The message came through loud and clear last week: Biotech crops are safe for consumers. A new report, this one by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine looked at thousands of studies and reiterated what a host of other studies have concluded: biotech crops, often called GMOs, pose no harm to consumers.
But the message that still needs to resonate with the public is that raising GMO crops is far better for the environment than their conventional alternatives.
Farmers know that, and studies back it up. Raising biotech crops, including crops with the Bt gene for insect resistance, have allowed farmers to significantly reduce pesticide applications, actually by more than one-third. The technology has also allowed farmers to use herbicides, like glyphosate, that are far easier on the environment than their predecessors.
And by the way, a new safety review by United Nations health experts said that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer.
A sour example
The environmental advantage of biotech crops, and the danger of shunning them, showed up starkly in a recent article by National Public Radio. It reported that Dakota sugar beet farmers are being forced to move away from biotech crops because candy makers and other food makers, reacting to anti-GMO rhetoric, are demanding non-GMO sugar.
The result isn’t sweet. Farmers planting GMO sugar beets could control weeds with a few passes of glyphosate. But reverting to non-GMO beets means they will be forced to spray their crop every 10 days or so with what one farmer called a "witches’ brew" of five or six different weed killers.
That type of environmental backsliding, with harsher chemicals and more frequent applications, could easily be repeated in Iowa’s corn and soybeans. All it would take is for GMO opponents to scare food makers enough to reformulate their products away from biotech crops.
It’s curious, isn’t it? If you scratch opponents of biotech crops, I suspect they would all bleed pretty green. Yes, environmental activism surely runs deep in the group that regularly warns about the dangers of GMOs.
But when you think through it, the activists’ position for the environment and against GMOs seems uninformed, at best, and pretty hypocritical, at worst.