Category: Biotechnology

The Future of Biotechnology in Farming

There is a great deal of controversy over genetically modified crops; some countries have banned their growth entirely, while others have placed strict regulatory restrictions on production. As the world’s population continues to grow (it is projected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050), global food production will have to increase by 70 percent in order to meet demand.

Scientists have discovered ways to improve crops by manipulating plant DNA, creating a product that better resists insects and stands up to herbicides, allowing farmers to grow crops using fewer pesticides. For example, biotechnology company Monsanto created a crop known as Bollgard Bt cotton — a strain of cotton injected with the Bacillus thuringinesis bacterium which produces its own insecticide, reducing the need for additional pesticide. The product was introduced in India in 2002, and its benefits became evident:

  • Yields improved with the use of Bt cotton. One particular cotton farm increased its yield by 7,625.7 pounds per hectare while simultaneously reducing costs by $143.32 per hectare (due to decreased use of pesticides).
  • With more money in their pockets, Indian farmers have been able to upgrade their machinery, advancing the country’s agricultural economy.

Brazil is currently experimenting with biotechnology and sugarcane. While Brazil produces 588 million tons of sugarcane per year (half the world’s output), it could double that production; half of its potential crop is currently lost to pests, weeds and drought.

Biotechnology offers the potential to combat world hunger by greatly increasing crop yields and producing hardier plants that can withstand pests, drought and more. But because many countries do not allow the production or importation of biotech crops, the ability of these crops to feed the globe is limited.

Congressional Hearing on Biotechnology

The Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture called a hearing to discuss the societal benefits of biotechnology and study the perception of it in domestic and international culture.

  • While media may display biotechnology in a different light, both republicans and democrats agreed that biotechnology was our future, and must remain relevant.
  • Democrats responded that by increasing yields, we can decrease the amount of land and water used to grow crops. This would in turn lower our carbon emissions.
  • Under the guise of trying to inform the public about biotechnology, it ends up being misinformation. Which is why labeling cannot take place.
  • A survey was done to ask consumers whether they enjoyed Biotech chicken which was resistant to diseases, or chicken fed antibiotics to counteract diseases — 85% said that they preferred Biotech chicken.
  • Corporations must begin to learn how to spread goodwill amongst its consumers. As of right now, Monsanto and the other corporations are doing a horrible job.
  • In order to inform the public better, a line of communication must be open between consumers and producers. Farmers understand the key benefits biotechnology has to offer, but consumers have not jumped on board yet.
  • One witness stated that increasing pressure on organics will actually put her out of business. Rising grain prices that are organic only cost more than twice the amount that biotech farming does.
  • A study was recently done that found the risk associated between conventionally farmed produce and biotech produce was exactly the same.
  • The reason that biotechnology is receiving such a bad name is because activists are misinformed and continue to spread lies about it.

Genetically modified organisms: NYT/Grist gets it right; Hawaii County Council gets it wrong!

I have written extensively concerning the benefits of GMO/Biotech foods. As I have argued at length, the best available evidence shows that they are safe and have the potential to be tremendously beneficial to present and future generations. 

Sadly, on the topic of GMO foods, even more than on most other environmental scare stories hyped by environmental alarmists, the scare has won the day in Hawaii.  The state has a thriving GMO industry that employs thousands of people.  Yet, despite testimony by noted scientists and the hard work of some responsible public servants, as reported by the American Council for Science and Health, the county council for the main island voted to ban the cultivation of GMO crops except for two already established crops.

An interesting piece in the New York Times points out that even the environmentally beyond reproach online publication Grist has now released a series of reports largely supporting the safety and efficacy of GMO crops.  The Times report also examines the psychology of GMOphobes and discusses why, even when a source they usually trust verifies the value of biotech foods to the world, they will be unlikely to change their minds.

Another false bio-tech claim busted

The journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a study claiming a link between genetically modified corn and cancer in laboratory rats. Scientists pointed out several flaws in the study, which was published in 2012.

Scientists showed the study used a strain of rats particularly susceptible to cancer, with or without genetically modified corn. The study also evaluated too small a rat population, rendering it prone to random disparities. Moreover, the study did not present control group information sufficient to rule out other cancer-causing factors.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) praised the retraction of the study.

“We here at ACSH have weighed in on this study in the past” said Dr. Ruth Kava in an ACSH press statement. “We congratulated the European food safety agency on rejecting this study almost immediately upon its publication, and now we must congratulate the journal for retraction of the paper. But we would have been even more pleased to see this study rejected from publication in the first place — it doesn’t speak well for their peer review process that this study was published at all. However, it is encouraging to see that scientific integrity was upheld — even if it took a year to happen!”

Scientists and public health officials have never documented any instances of genetically modified foods causing cancer or other negative health impacts.

ACSH provides a more detailed assessment of the flaws in the study here

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News, a national monthly… (read full bio)

On Biotech: People 2, Fearmongers 0!

On Biotech: People 2, Fearmongers  0!

When you think Washington State and politics, you think blue, as in a solidly liberal, Democrat state.  Yet, on Tuesday, the people of Washington State spoke relatively authoritatively, rejecting an initiative that would have required foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled.  The vote was 54.8% opposed to labeling and 45.2% in favor of it.  This follows a failed bid in sunny, liberal California that attempted in 2012 to do the same thing.

I have written at length about the harms caused anti-technology luddites attempting to restrict GMO foods or trying to get them treated as if they are strange and different.  Others and myself and have also written of the virtues of biotech crops.

If environmental lobbyists can’t win in California or Washington, they should move on to another scare story.

Fortunately, the good citizens of these two states saw the arguments for labeling for just what they were, hype, and recognized the fact that biotech food is ubiquitous and has been shown to be safe in crop after crop, product after product.

The starving and malnourished people of the world should rejoice over the common sense displayed by the citizens in CA and WA in the past year.  I know I do!

Biotech ruling a set-back for sound science and progress in the worldwide war on hunger

Two important energy/environmental policy decisions were made yesterday that have serious implications both geopolitically and in the U.S.  One of the decisions – the one that got all the media attention – was President Obama’s choice to sink domestic offshore oil production and force America further into subservience and abject dependence on foreign oil supplies.  I’ve written briefly already about why an offshore moratorium is wrongheaded for a variety of reasons.  I have also written about the value, economic, national security and environmental, of domestic offshore oil production.  This topic will not detain me further here.

I want to write about the second decision; the one that flew largely under the radar.  A Federal court on Tuesday ordered the Monsanto to plow up and destroy its entire stock of genetically modified sugar beets.  The beets had been approved for use in 1995.  The action by this activist judge is the first court ordered destruction of a biotech crop. 

Sugar beets account for more than half of the nation’s sugar supply, and Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beets have been popular with farmers as they have been genetically altered to withstand sprayings of the chemical herbicide Roundup, making weed management easier for producers.

 Despite claims to the contrary, this judge reached outside U.S. law to European shores where biotech policy is ruled by the parsimonious “precautionary principle:” which basically says that no novel product or method of production should be put into use or circulation until it can be shown to pose no harm to humans or the environment.  This principle does not foster progress and innovation but rather, unreflectively supports the status quo, stagnation and decline.  The judge based his decision environmentalist’s claims that the use of the crop might lead to the production of super weeds, increased pesticide use and pose a threat of contamination to organic beets.  These same fears were raised before the USDA when it approved the beets and have been raised in an effort to halt the development, testing and introduction of every previous genetically altered crop.  Despite widespread use, none of these crops have ever been shown to pose unusual threats to human health or the environment. 

 U.S. law does not enshrine the precautionary principle but rather treats GMO crops like conventionally bred new varieties.  Whether or not they are allowed into the market or halted is supposed to be based upon a rational assessment of the types of harms that might be posed by the crop, the likelihood that such harms might materialize, and a balancing of the relative benefits and costs.  In other words GMO policies are supposed to be informed and driven by the application of sound science and careful weighing of the human and environmental benefits from the crop against the reasonably anticipated harms.  This judge has reversed the standard. 

 This action throws a monkey wrench into the burgeoning biotech product industry – as the same standard could now be applied by this and other courts to other crops whether in use or development and to pharmaceuticals and other products that use genetic engineering.  The implications of this ruling for the environment, the worlds hungry, and the U.S. economy are profound and dire.

GM Fish: It’s What’s for Dinner!

In an article in Heartland’s Environment & Climate News I detail the FDA’s long overdue approval of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption — the Aquabounty Salmon.  After ten years of development, testing, paperwork, hearings, etc… the FDA found that the salmon was safe for human consumption and posed no threat to the environment. 

Nuclear Power Development: Removing Roadblocks

The use of nuclear power to generate electricity is growing worldwide. More than 100 nuclear power plants are under construction or in various stages of planning, and many existing plants are expanding.

President Obama recently announced an $8.33 billion federal loan guarantee for the construction of a pair of nuclear reactors in Georgia. The president also said he wants to triple the amount of loans the federal government guarantees in order to jumpstart seven to 10 new nuclear power projects over the next decade. The  guarantees should lower borrowing costs and make financing easier to obtain. However, until the government meets its legal obligation to provide storage for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, only a few new nuclear reactors are likely to be built. Fortunately, solutions are available if the government is willing to embrace them.

Politics and Nuclear Waste. The most problematic nuclear waste in the United States is spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. The problem is largely a creation of the federal government. In the early 1970s, the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission tightened regulations on the nascent U.S. nuclear recycling industry, which increased costs and made recycling uneconomical. As a result, the sole recycling plant in the United States closed and construction on a second facility was halted. In 1977, due to fear of nuclear proliferation, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order that officially banned nuclear fuel reprocessing.

With waste building up, Congress passed the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (amended in 1988) to ensure proper long-term storage. The act required the U.S. Department of Energy to develop and maintain an underground storage facility for nuclear waste:

  • The site had to meet strict criteria, including the ability to safely contain 77,000 metric tons of material for up to 10,000 years. 
  • The material had to be accessible for 50 years in the event President Carter’s ban was reversed and a recycling program was allowed. 
  • To pay for storage, a tax was levied on the nuclear power industry. 

After 26 years and more than $8 billion (collected from nuclear operators), the Energy Department determined that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was a satisfactory storage place. However, despite scientific evidence that Yucca Mountain is safe, lawsuits and political wrangling have prevented use of the site as a storage facility. In fact, the Obama administration recently zeroed out spending on Yucca Mountain, announcing that the program would be terminated.

Read the full NCPA Brief Analysis, “Nuclear Power Development: Removing Roadblocks.”