Genetic Biodiversity in the Era of Genetic Engineering

Given my past involvement with Greenpeace, the fact that I have changed my mind about genetically engineered crops (GMOs) makes me an apostate. Continuing my heretic writings, I will try to show today that biotechnology, specifically genetic engineering, can be good for biodiversity, specifically genetic diversity. Continue reading

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Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: A Spurious Dichotomy?

There is an ongoing debate within conservation research known as the “land sharing vs. land sparing” controversy: in a nutshell, it is about the perceived land-use trade-off between food (+biofuel) production needs and conservation of natural ecosystems. Should we create natural reserves and let nature thrive there, while intensifying agriculture on the remaining land? Or should we rather promote extensive agro-ecological systems, where protection of biodiversity is combined with food production (but with lower yields per unit of area)? The debate has not really moved forward for some time, possibly because the perspectives involved have been too narrow. However, it may also be that in some cases the dichotomy does not even exist:

As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change. [more]

Yes, this sounds too good to be true. But, as you may read in the original source of this quote, it actually is true. And while this specific case most likely cannot be generalized, it still provides a lot of “food for thought”. Enjoy.

GMOs in Happyville

In a paper published in 1992, Paul R. Portney told a nice story about a fictitious town called Happyville. In that story, the director of a local environmental protection authority faces an uneasy task: he has to make a decision about whether to treat water to remove a natural contaminant Happyville’s residents believe to cause cancer. However, according to experts, it is highly unlikely that the contaminant has any adverse health effects–which the residents refuse to accept. Water treatment imposes costs. Eventually, it is the science-denying residents who would pay them. But the director knows that this would be irrational. What should he do, then? Refuse following the irrationality of the public? Or accept people’s will despite knowing that they are effectively harming themselves? There is no simple answer to that. And, obviously, Portney’s story is not just a nice gedankenexperiment, as it has, e.g., obvious relevance for policies related to genetically engineered food crops. Continue reading

20 GMO questions: Animal, vegetable, controversy?

I wish I would have written that one myself… Enjoy reading. I haven’t seen many such balanced summaries of any controversial subject yet.

Grist

This is a slightly unusual end-of-the-year list. Instead of a selection of the best or worst news over the year, this is simply a bullet-point summation of what I’ve learned about GMOs in 2013.

When I started this series, I proposed to cut through the debate by finding the facts that both sides agree upon. I also proposed to do this (back in July) “over the next few weeks.” Ha. Not only has this taken me much longer, I’ve also learned that this controversy has turned into something resembling trench warfare, where the two sides refuse to agree on anything, lest they give up an inch of their hard-won position. So I don’t expect everyone to agree with the list below, but I do expect that reasonable people on both sides will concede (if only under their breath) that the bulk of the evidence leads to these…

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Can Transgenic Crops Be Sustainable?

The right answer to the question I (somewhat provocatively) posed above is: this is the wrong question. Alas, most of the debate around genetically engineered crops (particularly GE foods) is based on this flawed formulation. In what follows, I shall try to show why the right question should be: “Can agriculture that is based on (or includes) transgenic crops be sustainable?”, and that the right answer is a conditional “It depends”. Continue reading

Climate Change Denialism and GM Food Opposition

I have ever opposed genetically modified food – reasons for that can be found here and here (they have evolved a little, but my opposition remained strong). However, recently I had to revise many of my previous arguments. Also I had to realize that many arguments against GM food as used by its adversaries are counterfactual, oversimplifications, misrepresentations of scientific results and the like. Then, I asked myself: you know this pattern, don’t you? At first glance at least, their affinity to climate change denialism is striking. Continue reading

GM Food: Another Case for the Economics of Uncertainty

Here you can find my updated standpoint toward genetically engineered crops.

The discussion about the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture is one of the most heated environmental debates of the present. While some claim that Europe’s opposition to GM crops is “arrogant hypocrisy” and dooms Africa to hunger, others answer that the so-called green biotechnology only promotes superweeds, food insecurity and pesticides. It is indeed a very complicated subject where the treatment of uncertain hazards plays a significant role – similar to the nuclear power or climate change debates. I already once wrote a piece about the socio-economic aspects of GMO, but it was, admittedly, rather superficial. After having discussed uncertainty aspects more broadly and in the field of climate change in more recent entries, today I am going to try to give a broader, more balanced look on GMO with the focus on decision-making under uncertainty. Continue reading