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Monday, February 14, 2022

Government Bans on GMOs Are Making Global Hunger Worse—and Do Serious Harm to the Planet

Those who want to improve standards of living and care for the environment should be appalled by GMO restrictions around the world.

Image Credit: iStock-diignat

The global controversy over genetically modified organisms is a classic bootleggers and Baptists story. Activists who mistakenly believe that GMOs are dangerous to consume have teamed up with pesticide and insecticide sellers to restrict the world’s poor from life-saving technologies.

This is a tragedy.

GMOs increase crop yields, improve the nutritional value of crops, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Those who want to improve standards of living and care for the environment should be appalled by GMO restrictions around the world.

Although the ‘Baptists’ are skeptical about GMO safety, an overwhelming consensus of scientists agree that GMOs are safe to eat. They do not damage organ health, cause genetic mutations in humans or animals, affect pregnancies, or transfer genes to those who consume them.

The ‘bootlegger’ allies—the pesticide and insecticide industries – are threatened by high-yielding and disease resistant crops that don’t require their products.

Unlike conventional plant or animal breeding, which combines all the genes from two sources, GMOs are created by tweaking an organism’s genetic code. This allows for more precise alterations, such as insertion of a disease-resistant gene or one that produces more vitamin C. Targeted alterations allow researchers to improve on conventional breeding practices and create organisms that are optimized for specific agriculture conditions.

This makes them well-suited to increase food security and lift farmers out of poverty. Farmers in poor countries lack access to the seed selection, farm equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation technologies that are widespread in wealthy countries. Without these products, their crops are more susceptible to weeds and pests and yield substantially less than crops in the developed world. When pesticides are available, farmers often apply them by hand, which contributes to pesticide poisoning.

The benefits of GMOs are well-known to farmers in these conditions. In Kenya, dairy farmers are petitioning their government to lift the ban on GMOs because the rising prices of non-GMO livestock feeds have put many out of business. Since plant improvements are more targeted, GMOs are higher yielding, require fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and are more disease resistant than conventional crops.

For example, genetically modified bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton increased Indian cotton yields between 50 and 70 percent between 1975 and 2009 and decreased insecticide poisoning by 2.4 million cases a year. Because farmers lost fewer crops to disease and pests, their profits rose by as much as 50 percent. For farmers who cannot afford tractors and fertilizer, these cost-reducing GMO seeds are an effective way to raise food production.

Yet only four African countries allow GMO crops, and much of southeast Asia restricts GMO access. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation estimates that GMO restrictions could cost low and middle income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone income through 2050. In the Philippines, Bt eggplants were banned by the Supreme Court, even though several studies conducted in the country found numerous health and income benefits.

Beyond all these benefits, GMOs lower carbon emissions per unit produced. Adoption of genetically modified technology decreased greenhouse gas emissions by an equivalent of removing 15.27 million cars from the road in 2018 and saved the world approximately 16.1 million hectares in farmland. This is approximately 14 percent of the United States’ arable land.

Yet the European Union is moving away from GMOs and aims to have 25 percent of European farms producing organics by 2030.

The GMO debate continues to be controlled by non-scientific groups to the detriment of global hunger and efforts to lower emissions. Governments, particularly those of impoverished nations, should lift their bans and allow full access to GMOs.

  • Jeffrey Miron is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, as well as Director of Economics Studies at the Cato Institute. His field of expertise is the economics of libertarianism; he has advocated for many libertarian policies, including legalizing all drugs and allowing failing banks to go bankrupt.

  • Sarah Eckhardt is a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.