NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Earth Day, the Free Market Way

May 2, 2012

In recent years, Earth Day has provided an opportunity for passion and zeal to trump science, as environmentalists promulgate fears and bash technological advancements.  Specifically, biotech-enhanced crops have been bludgeoned by the environmental community, especially in Europe, which has attempted to blunt their use by the spreading of rumors, says Henry I. Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

However, these crops offer unprecedented opportunities to do good for the global population.  Farmers worldwide can benefit from more efficient farming techniques and yields, and consumers can attain staple food items at lower prices.  All of this can be accomplished in tandem with environmental benefits.

  • Crops engineered with higher nutritional inputs, such as vitamin A, can deliver necessary components of a healthy diet to those who have had minimal access to them.
  • Biotech also offers the opportunity to grow crops in places that were previously unavailable as the plants are genetically engineered to resist pests and adverse climate conditions.
  • Similarly, the higher crop yields afforded by engineering allow food items to be sold at lower prices, thereby benefitting all consumers.
  • Additionally, higher yields limit the need to cultivate new lands, such as forests, thereby limiting the environmental footprint of farmers around the world.

These benefits are not only provable by listing them out on paper: people vote with their feet, and the number of farmers that are shifting their focus toward genetically engineered crops suggests that individuals at the ground level are well aware of their superior performance.

  • In about three dozen countries worldwide, more than 17 million farmers are using agbiotech crop varieties.
  • In 2009, the shift to biotech crops reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 17.6 billion kilograms, equal to the removal of 7.8 million cars from the road for a year.
  • Interestingly, organic farming -- which prohibits the use of genetically engineered plant varieties and is the darling of the environmental movement -- has opposite effects on this parameter.

In spite of these achievements and an extraordinary safety record, there remains widespread opposition to cultivating genetically engineered plants and even to importing grains grown from genetically engineered seeds.  Even governments have imposed moratoria on commercial-scale cultivation of plants and regulatory approvals are virtually non-existent.

Source: Henry I. Miller, "Earth Day, the Free Market Way," Defining Ideas, April 19, 2012.

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