Friday, February 07, 2003

This comprehensive literature review of the environmental effects of transgenic crops came out in Plant Journal [requires Synergy subscription] a month ago, but I just got around to reading it:
There is an increasing body of evidence from industrial and developing countries that current GM crops, in conjunction with conventional agricultural practices, can offer a sufficiently safe and effective technology that may contribute to a better, cost effective, sustainable and productive agriculture. Experience of the last 5 years has demonstrated that the promises of current GM crops have met the expectations of large and small farmers in both industrialised and developing countries, and established an appreciable market share. The discussion whether we or others can afford to ignore such benefits deserves more attention and support. The risk of not using GM crops, particularly in relation to developing countries where the technology may have most to offer, should also be considered more explicitly. In such discussions, the uncompromising, almost dogmatic, position against GM crops of a representative from a highly influential environmentalist group may be as regrettable as it may turn out to be irresponsible. A ban on GM crops could limit the options of farmers and be imprudent rather than precautionary. Governments, supported by the global scientific and development community, must ensure continued safe and effective testing and implement harmonised regulatory programmes that inspire public confidence.

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to enter any GM crop discussion without preconceptions. Polarisation works well in the media. Media coverage, and a diminished public trust in regulatory authorities may explain why GM crops have met rancorous public resistance in Europe. There seems a current tendency in Western societies to take the bearers of bad news more seriously than the bearers of good news. Social change and technical innovation is looked upon with a sense of disquiet, and the expected benefits are given less credence than the feared risks. It is very difficult to change such attitudes, as it depends largely on subjective perceptions, enforced by fairly extreme cognitive dissonance. Focussing on the prime goal of the GM crop and making a clear distinction between goals that could also have been accomplished with plant breeding (at supposedly a time loss) and goals that could not, may depolarise discussions.

Many of the crop traits being modified by transgenes are the same as those being targeted for many years by plant breeding. The impacts identified for GM crops are therefore very similar to the impact from traditional breeding and have been the integral part of agriculture for many years. Consequently, the risks of growing most GM crops on the environment or ecosystems will be similar to the effects of growing, processing and consuming similar new cultivars from traditional breeding. In view of the problems of current day agriculture, it will be largely counterproductive to re-evaluate the potential environmental effects of traditionally bred crops. Overall, the potential environmental and ecological impact of GM crops, when framed in the context of current-day crops, technologies and practices, if not neutral or innocuous, should in many cases be judged preferable to the impact of the practices the GM crops are designed to replace. The challenge is then to identify as efficiently and as early as possible, the few examples for which this is not the case. Whenever and wherever unresolved questions arise concerning undesired impacts of GM crops, science-based evaluations should be used on a case-by-case approach to answer them to the best of our ability.

[ref.s removed for legibility]

I might be getting ready to concede the point, especially considering recent discussions of the havoc plants can wreck without any engineering at all. As an aside, let me point out what a retarded, disingenous, and utterly sleazy argument it is to say that GM crops are no worse than conventional "alien species" transplants. So what? Do you think your rigorous scientific logic can bludgeon us into believing that since bad idea y is not worse than bad idea x, it is a good idea? Because the only reply to that is fuck you. Which is why it is so fascinating to watch scientists squirm as they try to quantify some kind of cognitive dissonance that prevents the rest of us from falling to our knees before their rock-hard contributions to our salvation. Which consist of what, again? The FAO wants to know too:

Professor Louise Fresco, assistant director general in the agriculture department at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, spoke of how 85 per cent of transgenic crops such as maize, canola and cotton, are designed to reduce labour and input costs. However, crops such as chickpea and cassava that would help tackle poverty and hunger are not being cultivated as extensively.

'There is a molecular divide between the rich and the poor,' claimed Professor Fresco.


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