Saturday, December 17, 2005

Public benefits of GMOs

A comment on this post provoked me to think about what benefits we are getting from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A common claim is that while they might theoretically be good, all they really do so far is line the pockets of the agri-giants. My reply was that GMOs already give a lot of public benefits:

Consumer: Fewer chemical treatments have been applied to the foods they eat. Protein levels are higher because of reduced competition for nitrogen by weeds.

Economy: Higher crop yields drive farmers and farm product suppliers out of business, freeing their labor for other work and industries. (Well, this is good if you subscribe to the creative destruction theory of economics.)

Land: Less land needs to be under cultivation at any given point. This reduces topsoil loss and airborne dust, and permits land to be left fallow for longer. I suspect that it also allows less aggressive, and therefore environmentally friendlier, tilling to be used.

Pollution: More concentrated cultivation means less fertilizer is wasted, less fuel is used to power farm equipment, less pollution is produced by farm equipment with poor pollution controls, and so forth. Not only good for the environment, this also lowers prices of other products that compete for the same feedstocks, and reduces strategic dependence on unstable supplies (such as Arabia).

Public: Many of these purportedly-greedy agribusinesses are actually wholly-owned by the public. (And don't whine that most stock is owned by giant institutional investors, not the general public. Those institutions are the public's insurance and retirement piggy banks.)

Future developments: Research budgets come out of the margin, the gap between income and expenditures. When a profitable company increases their income by X%, they can afford to increase research funding by substantially more than X%. Monsanto, for instance, ploughs about 10% of revenue back into research, which is astonishing for a company that exists solely to put commodities on the shelves of Wal-Mart. (The benefits are not just theoretical. Agri profits paid for the development of soybeans whose oil can be used to replace trans fatty acids, which will have tremendous cardiovascular benefits for Americans.)

Security: More efficient crops mean less possibility of shortage during drought or pestilence.

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