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Want a less abundant and more expensive food supply? Rally against biotech

September 26, 2011
As millions of Americans struggle during these tough economic times, one thing we don’t have to worry about is food. Because of the wonderful work of our farmers, ranchers and growers, people in the United States don't have to worry about whether there's enough to eat. A recent USDA study suggested that just six to seven percent of our paychecks goes to the grocery store. American consumers spend less for their groceries than virtually anybody else in the world.

Much of what makes America tops in agriculture and food production is our ability to adapt to innovation. Over the centuries, farmers noticed that certain plants and animals had superior characteristics to others. By using the seeds from superior plants and breeding their best animals, farmers started using selective breeding, and they became our first agriculture scientists.

Modern biotechnology is simply another form of selective breeding, only with the scientific knowledge we have now, it allows us to make even more precise modifications to plants and animals. Nothing about biotechnology is “new” – it’s just better. Some even call agricultural biotechnology “the hallmark of American innovation.”

Thanks to biotechnology, most of America’s farmers now plant insect-resistant seeds that require fewer insecticides than conventional varieties. Farmers also use biotech herbicide-tolerant crops that thrive in soil without tilling. This reduces on-farm fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and ensures that more nutrients stay in the soil.

In the field of animal biotechnology, livestock can be bred to be disease-free, to be more environmentally sustainable and to produce human health therapies and human-compatible donor tissues. What’s not to like, right?

Well, not everyone embraces progress. Remember when Columbus wanted to sail to the East Indies by sailing west? Remember how the naysayers kept insisting that the world was flat?

Hundreds of years later, there are still naysayers that defy progress and challenge science. Some even challenge the impressive safety record of biotech foods.

The National Research Council, American Dietetic Association, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and many other top scientific bodies around the world agree that biotech foods are as safe as foods grown with conventional seeds. In the United States, nearly ninety percent of our corn and soybeans are biotech varieties, and they have been eaten by billions of people for nearly two decades without any documented health problems.

Without health and safety being a concern, why would the naysayers want to rally against this technology? Well, when you consider that most of the efforts are funded by organic food producers, then maybe it’s a marketing strategy. Maybe if consumers are “scared” of eating foods containing biotech ingredients, maybe they’ll buy more organic products.

The fact is organic producers don’t need scare tactics or a covert marketing strategy to grow their businesses. The organic food market has grown substantially since organic standards were developed by USDA in the early 1990s. Lots of my friends prefer organic foods. I have even consumed an organic product or two in my lifetime, although I object to the premium price tag. Organic food production appeals to a small-but-growing segment of consumers. But these crops cannot be grown on a large enough scale to feed the whole world, and they can’t be grown on a large enough scale to make them sustainable or affordable for most people – especially in an economic crisis.

One thing I’ve learned from working in Washington for 20 years: the truth is usually somewhere in the middle. Are organic food proponents evil elitist foodies? Not all of them. Will biotechnology save the world? It can’t fix everything, but it is making the goal of healing, fueling and feeding the world a lot more obtainable.

Biotechnology is here to stay, and the science will only get better in the future allowing us to produce crops that can combat climate change, and foods that are more nutritious. The bottom line is everyone – biotech, organic and conventional – has a role to play in providing safe and healthy food for a growing world.

For more information on the safety of biotech food products, click here.