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Agricultural Biotechnology: Scourge or Savior?

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With the battles over genetically engineered (GE) crops quieting down, at least temporarily, it's a good time to take stock of a technology that has been portrayed as either the scourge or savior of the world's food supply.

Genetic engineering has been used almost exclusively to make corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets resistant to herbicides or to make them produce their own insecticide. Both advances offer real benefits to farmers by increasing yields or farm income. (Yes, organic farming would be better, but it won't replace conventional farming any time soon.)

Don't bother looking for consumer benefits, though. The current biotech crops have not made any foods more nutritious, tastier, or cheaper. The nutritionally improved crops closest to market: a novel soybean with omega-3 fats, which may help prevent heart attacks, and a soybean whose oil could replace oils that contain trans fats. But both are still a few years away.

On the other hand, the engineered crops currently being grown are safe and cause less
environmental damage than their conventional cousins. Some GE crops allow farmers to use fewer chemical pesticides. Others support no-till farming, which protects topsoil and reduces agricultural runoff into rivers and streams.

Meanwhile, in developing nations with millions of poor subsistence farmers, GE crops are proving highly popular. Farmers in India and China who are growing cotton engineered to produce the Bt pesticide benefit because they can use fewer chemical pesticides and enjoy sharply increased yields. That translates into fewer pesticide poisonings and higher income. In India, cotton production doubled between 2002 and 2007. (Critics charge that failed harvests of Bt cotton in India have led to farmer suicides, but independent researchers have found no link.)

Consumer benefits probably will come sooner overseas than in the United States.
India soon could market two dietary mainstays from genetically engineered crops: water-conserving mustard and insect-resistant eggplant. And China is becoming a powerhouse with its own biotech crops, which won't bear the Monsanto or DuPont logo.

The Gates Foundation is funding projects to boost nutrients in sorghum and cassava, two staple African crops. And, with the Rockefeller Foundation's help, Golden Rice may soon move from the lab to fields in Southeast Asia. That long-awaited variety produces betacarotene, which can prevent vitamin A deficiency and blindness.

What about future genetically engineered crops (and animals)? Congress should require
the Food and Drug Administration to formally approve new GE foods to ensure that they
are safe for humans. With stronger, but not stifling, regulations, consumers should be able to continue to trust the safety of GE foods.