The Promise of GMOs

Have GMOs lived up to their promises? I think it depends on who you ask.  There’s many farmers all over the world that happily spend more for traited seed, and who will even use the black market to get seed if it’s not available. Clearly, they say yes, GMOs are worth it.  However, answering this question also depends on what promises have been made.
We’ve gotta start somewhere, so let’s look at the claims put forth by BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (h/t Tom Philpott for the link). The source for these claims is the BIO report Healing, Fueling, Feeding: How Biotechnology Is Enriching Your Life (food starts on page 55). BIO claims:

Biotech improves crop insect resistance, enhances crop herbicide tolerance and facilitates the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Biotech is helping to feed the world by:

  • Generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs;
  • Lowering volumes of agricultural chemicals required by crops-limiting the run-off of these products into the environment;
  • Using biotech crops that need fewer applications of pesticides and that allow farmers to reduce tilling farmland;
  • Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies;
  • Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin; and
  • Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.

Have any of these things really happened? Let’s look at them one by one. Rather than trying to cram it all into one post, I’ll give each topic its own post. When the series is over, I’ll come back and update this post with the verdict.


  1. Today’s human population is not powered entirely by wind and solar. Ergo renewables have not lived up to their promise.
    Today’s human population is not fed entirely by organic agriculture. Ergo organic agriculture has not lived up to its promise.
    Today’s human population is not etc etc…

  2. Yeah–saw the same exact thing with the anniversary of the human genome project recently. Why didn’t you cure cancer? Why is anyone still sick? We were promised….
    Despite the fact that there are a number of technical advances that are actually making progress. Incremental progress, but progress. Because that’s the way science works. And despite the fact that anything has massive regulatory hurdles during the course of development.

  3. No, no deadline. But I have noticed that these claims are always made as if the benefits are being seen in the present. Unfortunately, for various reasons, a lot of biotech traits that have been proven to work haven’t made it to people yet. So, IMHO it’d make more sense to rephrase these promises somewhat.

  4. I totally agree. The claim that biotech isn’t working because it has “only” had relatively few benefits does not make it a failed technology. Still, it’s not really truthful to say that “biotech is helping to feed the world by…” doing things that have been proven in concept but haven’t made it to people yet.

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