Genetically modified crops use fewer pesticides than conventional crops. Far fewer. That’s not me saying it, that’s an enormous meta-analysis of 147 studies published just a couple of weeks ago. The difference is not small: we’re talking 37% less by volume, compounded over this huge range of studies.
It’s interesting how little play this story gets in the media. So much environmental reporting is intent on placing any story on a simple, green/not-green scale, which is really code for virtuous/vicious. The assumption is that these things move together: everyone knows GMOs are not green, and therefore they must use more pesticides, produce more GHG emissions, kill bees, the lot.
Reality isn’t that neat by a long shot. No-till agriculture sounds great, until you realize not-tilling raises weed pressures, which farmers respond to by just nuking them with extra herbicides. Organics sound great, but of course they give you lower yields, which means you need more land to produce the same amount of food, land that you can’t then use to plant trees, which trap carbon.
As “Green” turns into a marketing category, the culture’s ability to process this kind of complexity wanes. Who wants to buy a loaf of bread marked “GMO Free! Grown from wheat using 18.3% more pesticides and 14.9% more carbon emissions due to extra land-pressures arising from lower yields!”
As transgenics mature and more ambitious transformations are attempted in plants, these kinds of tradeoffs are likely to become more prominent. Some GMO research is now aiming at improving crop roots’ capacity to take up phosphorus from the soil, which will of course reduce the amount of fertilizer you need to reach a given yield level.
Hate fertilizer overuse? Here is Monsanto, with this transgenic maize that will help stamp it out!
Of course, for lots of activists GMOs aren’t really the issue, Monsanto is. Those guys could develop a GMO crop that ends global warming while giving Malala an education and people would still picket against it. Plenty of anti-GMO activists have a problem less with gene-splicing itself than with the economic system it’s part of. The easy “Monsanto-paid-you-didn’t-they?!” attack is now so ingrained for people it comes automatically, pretty much regardless of what a participant in one of these debates says. (Look for it in the comments section below!)
But even that’s not as straightforward as it once was, either, because some amazing genetic research is now being done by public research institutes with impeccable social credentials and no shareholders to speak of.
Take striga, the pretty purple flower pictured at the top of this post as it munches away on nutrients taken directly out of the roots of the sick maize plants in that field. Striga-resistant maize is now being developed by the same organizations that brought us the original Green Revolution. For my money, striga-resistant maize is the hardest transgenic crop to object to out there. It takes real bloody mindedness to harrumph the development of crops that ward off a pest that’s been destroying African livelihoods for as long as anyone can remember, doesn’t it?
Then there’s IRRI’s insanely ambitious C4 Rice project, which would remake the rice plant at its most fundamental level – the way it photosynthesizes – yielding a plant that looks like rice, produces rice, but eats sunlight like maize. The botanic equivalent of dropping a new, far more powerful engine into an old car, C4 rice promises to be vastly more productive than existing C3 varieties. The upshot would be much, much more food coming out of the same amount of land.
You can be against striga-resistant maize and C4 rice, of course, but then the onus is on you to say where all the extra land to produce the same amount of food should come from. We could chop down some forests, maybe. Or we could get all Malthusian and accept famine as a birth control method. I don’t find either of those alternatives especially appealing.
More and more crops like these are going to be developed, and as they come online, I think intellectually honest people are going to have to reconsider their opposition to GMOs in light of new evidence.
That’s a process that’s only now starting, and it won’t be quick. But maybe accepting the idea that there are tradeoffs involved and that our cognitive shortcuts for figuring out what’s green and what isn’t can lead us astray is as good a starting point as any.