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Green Thumbs: Genetically Engineered Crops are More Environmentally Friendly than Organic Ones

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- Elliot Entis, Boston Globe, April 11, 2010 http://www.boston.com/

There is a green revolution going on, “doubly green’’ according to ecologist Gordon Conway, but it’s one the organic movement does not want to join. This revolution relies on modern biotechnology to create crop hybrids that can better utilize our scarce resources, and there’s the rub: the science is not trusted by organic farmers, and it plays against their economic interests.

The mantra against genetically engineered crops is that there are hidden dangers lurking within this powerful technology and we don’t know how it may harm us. We may not know what we don’t know, but we do know this: since genetically engineered crops have been planted, there have been no incidents of harm to man, beast, or the environment. We also know that organic farming is not any healthier for people than other methods, a unanimous conclusion among peer-reviewed studies as well as the US Department of Agriculture.

We also know that organic farming is not environmentally friendly. Yes, organic farming avoids some harmful chemicals and pesticides, but not as effectively as farms that plant genetically engineered crops. The yield per acre of such organic crops as wheat and beans, the world’s most widely planted crops, is between 50 and 80 percent of the yield of conventional crops, according to the Elm Farm Research Centre.

Historically, the yields from genetically engineered crops of the same type are even above the yields of conventional crops: 36 percent better per acre for corn and 12 percent better for soybeans. Then there is the reduction of herbicides and pesticides. Overall, since 1997, the reduction in pesticide use resulting from genetically engineered crops is estimated at 790 million pounds, or 8.8 percent, and herbicide reduction in soybeans at 161 million pounds, or 4.6 percent.

But what is most telling perhaps, is a finding reported this year by the USDA: “Farmers who grow Bt-corn [a GE variety that contains the natural pesticide Bt] use 75 percent less pesticides, essentially receiving the benefits of chemicals without releasing them into the environment or leaving residue on the final product.’’ Bt is one of the pesticides organic farmers use to protect their own crops.

Lower yields force more acres of what could be left wild to be turned over to domestication. You want more organic foods? Then think about clearing more forests, more wetlands, and reducing wilderness. You want sustainable agriculture for the future? Then look ahead to the next generation of genetically engineered crops that address what is probably the biggest constraint we face: limited fresh water available to expand crop production. Genetically engineered crops are now under development to address this constraint.

One would expect that “green’’ organizations would welcome genetically engineered crops and part company with the organic movement. But this has not been the case: political expediency and romance have — temporarily at least — trumped science.

The organic movement is largely a romantic ideal, far removed in many ways from science. It believes it is environmentally friendly, but it largely avoids science. True environmentalists look at the facts, and those facts do not support the growth of organic farming as a way to feed the world. However, with few exceptions, environmental organizations do not admit to this publicly. Why? Because they share a constituency: citizens who oppose certain elements of mass production farming, who yearn for a simpler time, when things were more natural. But this constituency is built on a shared belief system about the past, not the future.

At some point the contradiction between what organic farming leads to — more land devoted to farming, higher food prices, less biodiversity — and the goals of environmentalists — sustainability, more biodiversity – will fracture this alliance.

Environmentalists will have to rethink their public position on the benefits that biotechnological innovation provides and the potential harm of an overly ideological organic movement. Stewart Brand, the editor of Whole Earth Catalog, recently summed up the issue best: “The environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.’’

Elliot Entis, CEO of the American Salmon Company, is a former board member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the founder of Aqua Bounty Technologies, Inc.