Technology, in economics jargon, expands the production possibilities frontier (PPF). In simpler terms, you get more stuff by using technology by using resources more efficiently. Which in turn means that you have less waste produced as a by-product of the production of useful stuff.
A recent column by Gurcharan Das titled “Let Biotech Crops Bloom” notes how the introduction of transgenic cotton has doubled India’s cotton production in the last five years and is second largest cotton producing country (after China.) He laments the fact that Indian farmers don’t have access to transgenic rice, soya, corn, etc, because they have not been approved. He puts the blame on “misguided activists, timid bureaucrats, and apathetic politicians.”
I approve of biotechnology in general. Not that it is anything new. Pretty much all that we eat have been the result of human created biotechnology — although not the high-tech biotechnology of today. Today’s biotechnology is technology on steroids. Things happen fast and while the benefits can be large, so can the downside be. It is prudent to be cautious. One should not lose sight of the law of unintended consequences.
You want to increase the production of cotton and decrease the production of bollworms. So you introduce transgenic cotton and it does precisely that. But it also does more than that. It increases the supply of cotton. Prices fall and therefore aggregate incomes could fall. So if you don’t at the same time reduce the number of people involved in cotton production, you could have individual incomes fall. It could lead to suicides.
Of course, even if you don’t use transgenic cotton, other countries could use it and increase the world supply of cotton and your cotton farmers would still see depressed prices and fall in income.
My point is that the introduction of technology is good — you get more stuff. But it always means that you have to reduce the number of people that depend on the production of that stuff. Indian agriculture has to become more efficient through the use of technology. And we have to move the labor released from agriculture to manufacturing.