I had the opportunity to work with a journalism student from Sheridan College. She asked some really great questions about genetically modified organisms and I provided some answers.
Q.5 What are the benefits to GM foods? (see a related blog entry on this):
Most would argue that the benefits of GM food accrue further up the value chain (seed companies and producers). But we cannot under-estimate or under-value what these gains mean downstream for consumers.
Studies have been conducted that demonstrate (on average) that GM crops out-produce organics by as much as 30%. Now, this varies depending on location and soil conditions (and other factors) of course. But overall, there are productivity gains for genetically engineered crops. GE crop technology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. As of 2012, 170 million hectares worldwide had been planted to biotechnology. Fastest adopters of late? Third world countries.
Also, we are running out of land and we have a growing world population. We cannot afford to use any more land base than we already do. If GE crops can allow us to produce MORE on less land, then having biotech crops in our ag toolbox is important for that fact alone.
And here is something else that I find compelling. In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it was reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force was women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was in weeding. Ugh. New varieties of GE corn introduced to South Africa has cut down weeding time substantially. This means that women have more time (options?) to pursue off-farm work, spend time with children, pursue educational opportunities??? Isn’t that a good thing? Then there is GM cotton in India. Most pesticides are applied by the farmer (no mechanical means). Besides productivity gains, the introduction of GM cotton in the country has meant fewer passes of pesticides resulting in millions of dollars saved in the country’s health care system. Here is an article that looks at the benefits of GM crops in India for women.
We are also contending with things like global warming, disease, pests, etc. We need to develop crop varieties that are adaptable to new environments so that people have options for eating and for production. Take, for example, the development of flax varieties for northern parts of Canada. Flax is an important crop for rotation purposes in farm management (plus there are markets for this crop). Crop rotation is an important part of integrated pest management strategies at the farm-level. Having access to a crop variety for on-farm management rotational practices is important for productivity and for the environment.
Also, the introduction of herbicide tolerant crops has allowed farmers to adopt min or no til practices which is better for the environment (and it helps lower costs for the farmer as well – less time in the field and less money spent on weed control). These herbicide tolerant crops require a lot less product – and fewer passes – to control weeds.
There are many different kinds of genetically engineered crop varieties out there in the product pipeline that have consumer benefits. For example, there is a low linoleate soy bean that has been modified for no transfats (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/business/in-a-bean-a-boon-to-biotech.html?_r=1&).
In the end, the benefits of GM crop adoption and improvements are in quality of life, both from a farmer’s perspective and from a consumer’s perspective. Thus, it is important that we continue to judiciously regulate these crop varieties and ensure that they in the toolbox of options for farmers and as value-add ingredients for our food (consumers).