Yeah, it's a shame that a lot of people think this way. Nuff said.
Pollen from GM crops is a HUGE problem for organic farmers. Planting GM crops freely in an area can destroy the market for organic crops at home as well as for selling to Europe and other parts of the world where GM crops are disdained by customers. You simply cannot protect your crop against contamination in many cases. (Also, besides market concerns, there's the infamous Canadian patents case, Monsanto v. Schmeiser [wikipedia.org].)
Agreed. You cannot protect your crop. The only reasons this is a problem are the first point ('frankencrops', to which I say, 'too bad', with roads, we also have 'frankengeography', live with it), and protecting existing markets. Why should they be protected? Because they were there first? I'm glad the farriers didn't quash the tyre manufacturers with a similar line of thinking. To my mind, anything essential shouldn't be a market, and a specifically "organic" agricutural market isn't essential, so let market forces deal with people's fringe rationalities. I have no problem letting a sand-boxed capitalism market deal with selling people $1000 speaker cables, just as I have no problem letting a similar market deal with selling people organic food. At the same time, if the environment or other markets prevent the cable manufacturer from acquiring copper (and therefore generating their cables) or the organic farmer from acquiring non-GMO seed (and therefore...), I have no problem with either market being entirely destroyed.
The third point is one that really cheeses of a lot of environmentalists.
Yep. And this is exactly the point they're mostly wrong about.
You hear a lot of awesome things in the news about how scientists have invented rice with extra vitamin A or tomatoes with longer shelf life. The truth is that there are really only two major types of changes which companies have fought to get onto the market -- crops that come with their own built-in Bt insecticide and crops that let you liberally sprinkle around the herbicide RoundUp...
Well, the truth is, the Vitamin A issue is accurate. I was talking with a chick I know last summer and found myself defending Monsanto as not-entirely-evil over this point. Unable to admit that the-devil-itself (Monsanto) may actually do some good, I saw her a few days later and was told "We don't need Monsanto, we need people to grow more Yams".
As far as the two points, though, I entirely agree. ENTIRELY. And that is exactly the value of these crops. Far fewer chemicals are used because of these technologies, and the chemicals used are largely innocuous. Glyphosate (Round-Up) breaks down a hell of a lot quicker into non-toxic compounds than anything else we used on broadleafs. Certainly the two most common universal (more-or-less) broadleaf chemicals (2-4D and MCPA) break down a lot slower, and are initially much more toxic. (FWIW, herbicides can generally be broken down into ones which kill everything green, and ones which only kill broadleafs.) What we end up with when using Round-Up resistant seed are the following:
A. Less cultivation required to condition a field for planting, since fewer generations of weed seed growth have to be destroyed mechanically when a pass of the sprayer can deal with yield-competing weeds post-emergence. I grew up on a farm that was considered large in the 70s and 80s, but would now be considered a smallish medium sized farm, and the fuel usage on cultivation alone counteracts any ten people deciding to ride a bike to work for the environment as opposed to driving their car. (It wouldn't surprise me if it were true for a hundred people; a large tractor can burn through three hundred gallons of diesel a day easily.) Besides this, cultivation is hard on the soil. Too much cultivation (really all cultivation) destroys a great deal of the organic soil ecosystem, and can ultimately render soil impotent. This in turn requires more fertilizer, and I'm not even going to bother discussing the environmental impact of fertilizers. Less cultivation of the soil means you can also plant your crop earlier, which statistically tends to indicate greater yield (i.e. fewer acres required for the same output, less financial incentive to abuse the land, as well as allowing small businessmen (most farmers) to compete in an environment which is increasingly dominated by corporatism). Manhour-wise, I'd guess that it saves millions of hours of human labour. My rough measurement was 35 acres an hour, and I was young, quite competent, and very aggressive in the field driving. With 7000 acres, that's 200 hours of labour per pass of cultivator, and it was always at least twice, often three, and sometimes many as four passes of the cultivator (or disc, or rarely: plough, which are considerably slower) to prepare a field. Scale that to a nation, and millions of hours seems like an understatement.
I don't feel like getting into it, but row-crop cultivating is an entirely separate issue, with similar or higher costs, certainly fuel and manhour costs are equal or higher.
B. Depending on what you're planting, you can do away with most of the longer lasting and toxic chemicals. Maybe glyphosate has caused some human health problems. It hasn't for me, (yet, at least) and I've been drenched to the bone with the unadulterated stuff, not the watered down versions you get in a Home Depot or whatever, which are themselves a considerably higher rate of concentration than farmers put on their fields after mixing with water. When I was a kid, I remember having to don a full plastic suit with gas mask to deal with some of the chemicals we used. Glyphosate has virtually nothing in common with that. Even now, something like Counter-G (I looked for an Internet reference, but came up with Hugo Chavez, and I'm not going to bother looking further) is used regularly. It comes in bags, and is a light, fine, powdery, pinkish flake that you mix with canola seed as a pre-emergent herbicide. THAT shit is toxic and dangerous. As a kid, I wasn't allowed to be around the cattle after I handled it, because just the residue on my skin, despite wearing shoulder length gloves and a gas mask, could kill cattle in a few minutes. I've vomitted with a gas mask on, the stuff's so toxic.
C. Harvest application of Round-Up is a godsend, financially. With grains, the amount of human effort in both swathing and combining is significantly reduced (dead weeds cut easier, and are threshed easier [trust me, the manhours and the fuel costs are significant]), as well grains tend to deteriorate significantly after being ripe, especially if they are rained on. Protein levels, for instance can drop from a 16.5% protein level to a 12% protein level after a single significant rainfall (and the time it takes to wait for harvest conditions after that rainfall). That can result in financial failure for smaller operations (i.e. food production being ultimately dominated by corporatism), as well as lower output/acre.
D. With dry edible beans [something I know well] and probably most legumes, significant percentages of the crop don't ripen at the same time. Depending on the year, my personal guess is between 10% and 40%. The choices are to dessicate a certain percentage of the unripe crop to make a percentage of that viable for harvest, or to take the punishment of attempting to harvest the crop with a large ratio of unripe beans. Efficiency-wise, you get killed going this route. If you have 70% of our crop ripe, I don't think you get even 50% of the available output. You lose a significant proportion of the good crop culling out the bad crop. After that, you get docked at the elevator, or whoever is buying your commodity. Like every agricultural output, you face grade and dockage. Getting that 50% caused your sample to have 10% dockage, Grade is another issue which is equally as fscked, but just look at dockage. Say you managed to recover 50% of the crop. Which was 20% less than the available crop. You then walk in with 50% good product, and 5% junk (the dockage (which these companies often sell at a decent price as pig fodder, for instance)). However, if you dessicate your crop with Round-Up, your 70% initial ripe crop was assured, minus a few percent due to inefficiencies of combines. Out of the other 30%, you also gain some crop, say 5%. You now have 75% as opposed to 50%. Your dockage is a reasonable and not unusual 2%, so raise it up to 4%, because you are harvesting 1/16th of your crop in a chemically induced state of readiness. This clearly is a more efficient use of land, and supports non-corporatism.* Assuming the market value is the same, any large organization (i.e. a corporation) can always outcompete a smaller operation by making it's cost per profit ratio smaller. Historically, considerably more toxic chemicals were used to even this playing field. Glyphosate has provided a tool to help non-corporate farmers compete with corporate farmers.
I can think of a dozen more reasons I'm pro-Round-Up, but I'm getting lazy. So lazy, in fact, that I only started to post based on your BT comments, and am only going to say this (and I think BT is much more defensible than Round-Up):
Take BT corn as an example. There are and were all sorts of fungi which affected corn, some of which wipe out whole crops. BT corn is immune to most of the more ubiquitous fungi. Look at corn-borer. Even in BT corn, there are a small amount of plants susceptible. However, BT corn is so successful in limiting the effects of corn-borer that even when we didn't grow BT corn, there were enough BT corn growers that we usually didn't have to hire a crop-duster to spray our fields. Hell, it's still done regularly enough for sclerotinia (sp?) in canola, which is another thing GM crops are addressing. I can say this, with absolute certainty: Insecticides are pretty well universally more harmful to humans than herbicides. Fungicides are generally at least as harmful as insecticides. What has Monsanto done? What have BT crops done? They've both provided a means to improve profit while simultaneously removing some of the most harmful chemicals from agriculture.
Regarding the comments on monoculture and tragedy of the commons, etc. I agree it's bad, but what you're hinting at leaves us back in 1970s thinking, one of the most harmful periods of agricultural thinking which existed. Monoculture has its best example in currency. There is no monoculture as ubiquitous or deleterious as a monoculture of currency. Irrespective of any other value a person may hold, it has become the defining meter of value socially. And tragedy of the commons? That is precisely what laissez-faire capitalism is defined by. None of those are any more true than Occam's Razor: a handy knee-jerk heuristic. Why is monoculture always bad? It isn't, except ideologically. Why is the tragedy of the commons always bad? It isn't, except ideologically. I'd say that generally they're both bad, but they're no arguments in and of themselves.
Your fourth point is really the reason for the second point, so I'm not going to address it. And althogh you mentioned it in the body of your comments, you didn't consider it central, and I think it is the one and only reason that I hope Monsanto and all of their ilk die miserably. They are leveraging economic capital for political capital. They are promoting and capitalizing on a system of IP rights that I don't agree with, Intellectual Property laws have to change more than anything. The system nowadays has nothing to do with promoting creation, whether it's artistic or solution based, it's entirely devoted to maintaining a cash feed for the already-rich, regardless of human cost.