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Experts Discuss the Safety & Benefits of Plant Biotechnology
REASON #1: Using GM crops, farmers can reduce pesticide spraying, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and increase yields.
Evidence continues to accumulate about how genetically modified food crops are helping to preserve the environment. "Here we have a very versatile technology, which has the power and the capacity to contribute to a more effective, a more benign, a more sustainable agriculture," says Dr. Clive James, an agricultural scientist and founder of the not-for-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
For example, insect-resistant (Bt) crops offer an alternative to, and reduce the use of, agricultural pesticides such as insecticides and fungicides. Since Bt corn and cotton are able to produce their own protection against specifically targeted pests, farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides necessary to control them. Since 1996, farmers have reduced pesticide applications by 172,000 metric tons as a direct result of genetically modified food crops.
"What's been amazing to many of us is that we've seen advances that even were beyond our wildest expectations," says Dr. Roger Beachy regarding genetically engineered plants. Dr. Beachy is a researcher and founding president of the not-for-profit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. "We all knew it was theoretically possible, but to actually do it and deploy it into the field. And then, at the end of four or five years, report that this has an advantage of increasing yields and reduce the use of agriculture chemicals by 50 million pounds a year. It's an astounding number."
This reduction in the use of pesticides has consequently reduced the fuel, water and packaging that are used to manufacture, distribute and apply pesticides. Typical savings include the elimination of diesel fuel that is used in manufacturing, shipping and storing insecticides; the conservation of water used by farmers when applying pesticides; the elimination of tractor and aviation fuel also used in applications; and a reduction in the waste generated from the disposal of packaging.
Herbicide-tolerant crops have enabled farmers to use more benign herbicides that rapidly dissipate in soil and water. In addition, herbicide-tolerant crops have spurred the adoption of no till farming the reduction or elimination of plowing to remove weeds and disturb the soil for planting. The environmentally beneficial tillage practices conserve topsoil, preserving soil moisture and reducing runoff; reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions; and create and improve habitats for birds and other wildlife.
Genetically modified food crops also assist in producing more food on the same amount of land, which reduces the need to clear additional land for cultivation. This results in less impact on prairies, wetlands, forests and other fragile ecosystems that might otherwise be converted for agricultural purposes.
"Production in Brazil has increased significantly without great increases in the area required for agriculture. There is great pressure at present concerning certain environments, such as the Brazilian mountainous regions and the wetlands, the Amazon region," says Dr. Francisco Aragγo, senior researcher in Genetic Research and Biotechnology at Embrapa in Brazil. "One of the ways we help preserve these areas is by increasing productivity without having to increase the amount of land used for agriculture."
Scientists agree that habitat destruction is the biggest single threat to biodiversity. Producing increasing amounts of food without increasing arable land has a major impact on protecting wildlife habitats.
"Biodiversity is essential for all life on earth. And all kinds of agriculture including organic farming is a threat to biodiversity," says Dr. Klaus Ammann on the importance of biodiversity. Dr. Ammann is an honorary professor emeritus and former director of the Botanical Garden at the University of Bern in Switzerland. "There are many ways of doing better in agriculture, but one of the most efficient and best ways is biotechnology."
"I've studied this carefully, and the evidence is fairly clear on certain points," says The Honorable Lord Taverne on the safety of genetically modified foods. Lord Taverne is a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom Parliament and founder of the charity Sense about Science. "It's reduced the use of pesticides. It produces greater productivity. And, if it reduces the amount of farmland you have to use, it can actually be very beneficial to biodiversity."
REASON #2: Increased yield and income from biotech crops improves the quality of life for farmers in developing countries.
Small- and large-scale family farms worldwide are benefiting from increased yields, reduced production costs, or both in some instances to create significantly improved net economic returns as a result of genetically modified food crops.
"If you look at the adoption of biotech crops since 1996, it's been on a significant upward curve in terms of the area planted. And the primary driver of that has been the economic benefits that farmers have derived from it US$28 billion worth of extra farm income to the farmers who have used the technology," says Graham Brookes about the advantages of biotechnology in agriculture. Brookes is an agricultural economist and director of PG Economics in England. "Now that increase in farm income has been spread across all the countries that have used the technology, both in the developed world and in developing countries."
Of the 10.3 million farmers who planted biotech crops in 22 countries in 2006, 90 percent were small, resource-poor farmers from 11 developing countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, Columbia, Honduras, India, Mexico, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay. In these areas, the increased income from biotech crops makes a contribution to the economics of family farms and the alleviation of poverty.
"Poverty today is a rural phenomenon. 80 percent of the poor people that we have on this planet today are farmers or people that work on farms," explains Dr. James. "So, therefore, if you can introduce biotech crops that will increase the income of these people, then you are making a direct contribution to the alleviation of poverty."
"If we give important technologies to grow more food in poor places better seed varieties, better ways to manage soil nutrients, better ways to manage plant pathogens it's going to create livelihoods. It's going to create income in the villages. It's going to convert what is now sub-subsistence agriculture into commercial farming. helping the poorest of the poor to invest in a sustainable future for themselves," says Dr. Jeffrey Sachs about the pros of genetically modified foods in alleviating hunger in developing countries. Dr. Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute and of the United Nations Millennium Project.
As agricultural productivity increases in the developing world, it also drives economic growth and expands opportunities to trade, resulting in more and better jobs, better health care and better education. "We interviewed 10,000 farmers spread across India," says Dr. Laveesh Bhandari, economist and director of Indicus Analytics in India. "What our study shows is that the impact on overall development of the household and the community is quite phenomenal in Bt cotton-producing areas. Greater incomes, greater access to healthcare services, greater education, and on many different dimensions we find that Bt cotton production makes the farmer, the household and the community better off."
Global population projections suggest that by 2020, there will be an additional 1.2 billion people on the planet, which is equivalent to the population of Africa and South America combined. "Looking ahead to the year 2050, we will have to produce the food and fiber for something approaching 10 billion people," says Dr. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient for his leadership role in the Green Revolution to increase food production. "Can we do it? I say yes. If we continue to develop technology including more widespread application of biotechnology."
© 2007 Monsanto Company. All rights reserved. The copyright holder consents to the use of this material and the images in the published context only and solely for the purpose of promoting the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.
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