Why what you think you know about agricultural biotechnology may be wrong.
Anecdotal stories suggest that the crops of U.S. organic growers are being screened in the marketing chain for the presence of GE material and are being rejected if levels exceed market-determined levels. We do not have evidence to judge how widespread such testing is in the United States. This issue deserves more investigation.[vi]The report is much more profuse (and should be strongly commended) in its presentation of evidence showing that, on balance, the impacts of GE crops have been positive when viewed from an environmental or public health perspective, at least over the short run. This evidence is especially important in light of continued allegations on the part of GE opponents that these crops are unhealthful and environmentally damaging. Schmeiser’s own website at www.percyschmeiser.com contains many links to others who make such allegations. The report does discuss the complex economic causality that makes calculation of total impact difficult and inherently controversial. If, for example, farmers start using less of a toxic chemical, the makers of that toxic chemical may well lower the price, which may lead farmers to start using more of it. Should biotechnology be given credit for the initial decrease? Should it be blamed for the later increase? Questions like this have given those who would wrangle over “real” impact of biotechnology much fodder to chew on. The NRC report may not silence those debates once and for all, but it does provide a very detailed analysis that should become the standard for contending parties who want to continue them. More importantly, to claim biotechnology has achieved environmental benefits involves an implicit comparison. Benefit relative to what was being done in mainstream agriculture before biotechnology is, in some respects, a very unambitious comparator. Benefit relative to what might have been accomplished had a significant fraction of the research funding that went into genetic engineering been dedicated to alternative agricultural technologies is so speculative as to be virtually meaningless. Yet certainly some of the organic farmers who feel that the USDA and land grant universities abandoned them are thinking in just such terms. For them, it is a case of the road not taken, and that has made all the difference. Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.
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