NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 23, 2010

Through judicious use of biotechnology to create genetically modified crops, farmers could produce greater yields on the same amount of land as conventional agriculture, with less pesticide and fertilizer use per unit of food produced.  Unfortunately, government bans and strict regulations threaten to undermine this process based on the precautionary principle -- a theory rooted in the adage "better safe than sorry," says H. Sterling Burnett, a Senior Fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis. 

Most versions of the precautionary principle require that those proposing to introduce new technologies prove that no harm will occur before proceeding.  This standard has been applied rigorously to biotech crops, especially in the European Union, where only one genetically modified crop has been approved for use.  By contrast: 

  • Since 1998, 23 new genetically modified crops and more than 120 genetically modified products have been grown (and consumed) elsewhere in the world.
  • The United States cultivates approximately 50 percent of the world's land used for genetically modified crops -- 57.7 million hectares (143 million acres) in 2007.
  • As of 2007, more than 114.3 million hectares (282.4 million acres) were planted with biotech crops in 23 different countries (12 developing countries, 11 industrialized countries). 

Biotech crops are already providing benefits to millions of people worldwide, says Burnett: 

  • For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation reports that golden rice -- rice genetically altered to contain beta carotene (which readily converts to vitamin A) and new genes to overcome iron deficiency - is preventing thousands of cases of childhood blindness, and reducing anemia, which is suffered by more than two billion women.
  • Moreover, through genetic modification, crops can be altered to specifically reduce the risk of problems common to conventional breeding techniques, thus improving various crops' nutritional value and reducing the environmental impact of farming. 

The U.S. government should avoid new regulatory hurdles to the development and use of biotech crops.  Additional regulations would only serve to stifle innovation and reduce the benefits expected from the expanded development of bioengineered crops.  Internationally, the United States should work to ensure that European governments are not allowed, through international funding agencies or trade restrictions, to limit access to biotechnology advances in the developing world, which is most in need of these agricultural breakthroughs, says Burnett. 

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Biotech versus Precaution in Europe and America: Killing the Golden Goose," Study No. 325, February 23, 2010. 


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