NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Genetically Modified Crops are Transforming Agriculture

October 16, 2003

Genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries, says Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution.

For instance, take no-till farming. Most of the fertilizer runoff that causes fish-killing algae blooms comes from farmland. By all but eliminating agricultural erosion and runoff, continuous no-till farming could revolutionize water quality in areas like the Chesapeake Bay watershed. No-till farming is most compatible with genetically modified foods, which require much less fertilizer. One-third of the U.S. soybean crop is already grown this way.

Other examples include:

  • Roundup Ready -- a herbicide that kills many kinds of weeds and quickly breaks down into harmless ingredients -- has allowed farmers to retire their ploughs and control weeds with just a few applications of a single, relatively benign herbicide instead of many applications of a complex and expensive menu of chemicals.
  • In 2001, scientists created a salt-resistant tomato plant; one day, salt-tolerant crops might bring millions of acres of land back into production.
  • Transgenic cotton reduced pesticide use by more than two million pounds in the United States from 1996 to 2000, and it has reduced pesticide spraying in parts of China by more than half.

Bioengineers are also working on crops that tolerate aluminum, which is a major soil contaminant in the tropics. Returning an acre of farmland to productivity, or doubling yields on an acre under production, reduces the amount of virgin forest or savannah that will be stripped and cultivated. Thus we may be able to feed the world, including the expected increase in population, by cultivating fewer acres, and that may be the most important benefit of all, says Rauch.

Source: Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution), "Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?" Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.

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