Green Thumbs and GMOs

A friend just recommended this op-ed published in the Boston Globe on Sunday.  The title and subtitle say it all: “Green Thumbs: Genetically engineered crops are more environmentally friendly than organic ones.”  The author, Elliot Entis, argues that:

There is a green revolution going on, “doubly green’’ according to ecologist Gordon Conway, but it’s one the organic movement does not want to join. This revolution relies on modern biotechnology to create crop hybrids that can better utilize our scarce resources, and there’s the rub: the science is not trusted by organic farmers, and it plays against their economic interests.


The organic movement is largely a romantic ideal, far removed in many ways from science. It believes it is environmentally friendly, but it largely avoids science. True environmentalists look at the facts, and those facts do not support the growth of organic farming as a way to feed the world. However, with few exceptions, environmental organizations do not admit to this publicly. Why? Because they share a constituency: citizens who oppose certain elements of mass production farming, who yearn for a simpler time, when things were more natural. But this constituency is built on a shared belief system about the past, not the future.

At some point the contradiction between what organic farming leads to — more land devoted to farming, higher food prices, less biodiversity — and the goals of environmentalists — sustainability, more biodiversity – will fracture this alliance.

Skeptics, including many in the article’s comment thread, argue that a guy like Elliot Entis can’t be trusted, since he has a financial interest in the success of biotechnology and genetically engineered foods.  But those in the biotech industry aren’t the only ones saying these things.

As I wrote last October here on Open Market, environmental guru Stewart Brand has been saying the same thing for years.  And the UK’s Royal Society, one of the most highly respected scientific bodies in the world issued a report last fall calling for broader use of biotech crops and other technologies to bring about a “sustainable intensification” in global agriculture.

And just today, the US National Academy of Sciences’s National Research Council issued an in-depth study on The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.  The NRC study concluded that “when best management practices are implemented, GE crops have been effective at reducing pest problems with economic and environmental benefits”.  Among the reports more specific findings:

  • “Adoption of herbicide-resistant crops could help improve soil and water quality.”
  • “Targeting specific insect pests with Bt toxins in corn and cotton has been successful, and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops.”
  • “Many adopters of GE crops have experienced either lower costs of production or higher yields, and sometimes both.”
  • “Farmers who previously faced high levels of insect pests that were difficult to treat before insect-resistant crops have particularly benefited from applying lower amounts of or less expensive insecticides.”
  • “More effective management of weeds and insects also means that farmers may not have to apply insecticides or till for weeds as often.”

An overwhelming amount of scientific evidence amassed during the past two decades suggests overwhelmingly that genetically engineered foods have been a huge boon for American farmers, consumers, and the environment.