For example, lets take GMOs — I want to build on Andy’s excellent post from yesterday.
GMOs have been been a “Great Satan” of the environmental movement for some time now. And its not the goal of this post to say that GMOs are by any means universally necessary or desireable. But I do want to talk about the ways in which many environmentalists are oversimplifying a complex issue — and hurting our credibility with the people who are aware of those complexities.
While GMOs have several theoretical downsides, they also have many quite well established environmental benefits — benefits well known to many environmental scientists and agronomists but infrequently acknowledged by green groups. And of course, we’ve been genetically modifying plants since the beginning of agriculture.
For example, the planting of some GM crops has reduced reliance on pesticides, improving the health of both farmer and the environment. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown substantially less pesticide use (and pesticide toxicity exposure) where GM crops have been planted.
In addition, many GM crops have been shown to increase yields, which has the general effect of reducing demand for farmland, and thus deforestation. The relationship between agricultural technologies and deforestation is situation-dependent and not the sort of thing given to quick summaries, but the book “Agricultural Technologies and Tropical Deforestation” (PDF), edited by Angelsen and Kaimowitz, is generally considered an extremely balanced, state-of-the-art academic treatment of the subject. While not all new technologies will impede deforestation, the authors argue for the continuing validity of the Borlaug hypothesis: that increased agricultural productivity through new technologies is essential for long-term conservation of forests.
Many GM technologies currently being explored would allow plants to grow in saltier soil that is currently “wasteland”; other technologies would allow plants to bloom at more favorable times of year, and others would allow plants ot become more drought tolerant. These approaches have dramatically lower risk profiles than GM plants that release pesticides and (opponents worry) create an “arms race” between plants and pests. But when environmentalists decry GM plants, they seldom bother to mention any difference between the pesticide-herbicide approach and these other approaches. Often, in my experience, they are not even aware of them.
In addition, these higher yielding, lower cost GM varieties put more money in the pockets of farmers, who make up a disproportionate number of the rural poor. Because these seed packets require little infrastructure, they are often easier for relatively-poor farmers to utilize.
Of course, there are many valid environmental reasons for opposing GM plants. Some environmentalists worry about risks to human health; others, as Andy noted, worry about a loss of biodiversity, though it’s perhaps worthy of note that Calestous Juma, a mentor of mine and the former head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is a GM proponent.
Other environmentalists worry that it’s just “unnatural” to put genes from one species into an entirely different species. Again, to me that is an entirely reasonable objection. Finally, many environmentalists do not trust ADM or Monsanto making choices about what they eat. I don’t necessarily want them making those choices either. But that’s no reason to lump “Roundup ready” plants in with plants that have merely been bred to grow better in poor quality soils.
I personally have mixed feelings on the GMO issue — I would support some applications and oppose others. But even from an environmental angle (ignoring the potential human welfare gains), GMOs bring many clearly documented benefits. GMOs have environmental risks as well, though these have been less clearly manifested at this point. I can understand why many environmentalists oppose GMOs. But when we don’t acknowledge the environmental complexities of the GMO issue, or when we lump all types of GMOs together, we sound uninformed and ignorant. We lose the respect of a lot of scientists. And we may well be harming, not helping, the environment.