Editor’s note: The views expressed below by Peter Kareiva are his own and not necessarily the positions of The Nature Conservancy.
Now that The Nature Conservancy and other conservation NGOs are paying attention to agriculture, it is time for these organizations to address the sensitive topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether they have a place in advancing conservation. The answer might surprise you.
Some environmental groups are adamantly against genetic engineering, whereas others are less ideological and simply raise concerns about the environmental risks of using GMOs in agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences — which recently examined the risks and benefits of GMOs in agriculture — concludes that GMOs often are more sustainable than conventional crops and reasserts its longstanding position that their environmental risks be determined on a trait-by-trait basis.
Note, however, that any potential risks arise as a result of the novel plant’s traits and NOT as a result of the technology used to create those novel traits. Thus, if a plant were modified such that it can produce a deadly toxin, then that plant would represent a serious environmental risk regardless of how the plant was created — whether by genetic engineering or traditional plant breeding methods. In other words, the technology itself is not our enemy.
The stakes for the debate on GMOs could hardly be higher for nature, people and conservation. Agriculture takes up more land and consumes more water than any other activity on Earth. And agriculture is bound to eat up even more land and water as the human population soon zips past 7 billion on its way to 9 billion by 2050.
At the same time, using technology to increase agricultural yields (meaning increases in the calories and nutritional value generated per acre of land) and increase efficiencies in ag’s water use would mean sparing land and water for nature. GMOs could play a crucial part in this equation. For example, recently published greenhouse studies reveal that genetically engineered cassava can store four times the amount of protein compared to regular cassava. Plants engineered for enhanced yields or improved nutritional value could be a boon to humanity and the planet.
Cassava is a good example for discussing the benefits of genetic engineering for people and nature because in many ways it is an ideal food crop — it performs well in poor soils and does not require applications of pollution-causing fertilizers. Cassava also does well with little water.
But cassava has some real shortcomings — and it is these shortcomings that molecular gene transfer techniques have the potential to correct. In particular, although it is a rich source of calories, cassava is a poor source of protein. It is also susceptible to a mosaic virus that causes the plant’s leaves to wither and fall off.
Improvements to cassava (including virus resistance and improved nutritional value) will translate into reduced environmental impacts — less land under cultivation, less use of fertilizer, reduced need to divert water for irrigation — and more food for Africa. Genetically engineered cassava also has promise as a tool for poverty reduction in sub-Sahara Africa.
Serious, thorough risk assessment of GMOs is essential. I have argued elsewhere that the risk assessments performed to date have been inadequate in terms of rigor. But once a crop has undergone thorough risk assessment and its risks are judged as minimal, it is time to move past ideology and embrace the potential benefits that crop offers — regardless of how its novel traits were created. Transgenic cassava is but one of many GMO possibilities that could be beneficial for both people and the environment. Nature needs us to maximize the efficiency of food production so we can minimize the footprint of agriculture on the planet.
Unfortunately, environmental and conservation organizations too often take stands on agriculture that are based on labels rather than data. Most of my “green” friends embrace organic agriculture and distrust GMOs. There are aspects of organic agriculture that really are good for the environment, but there is no guarantee that the label “organic” translates into positive environmental outcomes — and it is the outcome that matters.
Yes, organic agriculture may well be on average less environmentally degrading than non-organic agriculture. But the label “organic” is by and large a brand reflecting what people feel is “natural,” not a signifier of actual outcome measures. Let me repeat: Just because something is labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better for the environment or your health than a similar, non-organically grown product.
When approaching agriculture and food, both of which are central to our human existence, environmental groups and conservation groups need to get over what often appears to be an aversion to technology coupled with a romantic affection for what they think is more “natural.” In some cases, technology — including GMOs — could be conservation’s best friend.
Our decisions about agriculture and conservation need to be based on outcome measures that relate to land use, water use, water quality, human health and wildlife habitat. Sometimes conservation-friendly agriculture will entail GMOs, and sometimes it will entail organic farming. We should follow the data, not our prejudice.
(Image: Women buying cassava from farmers in a local farmers’ market at Onipepeye area, Ibadan Nigeria. Image credit: IITA Image Library/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)