Counterpoint and counterpoint to the ISAAA report on biotech crops

Reason‘s science correspondent Ronald Bailey has written an amusing retort to the Friends of the Earth report “Who benefits from biotech crops?” As expected, the FoE twist the facts and call scientists liars, in their attempts to sweep the ISAAA report under the rug. They may be friends of the earth, but they certainly aren’t friends of poor farmers in developing nations. Bailey himself is an interesting character, with at least one book that I don’t really agree with (twisting science and politics in what might not be an entirely wholesome way), but his article is amusing and pointed. In “Are Farmers Stupid, Deluded, or Both“, Bailey uses information from a variety of sources to refute the FoE (admittedly with much more style than I can muster, but he is a professional).
Even the title calls to mind the greatest challenge to biotech detractors. If GMOs are so bad, then why do farmers keep buying them? Obviously they work, or the farmers must be deluded, stupid, or both. We can’t count first time plantings because the farmers might have been influenced by overzealous salesmen. But when farmers plant the new and old varieties side-by-side and choose the biotech version – who can argue with them?
The article is certainly worth a read, but here’s a quick summary:

  1. Biotech has increased farm incomes (up $27 billion since 1996) and decreased pesticide use (down 7% since 1996, or 493 million pounds less).
  2. Glycophosphate is a far lesser evil than most pesticides. An added benefit is that RoundUp Ready crops have increased use of low- or no-tillage farming, which improves soil fertility (and happens to sequester carbon, as well).
  3. Weeds would become resistant to herbicides eventually, regardless of biotech use. That’s evolution for you.

Then, there are the big two: arguments against biotech that are false because they were actually caused by anti-biotech activists. I’m very glad to see that I’m not the only one who believes this to be true.

If few new biotech crops have yet to make it to the tables of consumers, FOE can take a good bit of the credit. FOE and other ideological environmentalists have campaigned tirelessly to block the development and spread of new beneficial biotech crop traits. FOE does its best to stop biotech in its tracks and then turns around to assert that researchers have developed nothing new.

And finally, FOE complains that biotech seeds are monopolized by a few large companies. Again, FOE activists should look in the mirror to find the culprits behind this industry consolidation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of startup and well-established seed companies that aimed to develop agricultural biotech exploded. But, as we’ve seen, crop biotech ran into a buzz saw of environmentalist opposition, especially in Europe. Consequently, …small crop biotech companies withered and the industry consolidated into fairly large companies.