Peter Passell
Editor, The Milken Institute Review; Senior Fellow
California and Capital Markets and Europe and Finance and Global Economy and Labor and Public Policy and U.S. Economy
Peter Passell is editor of The Milken Institute Review, the Institute's economic quarterly. A senior fellow, Passell joined the Institute after eight years as economics columnist for the news department of The New York Times. He previously served on the Times' editorial board and was an assistant professor at Columbia...
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Rethinking Frankenfood
By: Peter Passell
October 28, 2010
Everybody knows that genetically modified crops are not healthy for children and other living things. Everybody knows that the consequences of playing god with foodstuffs are largely unknown and potentially irreversible.

Well, not everybody. Genetically modified plants are, indeed, taking over: They're now grown on 10 percent of the cultivated land on the planet, and that figure is certain to rise. But Matin Qaim, an economist at Germany's University of Goettingen, believes that they will help save the planet from poverty, malnutrition and environmental decline. And Qaim is most assuredly not a fool. (Or a knave: He has no financial stake in the business of genetic modification.)

Writing in the new issue of The Milken Institute Review (available free, but the download requires site registration), Qaim mourns the stubborn opposition to GM crops that dominates European public opinion and has slowed their adoption in parts of the developing world. "The biggest challenge posed by genetic modification is how to create a regulatory framework that provides reasonable public oversight but resists the understandable impulse to curb progress linked to these technologies."

OK, OK. This is probably a minority opinion among right-thinking folks who eschew Pop-Tarts and cringe at the sight of the Golden Arches. But before you rush to judgment, consider these facts:

  • Corn and cotton engineered to resist bugs can cut the use of insecticides by as much as two-thirds.
  • Herbicide-tolerant soybeans make it cheap and easy to avoid the use of weed-killers that sicken farm workers and reduce the need for tillage that is largely responsible for soil erosion.
  • GM seeds have increased the annual incomes of cotton farmers in India by an average of $100 per acre.
  • Rice that's genetically fortified with vitamin A can be expected to save the lives of 40,000 children each year at a tiny fraction of the cost of distributing supplements.

Qaim may not convince you, but he'll sure make you think.


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