People everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the use of what Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science” — the “science of things that aren’t so” — to justify government regulation or other policies. It is a specialty of self-styled public-interest groups, whose agenda is often not to protect public health or the environment, but rather to oppose the research, products, or technology that they happen to dislike.
For example, modern techniques of genetic engineering — also known as biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or genetic modification (GM) — provide the tools to make old plants do spectacular new things. Yet these tools are relentlessly misrepresented to the public.
More than 17 million farmers in roughly three dozen countries worldwide are using GM crop varieties to produce higher yields with fewer inputs and lower environmental impact. Most of these new varieties are designed to resist crop-ravaging pests and diseases, so that farmers can adopt environmentally friendlier no-till practices and use more benign herbicides.
Critics of GM products insist that they are untested, unsafe, unregulated, unnecessary and unwanted. However, the facts show otherwise.
For starters, there is a broad and longstanding consensus among scientists that recombinant DNA techniques are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier methods for genetic modification, and that gene transfer using these precise, predictable molecular techniques does not present any risk per se.
After the cultivation of more than 1 billion hectares of GM crops worldwide –– and the consumption in North America alone of more than 2 trillion servings of foods that contain GM ingredients –– not a single case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem has been documented. Meanwhile, the benefits of GM-crop cultivation include higher yields, lower use of chemical pesticides and biofuel production.
Far from being under-regulated, GM plants (and other organisms) have been subjected to expensive, discriminatory and unscientific over-regulation that has limited the commercial success of maize, cotton, canola, soybeans and papaya, among other crops.
In fact, opponents often assert that commercial cultivation of GM crops has been a disappointment, because it has offered little direct benefit to consumers. However, many advantages have already been realized. And GM crops currently in development will deliver even more direct and easily identifiable consumer benefits.
Consider, for example, that because GM crops require less chemical pesticide, fewer farmers and their families risk being poisoned by runoff into waterways and ground water. From 1996 to 2009, the amount of pesticide that was sprayed on crops worldwide fell by 393 million kilograms — 1.4 times the total amount of pesticide applied annually to crops in the EU.
Furthermore, lower levels of mycotoxins in pest-resistant corn mean fewer birth defects, such as spina bifida, and less toxicity to livestock. Such staple food crops also can be modified to contain additional nutrients.
No-till farming techniques, in which the soil is not plowed, mean less soil erosion, less runoff of agricultural chemicals, and lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions by mechanized farm equipment. From 1996 to 2009, the shift to biotech crops reduced carbon emissions by 17.6 billion kilograms, the equivalent of removing 7.8 million cars from the road for a year.