Paris, Monday, November 4, 2013 – While most people understand how improved knowledge in the field of genomics benefits medical science, they are much more reluctant to accept its applications to agriculture. They should not be because there are real benefits from new technologies and agricultural advances, whereas the cost of stagnation and burdensome regulation is immense.
The major health, nutritional and environmental benefits of agricultural advances
Most urbanites fail to understand the importance of natural stress caused by pests, weeds, drought or flood etc. to fruit, vegetables and cereals. A 2009 report estimated global pest-related losses at about US$ 131 billion.
Over time, various techniques and practices have emerged to improve agriculture, horticulture, food storage and public health, whether by means of chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), biotechnology (breeding, genetic fortification) or improved management (crop rotations, production timing and logistics).
• From 1996 to 2011, biotech crops eliminated the need for about 473 million kilograms (kg) of pesticides.
• Their higher productivity also meant that they saved about 108.7 million hectares of land.
• In 2011 alone, they reduced CO2 emissions by 23.1 billion kg, the equivalent of taking 10.2 million cars off the road.
• According to a recent estimate, since the 1960’s the land spared through increased yields (because it was not needed) was comparable to the surface area of the U.S, Canada, and China combined.
• Better nutritional quality of foods: high-lycopene pineapple, low-cyanide cassava, rice fortified with beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A), etc.
Costly – and ultimately futile – battles
The main fear associated with synthetic chemicals is that they are carcinogenic. But as prominent scientists Bruce N. Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold have argued, pursuing a world free of toxic chemicals and risks is both costly and futile.
• Because they are unable to outrun predators, many plants’ first line of defense is producing toxic substances.
• According to a classic study, 99.9% of the toxic chemicals we ingest on a daily basis are natural pesticides produced by plants.
• We ingest daily about 1,500 mg of 5,000 to 10,000 types of natural pesticides, about 750 mg of which were found to be rodent carcinogens in laboratory tests.
• By contrast, the daily intake of primary synthetic pesticide residues is about 0.09 mg per person. A single cup of coffee contains about the same amount of natural rodent carcinogens as the average person’s annual intake of synthetic pesticide residues.
Death by Stagnation and Red Tape
Fears of new technologies have resulted in ever growing regulatory costs and delays.
• The average development and registration times for new pesticides in 2005–8 were up 15% since1995.
• Average cost reached US$ 256 million, 11 times what it was between 1975-1980.
• From 2008 to 2012, the world average cost for commercializing a new genetically engineered crop was US$ 136 million, about US$35 million of which served to meet regulatory constraints.
• In 2011-13, a total of 842 million people (about one human in eight) were thought to suffer from chronic hunger.
While no innovation can ever be perfect, our key concern should always be whether or not a specific innovation creates lesser problems than those that prevailed before. Innovation’s purpose is to find better, less damaging ways of doing things, a process which is hindered by the precautionary principle.
As the actress Angelina Jolie observed about her preventive double mastectomy: “Life comes with many challenges; the ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”
Entitled Liberated from Nature or Shackled by It? The Costs and Impacts of Excessive Precaution, the study signed by Hiroko Shimizu, Associate Researcher at the IEM, is available on our website.
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The Institut économique Molinari (IEM) is an independent, non-profit research and educational organization. Its mission is to promote an economic approach to the study of public policy issues by offering innovative solutions that foster prosperity for all.
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Information and interview requests:
Cécile Philippe, PhD
Director, Institut économique Molinari
+33 6 78 86 98 58