The exhaustive and cautious new report from the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine leaves no room for doubt that genetically engineered crops are as safe or safer, and are certainly better for the environment, than conventionally bred crops.
The European Union was wrong to reject them 25 years ago and is wrong to continue rejecting this beneficial technology. The European Commission conceded in 2010 that GM crops are not per se more risky than, for example, conventional plant-breeding technologies, but still makes it all but impossible to grow them.
Insect-resistant “Bt” crops in particular have better yields and need fewer pesticides, resulting in “higher insect biodiversity on farms”, the academies’ report concludes.
Back in the 1990s I argued that organic farmers — who had used Bt as a spray for decades — should have embraced genetic modification from the start, instead of campaigning against it: it was going to reduce insecticide use, which was what they said they wanted.
In future genetically engineered crops will be even safer, even better for the environment and also better for human health. It is a disgrace that Greenpeace still campaigns against golden rice, a vitamin-enhanced variety that could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year.
Papayas, bananas, cotton and other tropical crops are beginning to benefit from biotechnology, and the main beneficiaries are small-scale farmers, not multinational businesses.
But opposition from rich westerners adds to the cost of bringing such crops to the market, restricting the spread of the technology and benefiting large companies that can afford the regulatory price and can face down the onslaught of the big green pressure groups.
The Greens, having begun to encounter “donor fatigue” on the topic of climate change, have recently upped their opposition to genetically engineered crops, especially in America.
The new Vermont GMO-labelling law that comes into effect in July is effectively a national law. This means that despite failing to impose state-wide initiatives in California, Oregon and Washington (three of the most liberal states you can imagine) the Greens have managed to win nationwide by turning the legislature of a tiny, and otherwise unimportant, state.
Labelling GM food but not other forms of nourishment leaves consumers with the impression that there is something wrong, and food manufacturers then pull out of using the crops: Danone has recently made this decision. The national academies report makes the obvious point that genetic engineering is a method, not a category of crop. It makes no sense to single it out for special labelling — regulation should be based on traits, not techniques. After all, we don’t regulate food safety according to whether food is boiled or roasted, but according to what’s in it.
The report points out that “emerging genetic technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend”. Gene editing in particular will soon allow scientists to improve crops in ways that have none of the even theoretical risks that the Greens have trumpeted. If Europe does not embrace biotech plants now, its agriculture will wilt.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.