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Genetically Modified Crops Cause Progressives to Abandon Science

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Genetically Modified Crops Cause Progressives to Abandon Science

October 13, 2015

Proponents of government action to combat climate change often cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consensus when they argue that climate change is man-made. One would expect progressives committed to these findings to carry their love of science to other topics. Yet, in the case of genetically modified crops, this commitment appears to vanish.  

According to the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and countless other qualified international bodies, there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that genetically modified crops (GM crops) are unfit for human consumption. Despite this unanimous scientific consensus, opponents continue to generate controversy. As one example, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic presidential candidate and climate change warrior, has fought for a bill allowing states to require GM food labeling. Though he “does not believe that GMOs are necessarily bad,” his bill plays directly into the hands of GM crop alarmists. 

Evoking distaste for government’s heavy, special-interest involvement in agriculture, mandatory labeling proponents charge that firms conspire to hide GM crop usage and that consumers have a right to know what is in their food. And yet, many companies already voluntarily identify their products as non-GM to attract consumers. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) labels foods “certified organic” when they meet certain standards, including a requirement they not contain GM components.

Mandatory labeling could stigmatize GM crops and cost the average American family hundreds of dollars every year because non-GM foods cost more to procure. Many advocates of labeling overlook not only the cost to businesses and consumers, but also remain unaware of the substantial economic benefits of GM crops, including increased agricultural yields and enhanced environmental sustainability. 

In total, the U.S. agricultural sector generates 4.7 percent of the nation’s GDP and indirectly accounts for 9.2 percent of U.S. jobs. GM crops make up a substantial percentage of this output -- nearly 90 percent of all corn, soy beans, and cotton grown in the United States is genetically modified to be herbicide resistant. 

Moreover, the use of GM crops has uniquely increased corn yields by 5 percent in the United States and upwards of 30 percent in other areas of the world. This has increased the world’s total supply of food and lowered its price for the world’s least fortunate. If farmers were deprived of the ability to grow GM crops, the global price of corn and soy would be 5 percent and 10 percent higher, respectively. 

GM technology is also used to make food more nutritious. Specifically, scientists have created carotene-enhanced “golden rice” which has allowed millions across Asia to improve their Vitamin A intake. 

Some allege that GM crops have driven small farmers out of business. The extent to which this decline has been caused by uneven government protections and subsidies for companies, such as Monsanto, is not entirely clear -- partially because the recent U.S. farm bill now keeps the recipients of subsidies a secret. Yet, it is important to “hate the player, not the game,” as the saying goes. Reforms should focus on eliminating special interest protections to individual corporations, rather than stigmatizing products. 

Organic farmers are also at a natural disadvantage because they are less efficient in terms of resource use and geographic specialization. Larger producers can reach a more effective “economy of scale,” meaning they are able to sell products at a lower price because they can produce them in bulk at the most efficient location a crop can be grown. 

The environmental benefits of GM crops are also well established. A study by agricultural economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, owners of the agricultural research firm PG Economics, concluded that from 1996 to 2011, U.S. farmers were able to reduce herbicide use by 11 percent when growing GM maize and 5 percent when growing GM cotton in addition to significantly reducing insecticide use across the board. The herbicide-resistant nature of the crops has allowed farmers to eliminate weeds using smaller doses of glyphosate, which scientists and stringent European regulators alike have approved as a safe herbicide. 

Additionally, GM crop farmers have substantially reduced their fuel use and CO2 emissions because farmers no longer have to make as many insecticide and herbicide spray runs to preserve their crops. These emission reductions have been the equivalent of removing nearly 10 million cars from the road. Considering that agricultural-related emissions account for 7 percent of U.S. emissions and nearly 20 percent of global emissions, GM crops should be welcomed by policymakers, such as Sanders, who claim to be concerned about climate change. 

Researchers from the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Economic Research Service have shown that farmers who began using GM soy crops reduced their herbicide use by a third and were 21 percent more likely to adopt conservation tillage systems. This means that farmers need to till their fields less, which in turn has reduced fertilizer runoff into rivers and further reduced emissions released from tilled soil.  Additionally, by lowering total insecticide and herbicide use, GM crops have -- in some sense -- reduced the potential for weeds or pests to spread based on naturally-selected immunity. 

While fringe media outlets continue to give GM crops a bad name, a comprehensive analysis of the evidence reveals they have a host of economic, environmental, and humanitarian benefits. The consensus is clear—progressives should set aside this crusade and heed the scientific consensus. 


James Davis is a contributor to Economics21. His views do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force ROTC or Habitat for Humanity NYC. 

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