Biotech and the “Greening” of Agriculture

During 2009 I was a member of a National Resource Council (NRC) committee assessing the impact of genetically engineered (GE) crops in US agriculture. When I joined the committee I thought that the main finding will be those of economists, like myself, who realize that GE crops did a lot of good by increasing yields and reducing costs. The two main types of GE crops that have been adopted widely are pest resistant varieties that control insects and herbicide resistant varieties that allow the use of herbicides like RoundUp to control weeds. GE varieties have been adopted to a large extent in corn, soybean and cotton in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and to some extent in India and China and they haven’t been adopted in wheat and rice and the European Union has practically banned the use of GE varieties. As expected, we found that the use of GE varieties reduce the cost of pest control, losses from pests, and enhanced flexibility in farm management. We also found that use of GE varieties increased workers’ safety. Many economic studies also documented that adoption of GE varieties has a significant impact on yield, especially in developing countries where they solved pest problems that couldn’t have been solved otherwise and this increase in yield led to significant reduction in commodity prices. In other words, consumers especially poor ones benefitted from GE crops because food products become cheaper. An important example is expansion of soybean production in Argentina, frequently as part of a double cropping system, which was feasible because of the adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties. This increase in production enabled meeting the increased demand for meats in Asia associated with their economic growth mitigating increases in prices or expansion of agricultural land that would have occurred otherwise. Another example is cotton – a crop where adoption of GE varieties was widespread globally (US, China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and many more). The yield effect in developing countries was spectacular. Actually acreage in many countries declined and during the food crisis of 2008 and 2009 this was the only agricultural commodity whose price was low by historical standards. Moreover, the economic gains from GE varieties were shared between the seed companies, farmers, and consumers (it varies by crops and countries).
To my surprise the main results of the report were not the economic ones, but rather the environmental ones. In addition to the obvious benefits of control of agricultural expansion because of higher yields, the report suggests that adoption of GE has fewer adverse effects on soil, water, and biodiversity than the non-GE varieties. That adoption of herbicide resistant varieties enhance the adoption of conservation tillage practices that improved the soil retention and quality and probably improved surface water quality. Adoption in insect resistant crops led to replacement of broad spectrum insecticides and their impacts on health and may lead to favorable impacts on beneficial insects. There is very little evidence of gene flow problems. Obviously there are concerns over the emergence of resistance, mismanagement of GE crops, but this is part of the challenge of further improvement in practices and regulations that face agriculture.
The report suggests that both on economic and environmental grounds, GE varieties provide significant benefits and that these applications of modern knowledge in molecular and cell biology should expand to other crops. My own research suggests that if some of the barriers for the adoption of GE crops in European countries as well as some African countries would be removed, the increase in supply would enable us to counter some of the significant food commodity price rises that occurred in 2007 and 2008. Furthermore, the report and my own research documented that there are many other beneficial traits in different stages of development such as improved nutritional quality, drought tolerance, and increased shelf life. New traits can improve the digestibility of soybean to reduce the GHG emissions of animal production (less land and less farts). However, the European banning of GE varieties in 1999 and excessive regulation seems to slow the development of new traits and especially their commercialization. Thus, GE varieties have significant unrealized potential.
GE crops are applications of some of the basic tools of modern molecular and cell biology to agriculture. They take advantage of our better understanding of the DNA and the inner workings of the cell. These technologies became the major tools in medicine, but in agriculture they got a bad name – “Frankenfood”. A lot of the traditional techniques in crop breeding were much slower and much more crude. People replace one variety with another without understanding all of the consequences, whereas with GE varieties we replace one gene at a time. The demonization of GE crops is tragic because of their potential and the challenges that face humanity. Population growth and increased incomes are likely to increase the demand for food. Energy shortages may lead to increased demand for fuel produced from crops (modern biofuels as well as good ol’ wood). Adaptation to climate change will require the capacity to quickly and accurately modify crop systems. Agricultural biotechnology provides an incredible arsenal of tools to address these challenges with much less deforestation and scarcities than otherwise. Of course, biotechnology is not the only solution. It can complement organic farming that relies much less on pesticides. It can provide new tools that enable multiple cropping. It can be part of systems that enhance precision in farming that utilize less input, minimize pollution and result in more productivity.