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The Calm of the Genetically Modified Storm?

While the passionate and irrational debate about the health and environmental safety of biotech, or so-called genetically modified (GM), crops rages on, evidence of the potential they have to alleviate a variety of world problems, from food insecurity to global warming, continues to pile up. “Frankenfoods reduce global warming,” The Economist  declared in March. Its revelation is based on the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications’ (ISAAA) annual report showing that, for the first time, less developed countries grow more acres of GM crops than industrialized countries in 2012.

According to ISAAA, a not-for-profit organization, of the 420 million acres (170 million hectares) of GM crops planted in 2012, 52 percent of them are in less developed countries. Further, 90 percent of the farmers who benefited were “small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.” While much of the industrialized world (especially those pesky European blokes) continues to fear the rise of Frankenfood, farmers in less developed countries, primarily China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina, are embracing its potential, seeing a subsequent rise in farming income and decrease in pesticide use.

Now, a new study by economists at the Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany indicates that the introduction of GM cotton in India has reduced food insecurity among cotton growing communities by 15 to 20 percent. But a separate study by one of the same authors also warns of perils associated with the current regulatory environment. Because of the public’s apprehension to GM crops, in part stoked by activist fear-mongering, overregulation has become a real concern for the development of future biotechnology products.

As the world approaches a population of nine billion by 2050, GM crops can play an integral role in sustainable development. But, from the GM labeling debate to approval processes that sometimes last well over a decade, companies have become uncertain about the potential acceptance of their GM innovations, both by regulators and by consumers. As worldwide demand for food continues to grow, GM crops currently in development can continue to increase farmer yields and provide micronutrients to the undernourished, both benefits that accrue most to least-developed countries.

Don’t tell this to environmentalists though. Biotech crops already seem to be a sticking point as United States-European Union trade negotiations attempt to get off the ground (see here for example), while the EU has invoked the unscientific “precautionary principle” as justification for blocking biotech imports -- lest they desecrate sacred French and Italian country sides. Never mind the strong evidence presented in its report that GM crops provide multiple avenues for preserving Mother Earth and helping to feed the world’s one billion undernourished in the process.