Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Concerns have been raised that GMOs will cause genes to be transferred from our food into our bodies, thus “polluting” our genetic make-up. There is no logical reason why genes from genetically modified organisms should effect our genes any more than those from the trillions of bacteria and the plates full of food that pass through our system every day.

Having commented on these general concerns about GMOs, let me turn to the many benefits that will be available from a responsibly managed program of genetic modification.

From an environmental perspective there are three main areas of positive impact on ecosystems. First, genetically modified crops will generally result in a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. This will result in a dramatic reduction to the impact on non-target species. For example, when chemical or biological sprays are used to combat pests of the butterfly family (Lepidoptera), all species of butterfly and moth are killed. By contrast, when Bt cotton or Bt corn are grown, only those butterflies or moths that try to feed on the crop are severely impacted. Reducing chemical sprays also results in a cost saving to the farmer.

Second, and perhaps the most important environmental benefit of genetic modification, is the ability to increase the productivity of food crops. Along with other advances in technology, chemicals, and genetics, GMOs will often result in increased yields due to pest resistance, drought resistance, more efficient metabolism, and other genetic traits. It is a fact of arithmetic that the higher the yield of food per unit of land, the less land must be cleared to grow our food. Intensive agricultural production, much of which can be achieved through genetic modification, is a powerful tool to reduce the loss of the world’s natural ecosystems. The less land that is required to grow our food, the more that can be retained as forest and wilderness, where biodiversity can flourish. There is no doubt that when natural ecosystems such as forest are converted to agriculture there is a huge loss in biodiversity. Genetic modification could mitigate or even help reverse the continued loss of forest, particularly in the tropical developing countries where this trend is most severe.

Third, the development of herbicide tolerant varieties of food crops allows the adoption of low and zero tillage systems. This results in a considerable reduction in soil erosion, both conserving native soils and reducing the amount of chemical fertiliser inputs.

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