New York Times article on genetic modification stirs scientists

A brisk exchange of views aboutr genetic modification has been generated by an article in the New York Times, “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30).

The article says:

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on largely unsubstantiated fears that they are unsafe to eat.

But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

A Monsanto executive, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robert T.Fraley, is among those who has responded. .

Whether they’re growing crops on thousands of acres in Illinois or on a small plot in India, farmers are smart business people who won’t waste time or money on tools that don’t deliver results.

When nearly 20 million farmers around the world choose to invest in genetically modified seeds for two decades, it is because farmers are seeing better harvests.

Extensive, third-party studies document the significant benefits farmers have seen using G.M. crops that range from more efficient weed and insect control, to reduced use of insecticides, to reduced erosion and improved soil health, to increased crop yields.

In the United States alone, in the 20 years since the introduction of G.M. crops in 1996, soybean yields have increased by a remarkable 28 percent and corn yields by nearly 32 percent. This is the real story of how farmers are meeting the increasing global demand for food using G.M. seeds.

G.M.O. crops are not a silver bullet, but they are a very important and productive tool for modern and sustainable agriculture. With a global population expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050, farmers need every available tool to produce more food sustainably. G.M.O.s are a vital part of the solution, and the voice of the farmer should be represented.

Peter Scott, a fellow and former president of the International Society for Plant Pathology, is one of three contributors to the debate whose letters can be f0und here. He writes:

In “Doubts About a Promised Bounty” (“Uncertain Harvest” series, front page, Oct. 30), you say “genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

We misjudge genetic modification’s potential by considering just yield and pesticide use over 20 years.

“Fooling with nature” is nothing new: Crops are genetic variants of wild plants selected by humans over millenniums. Our latest tools include G.M. — allowing precision and wider choice of useful qualities. Given the challenge of global food security, it is foolish to overlook any new tool in the breeder’s toolbox.

Early G.M. users overplayed their hand if they predicted an imminent “bounty.” Use of G.M. is focused on a handful of genes conferring insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. This gives little indication of G.M.’s potential to deliver new qualities to crops of the future.

Here is one example: Rice-based diets are deficient in a precursor of vitamin A, causing blindness and death in children. G.M. is delivering “golden rice” with novel genes that correct the deficiency.

We should take a broader view, as described in the August issue of Food Security.

Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says:

Your article confirms what the National Academy of Sciences and the Union of Concerned Scientists have found: Genetically modified organisms have neither been “feeding the world” nor reducing pesticide use. The industry has made billions selling farmers (and the taxpayers who subsidize them) flashy tools that have failed to achieve their grandly exaggerated objectives.

If the goal of our agricultural system is what’s best for farmers, eaters and the environment, there’s a better way to achieve it: agroecology. Just one example can be found in an ongoing Iowa State University experiment, which has demonstrated over 15 years that rotational cropping systems that work with nature (rather than against it) enhance yields and profits for farmers while reducing pesticide and fertilizer inputs and environmental impact.

While the agribusiness industry can’t be expected to develop holistic agricultural systems without a clear product to sell, the government owes taxpayers solutions that deliver. So far agroecological strategies are underfunded. The next president must increase investment in these cost-effective farming improvements.

Sudhindra Kulkarni, a member of the Global Farmer Network,says: .

I realized the benefits of genetically modified crops with my own eyes, on my own farm. I grow G.M. cotton near my village, Malli, in the state of Karnataka, India.

As a farmer, I can say that based on my past experience of farming, since the arrival of G.M. cotton, my crops are free of pests and healthier, and my farm has become sustainable.

Farming is a constant struggle, but before the advent of G.M. cotton, it was a losing battle. The bollworm pests attacked our crops relentlessly. We fought them as best we could, but our harvests were meager. I thought I would barely scrape by, as my father and grandfather before me had done.

Then came the commercialization of G.M. cotton. We started to plant it a dozen years ago. It transformed our lives. Finally, we had a way to beat the bollworm pest, increasing our yield from one ton to four tons per hectare. Cultivation of G.M. cotton still demands dedication and discipline, but now I have technology on my side.

Today, most of India’s cotton farmers use G.M. products. It’s the only way to farm sustainably.

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