Last week, environmentalist Mark Lynas presented an articulate and painfully honest apology for his significant role in starting the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s. He said that it was the most successful campaign in which he has ever been involved, but after finally looking into the science, he now deeply regrets what he and others accomplished. While it is gratifying to have a figure like Lynas make such a turn-about, it does nothing to mitigate the damage of which this anti-science movement has perpetrated on humanity and the environment. Ideally, such a dramatic reversal will induce others in the movement to rethink their positions. but this sort of openness to letting the science speak into bias is likely to be rare. Lynas is right that anti-GMO campaigners have been extremely successful at blocking, delaying, or destroying potential crop improvements via biotechnology. Lynas had a lot of ground to cover in his speech, so
From what I read on various blogs and comment streams, there is way too much angst out there about GMO crops. Too much angst because every significant panel of scientists that has reviewed this technology has concluded that it is as safe as any other domesticated food crop. Too much angst because the reality is that only a small number of crop species will ever be genetically engineered for commercial use. There are four main reasons why this is the case: 1. Brand protectionism 2. Unfavorable economics 3. Other ways to achieve the same goals, and 4. Anti-GMO activism
The graph above shows the relative production of these major US row crops comparing the years 1993-1995 (just prior to the introduction of biotechnology enhanced crops) and 2008-10 (the most recent available data which covers a a span which comes 12-15 years after biotech. Soybean production has expanded 47% in this time-frame while corn is up 58% (far more than the quantity now being diverted for biofuel). Both of those crops are predominantly planted to “GMO” varieties, while the various segments of the wheat crop remain non-GMO. Until 2004 it looked as if North American growers would also get to plant biotech wheat, but a vigorous campaign led by Greenpeace succeeded in blocking the technology. Many major European and Japanese grain buyers were concerned about potential consumer push-back (based on Greenpeace efforts), so they made a coordinated threat to boycott all North American wheat exports if any commercial GMO wheat
In 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA conducted a detailed survey of Organic agriculture in the US. Participation rates were high with Organic growers, so the data is quite reliable. What it showed was probably surprising to many. After at least three decades of “rapid growth,” Organic now accounts for 0.52% of harvested US cropland. NASS did not go ahead and compare the yields of Organic crops to equivalent data for the rest of agriculture, but all that data is publicly available and I have posted a comparative analysis on SCRIBD (which is also embedded at the end of this post). Organic crop yields are generally lower, but it is hard to put that into perspective.