stop population growth. BTW, unfortunately more food just makes the problem worse not better. Quite the nasty little dilemma we naked apes seem to have gotten ourselves into.


is that fool PAUL ERHLICH posting on here under a nom de plume? haven't we heard this same crapola for decades yet has not come to fruition?

Some observations on Benbrooks response:-

1.Pest losses and food waste must be cut dramatically (eg, by one-half).
2.Dietary patterns must shift towards crops that provide more human food calories and diverse nutrients per acre/hectare (eg, potatoes, squash, beans, berries), with relatively less reliance on grain-fed livestock products.
3.Soil organic matter must be restored to allow sustainable yields to increase.

No. 1 = use more Bt (ie cut pest losses to Brinjal in India by over 50%...)
No.2 = diversify crops that GM is used in
No.3 = use GM to facilitate no-till

Will insights and innovation made possible by biotechnology help? Of course, by helping create new biopesticides, soil inoculants, vaccines, plant varieties resistant to new and old pests, and advanced diagnostic tools.

Second time Benbrook has conceded defeat given that the debate is titled this house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.

Will herbicide-tolerant corn and soyabeans, today's GE heavy hitters, make a significant contribution? Not likely.

Irrelevant - even if true (for non complementariness however surely they'd have to make a significant negative contribution - neutrality to me would indicate that they aren't contradictory.

Monsanto claimed that these new GE products would increase yields by over 10% and charged dramatically higher prices per bag of seed in 2010 compared with 2009âaround 42% higher in the case of RR2 soyabeans and 36% higher for SmartStax corn. The promised yield increases did not materialise in several parts of the country, triggering legal action by one state attorney general who wants to access and review the basis for Monsanto's pre-season yield claims.

the claim was 7-11% - numbers at present appear to be in the region of 3-4 Bu/Ac which on average soy yields of 44 Bu/Ac is right on the money - I don't recall seeing a yield increase claim with Smartstax (other than that yields would be better due to reduced refuge and whatnot - which they appear to be (in spite of early data release showing poor performance, now more data is in things are on track)

Today's GE crops were not intended to increase yield potential, but they can help reduce pest losses.

Ok take my count to 3, how many times can Benbrook concede defeat without the debate being declared for Pam?

Where farmers are not successfully managing pests, a GE crop can sometimes help, and has in some places. But benefits to farmers cover GE seed price premiums in some but not all cases. Furthermore, herbicide use and expenditures have risen dramatically in recent years on HT crop acres because of the spread of resistant weeds.

In most but not all cases would be a better description - if it was only some then nobody would buy GE seeds. Also herbicide use/expenditure needs to be compared against what it would be in the same system sans GM and not jsut compared to the early days of GM (as soon as the tipping point is reached any fiscally savvy farmer will just drop GM and do things the cheapest easiest way)

Alternative systems can often increase yields more than GE seeds can.

And a pay increase of $20 an hour is better than a pay increase of $5 an hour. I'd still rather have a pay increase of $25 an hour though - the systems aren't mutually exclusive.

System changes can produce broad-based, sustained benefits. A new trait added to a transgenic crop can improve performance under specific circumstances, but it can rarely match the cost-benefit ratio of successful system innovation

So innovate systems and incorporate GM traits and get the best of both worlds - you aren't making a case against GM by saying that something else works - you have to specify that the something else works and categorically wouldnt with the inclusion of any biotechnology - the moment any biotechnology could be applied to the system improvement and be additively beneficial the "no" debate falls apart.

But those who think the "science" is settled on questions of food safety for all GE foods, forever, are either blinded by an overdose of wishful thinking or unaware of a growing list of concerns raised by scientists from all over the world.

Holy straw man batman - so apparently people who don't exist are unaware of minor concerns - nobody pro-GM (at least nobody remotely sensible) claims that all GE goods forever are safe - the claim is that those commercialized are, and that any which pass regulatory approval in the future will be.

In an attempt to do so, I will describe some ways to determine which GE technology applications "go together" with sustainable agriculture and which do not.

As soon as your list has a single entry you have conceded defeat, it bears repeating that the title of the debate is
this house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.

Vast swathes of biotechnology could be contradictory to sustainable agriculture - but so long as any biotech is complementary then biotech is complementary.

Lets wait and see how many times Benbrook can concede defeat in his closing statement

@#8 Jes S

Humans currently produce far more food than is needed to feed the world, yet millions of people are still starving. Clearly, starvation is not a problem of production. It's a problem of distribution. Therefore, I find this whole âwe need GMOs to increase production to feed the worldâ argument disingenuous.

And I find it a weak argument to act as that is exceptionally relevant when discussing the merits of GE crops. Yeah, it's a distribution problem (for now anyway), but what can be done about that? Anyone volunteering to take down every tinpot dictator and regime out there and establish stable market based democracies in their place? Good luck with that. Until that happens, no amount of technology, not even genetic engineering, can ensure that no one goes hungry. We live in a world where some consider food a weapon, and GMOs burn just as easy as non-GMO. No one is claiming that they're going to solve all the problems, but we know they work, we know you can do a lot of good things with them, we know that we've just scratched the surface of their potential, so why not use them when it is becoming increasingly apparent that they will be necessary, as a component, in helping? We can't do everything, but at least we can do something, and that's a lot better than nothing.

And second, I think you're comparing a plant with a system. That's like comparing Ford cars with the Autobahn. They're different things. GMOs don't have to be grown in any given system, just like how I can grow an heirloom carrot in cow poo with pyrethrum or fertilized with mineral salts with the latest pesticide, I can grow a GMO in whatever system works best, and I think it is important to use whatever methods have been shown to work best under the specific given conditions, not to simply use whatever adheres to the static rules of an ideology.

And along those lines, genetic engineering is just a means of improving a plant, just like breeding. You certainty wouldn't decry breeding because people focused on corn instead of quinoa, tomato instead of cocona, or apple instead of jujube. It is no more rational to use the same grounds to oppose GMOs. No one is saying that a lack of biodiversity is a good thing, but speaking of which, turns out there's a higher presence of non-target insect biodiversity in Bt GM crops.

Furthermore, seed of GMOs can be saved. Perhaps you are confusing the patent laws regarding the GMO IPs owned by companies with what can be physically done. There is no requirement that GMO seed be unsavable, in fact, I recall Cornell working on modifying Indian heirloom eggplants which they plan to release at cost and teach local farmers to save those GMO seed. I also remember reading that the University of Hawaii scientists who developed the GMO papaya encouraging farmers to save those GMO seed as well. Golden Rice is also savable.

It seems like you're not arguing against GMOs so much as you're arguing against things you associate with GMOs. I don't like the RIAA, but I'm not about to dislike music over it. The patent laws, growing systems, how they're being used with respect to biodiversity, those are separate issues, and fine to talk about individually, but don't assume they're irrevocably intertwined with the act of altering an organisms genes. And if you have arguments against any particular trait, that's fine, there are some proposed GMOs I don't jive with either, but you really can't act as if herbicide tolerant sugar beet is the same as iron enriched lettuce is the same as virus resistant squash is the same as insect resistant cotton. I can get why one might have reservations about a single various issues here and there, but GMOs, as a whole, I don't understand how there can be an argument against improving a plant with molecular means instead of classic.

By Party Cactus (not verified) on 05 Nov 2010 #permalink

I'm always really confused by the "unable to save the seed" "self-sufficient with saving the seed" when most farmers, including organic/sustainable, do not save their own seed, and still buy from seed houses.

I'm always really confused by the "unable to save the seed" "self-sufficient with saving the seed" when most farmers, including organic/sustainable, do not save their own seed, and still buy from seed houses.

Particularly when not saving the seed is entirely an IP issue which could be done away with for GM seeds generated by academics or that have gone off patent (say for instance a gene in rice that conferred resistance to submersion in water for prolonged periods... although that sounds like the stuff of science fiction) - the issues around corporate ownership of GM traits are only salient when discussing traits owned by corporations - there is no reason that all GM traits ever should be corporate owned, and there is massive reason to believe that there will come a time when a lot of traits aren't owned at all (as while patents may be an evil tool of monopoly during the time they exist they do come with the caveat that the knowledge contained therein is public after the patent expires - which is kinda the bloody point in the first place - thanks for making something cool, profit off it for a bit - then it belongs to us all thx!)

I agree that we should invest more resources into developing biotechnologies, but I feel that the major problem is distribution.Yes, many people are starving in the world, but the US has a surplusof food. Excess corn is used to make a variety of things like chemicals, adhesives, and ethanol fuel. I think that we should give some of our excess corn to countries with famines. Many of the products we put corn into could be made with other substances. Instead of processing corn into uneatable chemicals, we should distribute it to countries where there is a food crisis.

By Grandmaster K (not verified) on 09 Nov 2010 #permalink

GMK @ 15 - while it may be true that the US produces an excess of corn redistribution of corn from the US fails utterly to address the problem of food security in nations prone to famine etc - food aid should be an absolute last resort, with a far better option being to avoid famine in countries prone to famine in the first place - ideally no country should be beholden unto another for basic sustenance - which is, in my mind, the major failing of the 'just redistribute what is grown' mindset - we need solutions that work on the ground in areas (or as near as possible to areas) under the threat of famine, not solutions which only work when the political will is there (lets imagine we set up a system where the US crop surplus is used exclusively to feed the world and nothing is done to have the world feed itself - President Palin III then gets elected and decides that all this hopey feedy stuff is not what her version of Jesus (Ronald Reagan...) would want and decides to pull the rug out from under the third world - bereft of the means to feed themselves, well, let's just hope that someone cloned Bob Geldof)

Notwithstanding the economic barrier to providing surplus corn to provide food to the third world in times of need - corn is a commodity on which a massive amount of the manufacturing economy is based - it may be cheap, but it ain't free - farmers are going to want to be compensated for their efforts - I don't think that any aid organization (or government) is going to foot the bill - in an ideal world perhaps redistribution of food would be possible divorced from the economics of the situation, but sadly we live in a world which is far from ideal (hence the scary possibility of President Palin III)

They COULD be, they MIGHT be but the case is
"biotech & sustainable agriculture ARE complementary not contradictory"
the case is clear; so far they have NOT bee, which makes the case for the Negative.
We know who "biotech" means... - the big industrial-ag corporations, who have not helped, despite pathetic blather about Vit A in rice. Vitamin A comes from affordable vegetables, which come from Just distribution of Land. Monsanto/Cargils have done nothing in that line.


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The comments focus on two issues: Malthusian overpopulation and the legal/political framework in which GE crops are distributed. Many of the comments in both areas miss the point, which is that global food concerns is a political problem rather than a biological or even economic one.

First, Malthusian concerns. The world produces more than enough food for its current population, and could easily supply billions more. The Malthusians have a better point when they argue that the world can't support these billions at a U.S. or European standard of living (e.g., there isn't enough freshwater in the world to brew the amount of beer that Americans consume on a per capita basis for the entire planet). But there is no reason to think that population growth is inexorable. Indeed, in society after society, populations cease growing and even decline as women become more and more educated. There is no need for coercive or semi-coercive population control schemes; send little girls to school, and in a generation your "population bomb" defuses itself.

Second, a lot of the discussion has focused on IP rights and the economics of GE crops. As several others have rightfully pointed out, this has nothing to do with the scientific question of whether GE crops are biologically safe for humans and the biosphere. Indeed, if we're going to dwell on the potential negatives of the sociopolitical realm in which GE crops are disseminated, why not also consider positives? For example, if the U.S., Europe, and Japan were to end their immoral and economically ruinous agricultural subsidies, developing world farmers with GR crops could become net food exporters rather than net food importers. This would lead to more money going to the developing world, and in a way that would enrich landholders and farmers rather than petro-dictators.

GE crops themselves have great potential, but this potential will only be fully realized when 1) women in the developing world become better educated and 2) the developed world quits subsidizing a 19th Century dream of the yeoman farmer that in reality merely enriches large agribusinesses.