(p. 115) More than a decade and a half since the commercialization of first-generation agricultural biotechnology, concerns about transgenic crop impacts on human and environmental health remain, even though the experience across a cumulative 1.25 billion hectares suggests the relative safety of first-generation genetically engineered seed. The risks posed by agricultural biotechnology warrant continued attention, and new transgenic crops may pose different and bigger risks. Weighing against uncertain risks are benefits from increased food production, reduced insecticide use, and avoided health risks to food consumers and farm workers. At the same time, adoption is shown to increase herbicide use while reducing herbicide toxicity, save land by boosting yields while also making previously unfarmed lands profitable. Adoption benefits food consumers and farmers but also enriches seed companies that enjoy property right protections over new seed varieties. The (p. 116) balance of scientific knowledge weighs in favor of continued adoption of genetically engineered seed, which may explain why some longtime critics have reversed course. For example, Lord Melchett, who was the head of Greenpeace, has been advising biotechnology companies on overcoming constraints to the technology (St. Clair and Frank forthcoming). Mark Lynas, a journalist and organizer of the anti-GM (genetic modification) movement, publicly apologized for helping start the movement in his “Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference” (2013).
Agricultural biotechnology remains regulated by regimes developed at the introduction of the technology. Whereas precaution may have been appropriate before the relative magnitudes of risks and benefits could be empirically observed, accumulated knowledge suggests overregulation is inhibiting the introduction of new transgenic varieties. Regulation also discourages developing-country applications, where benefits are likely greatest. In the future, new genetic traits may promise greater benefits while also posing novel risks of greater magnitudes than existing traits. Efficient innovation and technology adoption will require different and, perhaps, more stringent regulation in the future, as well as continued insights from researchers, including economists, in order to assess evolving costs and benefits.
Barrows, Geoffrey, Steven Sexton, and David Zilberman. “Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 99-120.