Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 28 No. 1 (Winter 2014)


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Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops

Article Citation

Barrows, Geoffrey, Steven Sexton, and David Zilberman. 2014. "Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(1): 99-120.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.28.1.99


For millennia, humans have modified plant genes in order to develop crops best suited for food, fiber, feed, and energy production. Conventional plant breeding remains inherently random and slow, constrained by the availability of desirable traits in closely related plant species. In contrast, agricultural biotechnology employs the modern tools of genetic engineering to reduce uncertainty and breeding time and to transfer traits from more distantly related plants. Critics express concerns that the technology imposes negative environmental effects and jeopardizes the health of those who consume the "frankenfoods." Supporters emphasize potential gains from boosting output and lowering food prices for consumers. They argue that such gains are achieved contemporaneous with the adoption of farming practices that lower agrochemical use and lessen soil. The extensive experience with agricultural biotechnology since 1996 provides ample evidence with which to test the claims of supporters and opponents and to evaluate the prospects of genetic crop engineering. In this paper, we begin with an overview of the adoption of the first generation of agricultural biotechnology crops. We then look at the evidence on the effects of these crops: on output and prices, on the environment, and on consumer health. Finally, we consider intellectual property issues surrounding this new technology.

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Barrows, Geoffrey (U CA, Berkeley)
Sexton, Steven (NC State U)
Zilberman, David (U CA, Berkeley)

JEL Classifications

Q16: Agricultural R&D; Agricultural Technology; Biofuels; Agricultural Extension Services
Q18: Agricultural Policy; Food Policy


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