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After 15 years, the ecological and economic dividends are big

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is on genetically modified crops:

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on
the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the
automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably,
adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a
policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media
against reporting the benefits.

Shale gas is one example, genetically modified food another,
where the good news is deemed less newsworthy than the bad. A
recent French study claimed that both pesticides and GM corn fed
to cancer-susceptible strains of rats produced an increase in
tumors. The study has come in for withering criticism from
mainstream scientists for its opaque data, small samples,
unsatisfactory experimental design and unconventional statistical
analysis, yet it has still gained headlines world-wide. (In
published responses, the authors have stood by their results.)

The French study contradicts a Japanese paper that used larger samples,
longer trials and accepted experimental designs, yet received
virtually no notice because it found no increase in cancer in rats
fed on GM crops. This is a problem that’s bedeviled GM technology
from the start: Studies that find harm are shouted from the media
rooftops, those that do not are ignored.

So to redress the balance, I thought I’d look up the estimated
benefits of genetically modified crops. After 15 years of GM
planting, there’s ample opportunity-with 17 million farmers on
almost 400 million acres in 29 countries on six continents-to count
the gains from genetic modification of crop plants. A recent comprehensive report by Graham Brookes and
Peter Barfoot for a British firm, PG Economics, gives some rough
numbers. (The study was funded by Monsanto, which
has major operations in biotech, but the authors say the research
was independent of the company and published in two peer-reviewed

The most obvious benefit is yield increase. In 2010, the report
estimates, the world’s corn crop was 31 million tons larger and the
soybean crop 14 million tons larger than it would have been without
the use of biotech crops. The direct effect on farm incomes was an
increase of $14 billion, more than half of which went to farmers in
developing countries (especially those growing insect-resistant

In addition, a range of non-pecuniary benefits have been
recorded, from savings in fuel, time and machinery to a better
health and safety record on the farm (since less pesticide is
needed), shorter growing cycles and better quality of product. In
India-where the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-Biotech Applications says 88% of cotton is now genetically modified
to resist pests and insecticide use has halved-bee keepers are
losing fewer bees.

As this illustrates, the most striking benefits are
environmental. The report calculates that a cumulative total of 965
million pounds of pesticide have not been used because of the
adoption of GM crops. The biggest impacts are from insect-resistant
cotton and herbicide-tolerant maize, both of which need fewer
sprayings than their conventional equivalents.

The use of less fuel in farming GM crops results in less
carbon-dioxide emission. In addition, herbicide-tolerant GM crops
can often be grown with little or no plowing in stubble fields that
are sprayed with herbicides. The result is to allow more carbon to
remain in the soil, since plowing releases carbon as microbial
exhalation. Taken together, Messrs. Brookes and Barfoot estimate,
this means that the GM crops grown in 2010 had an effect on
carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 8.6 million cars off
the road.

There is a rich irony here. The rapidly growing use of shale gas
in the U.S. has also driven down carbon-dioxide emissions by
replacing coal in the generation of electricity. U.S. carbon
emissions are falling so fast they are now back to levels last seen
in the 1990s. So the two technologies most reliably and stridently
opposed by the environmental movement-genetic modification and
fracking-have been the two technologies that most reliably cut
carbon emissions.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal