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The Environmental Benefits Of Gene-Splicing

“I hereby hazard a prediction,” writes Jonathan Rauch in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly. “In ten years or less, most American environmentalists (European ones are more dogmatic) will regard genetic modification as one of their most powerful tools.” Environmentalists will soon realize, Rauch contends, that “genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades.”

Tell that to Greenpeace, which on Friday tried to prevent 40,000 tons of genetically improved corn from reaching Mexico. And this memo also goes to the 80 activists who on Saturday “invaded” a field of biotech maize in Spain: genetically enhanced crops are a boon to the environment, whatever so-called environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists have to say.

Rauch makes his point most persuasively when he focuses on Norman Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution”:

In the 1960s, while he was working to improve crop yields in India and Pakistan he made a mental connection. He would create tables detailing acres under cultivation and average yields — and then, in another column he would estimate how much land had been saved by higher farm productivity. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, he and others began paying increased attention to what some agricultural economists now call the Borlaug hypothesis: that the Green Revolution has saved not only many human lives but, by improving the productivity of existing farmland, also millions of acres of tropical forest and other habitat — and so has saved countless animal lives.

Hence the green revolution “saved more than 100 million acres of wild lands in India” alone — and now genetically improved crops have the potential to save even more. Other environmental benefits of biotech crops include reducing tillage and pesticides, and increasing wildlife populations on farms. Luckily, Rauch was able to find one “environmentalist” who recognizes the benefits of biotech:

At the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, the molecular biologist Don Doering envisions transgenic crops designed specifically to solve environmental problems: crops that might fertilize the soil, crops that could clean water, crops tailored to remedy the ecological problems of specific places. “Suddenly you might find yourself with a virtually chemical-free agriculture, where your cropland itself is filtering the water, it’s protecting the watershed, it’s providing habitat,” Doering told me.

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