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Should We Grow GM Crops?

What if you knew that GM patrons insist that farmers will reap great benefits from biotechnology?

Insect pests cause stupendous crop losses every year, resulting in harsh financial setbacks for farmers. With crops genetically engineered to resist pests, GM proponents say, growers can avoid such losses and bring their produce to market at less cost. By the same token, weeds rob crops of vital nutrients. To do away with them, farmers often have to spray large amounts of weed killers, a time-consuming and expensive process. With, say, GM soybeans that are resistant to a single broad-spectrum herbicide, farmers only need to use a single weed killer rather than multiple kinds, and they may have to make only a single application rather than several.

Using a single broad-spectrum herbicide can also help reduce land degradation, advocates say, by enabling farmers to optimize their use of "no-till" agriculture. Leaving dead plants where they lie rather than plowing them into the ground can reduce soil erosion by 70 percent, industry officials claim. Soil erosion is a serious global problem, with farmers losing an estimated 25 billion tons of topsoil through runoff and wind every year.

Scientists are developing GM technologies to help farmers battle other scourges as well. To reduce losses from sudden frosts, which can kill young plants, geneticists have experimented with putting an antifreeze gene into tomato plants. To help crops cope with disease, researchers are trying to genetically confer disease resistance to food plants. And to help farmers in an increasingly land-hungry world sow crops on marginal land, agricultural scientists are working to craft plants that are drought- and salt-tolerant.

Perhaps most important, GM crops will improve harvests, backers profess. Monsanto reports that yields from GM crops of corn, cotton, and soybeans in the U.S. have increased by between 5 and 8 percent. This compares to increases of 1 to 2 percent expected from new conventional varieties. Ultimately, some proponents warrant, biotech could triple crop yields without requiring any additional farmland.

"We'll soon be able to produce more crops with less pesticide, less fuel, less fertilizer, fewer trips over the field. We'll produce much more with much less....A couple of years ago I wouldn't have predicted this. But I now think that within a decade it will be possible to have crops that can withstand the stresses of early spring and late fall to such an extent that farmers could plant two crops of corn, soybeans, or wheat each year."
--Dr. Ray Bressan, professor of horticulture and director of the Center for Plant Environmental Stress Physiology, Purdue University [10]

"While we in the Northern Hemisphere can afford to pick and choose how our food is produced and may for the moment eschew GM, there are many people -- perhaps a billion worldwide -- who are in a different position. The overwhelming message from developing countries at [a 2000 conference on GM food safety in Edinburgh, Scotland] can be paraphrased as: 'We would like to be like you, with plenty of food for our people. We need every tool at our disposal to achieve this, including biotechnology, which will allow us to grow things without costly chemicals and irrigation systems that we cannot afford. We do not want to be dependent on aid or redistribution, we want to be in control of our destinies.'"
--Sir John Krebs, chairman of Britain's Food Standards Agency [11]

"I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World -- and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa -- access to the improved seeds, fertilizers and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs....While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by the so-called organic methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot."
--Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel-Prize-winning agriculturalist and father of the Green Revolution [12]
based on what you now know, do you think we should grow gm crops?

10: Quoted in "Agriculture Genomics May Bring Benefits Faster Than Human Genomics: Tips from Top Plant, Animal Experts at Purdue," www.biotechknowledge.com/showlib.php3?uid=4972&country=us.
11: "Seeds of Hope," op-ed piece in New Scientist, 8/5/00.
12: From a Borlaug lecture at De Montfort University, Leicester, U.K., 5/6/97.

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