Much shouting has been done by those opposed to genetically engineered crops. There has even been anti-biotech terrorism. Many of the articles in the national media have been less than friendly, or accurate.
An exception is a lengthy piece in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly, “Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?” It posits that over the next half-century genetic engineering “could feed humanity and solve a raft of environmental ills — if only environmentalists would let it.”
Author Jonathan Rauch, a correspondent for the magazine and a senior writer for National Journal, is also a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books.
Genetically engineered crops may be, he writes, “the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries” and “may be, if the planet is fortunate, the farming of the future.”
Conventional tillage, he notes, has been practiced in one form or another for hundreds of years, in the process furthering erosion and runoff into streams and rivers, releasing greenhouse gases, and disturbing wildlife habitat.
Conservation tillage is reversing much of that, Rauch points out, as well as conserving fuel. And, importantly, yields have been as good or better than with the old systems.
But he says, widespread reductions in tillage hinge on use of genetically modified crops.
“It is only a modest exaggeration to say that, as goes agriculture so goes the planet. Of all the human activities that shape the environment, agriculture is the single most important, and it is well ahead of whatever comes second.”
In the next half-century, the pressure to feed a growing, more affluent population (and their billion or so pets) will intensify, Rauch says. Beyond 2050, projections are that population will level off and “the human species may at long last be able to feed itself, year-in and year-out, without putting any additional net stress on the environment.”
The great problem, he says, is to get through the intervening decades with as little environmental damage as possible, and “That's where biotechnology comes in.”
Acknowledging the opposition to gene transfer technology, Rauch says while there are risks, “What is much less widely appreciated is biotech's potential to do the environment good. Take as an example continuous no-till farming, which really works best with the help of transgenic crops.”
Crop varieties are also being developed that can grow in salty water/soils, an increasing problem in heavily irrigated areas that results in the loss of about 25 million acres yearly worldwide. Salt-tolerant varieties could bring millions of acres of land back into production, proponents say, and the plants could even remove salts from the soil.
Transgenic cotton reduced pesticide use by more than 2 million pounds in the United States in just four years, Rauch notes, with huge reductions in China and elsewhere. Genetically engineered corn coming into wide adoption could significantly reduce pesticide use on 23 million acres in the United States.
“I hereby hazard a prediction,” he concludes. “In 10 years or less, most American environmentalists… will regard genetic modification as one of their most powerful tools…. Biotechnology will transform agriculture, and in doing so will transform American environmentalism.”