Genetically engineered organisms have many potential applications in agriculture, including novel foods, pesticides, and animal drugs. Our list of Agricultural Biotechnology Research Projects suggests the variety of benefits companies have envisioned. These include, among others, animals engineered for leaner meat, plants engineered for herbide tolerance or insect resistance, and bacteria engineered to produce drugs for livestock.

But do these products actually represent societal benefits? Certainly, the companies that develop and market them believe they have benefits, and commercial success is one gauge of the need for and usefulness of a product. But the inquiry must go deeper. Society must consider whether these products are needed and whether better alternatives exist for meeting those needs.

For example, are plants that tolerate chemical herbicides or long shelf-life tomatoes necessary? Why? Answering these questions turns out to be surprisingly complicated. Whether such products deliver genuine benefits depends on the goals of agricultural and food systems, and the alternatives available for meeting those goals. If, for example, the goal is to transport tomatoes to markets far from the fields where they grow, then long shelf lives appear necessary. If, however, the goal is to market most produce locally, then long shelf lives are less important. Such differences in goals mark the difference between current industrial agriculture and a sustainable agriculture, which is gradually arising among organic farmers and others and which UCS advocates.