GE Crops Provide Short-Term Gain to U.S. Farmers But Long-Term Sustainability in Doubt, Says Report


Corn Field by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

The National Research Council has just released a report that concludes that genetically engineered crops benefits many U.S. farmers. The report also contains a strong caveat that agricultural biotechnology needs proper management to be effective. Rather than a wholesale celebration of the success of the GE industry the researchers found that there are huge knowledge gaps and any opportunities to use the technology for greater public good are being missed.

Here are some of the conclusions from Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.The authors of the report observe right off the top that although some farmers have seen short-term gains growing GE crops, the long-term effects of the technology and modified farming practices could lead to trouble.

Many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits -- such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields -- compared with conventional crops, says a new report from the National Research Council. However, GE crops resistant to the herbicide glyphosate -- a main component in Roundup and other commercial weed killers -- could develop more weed problems as weeds evolve their own resistance to glyphosate. GE crops could lose their effectiveness unless farmers also use other proven weed and insect management practices.

The authors note that almost 50% of US farmland, or 150 million acres, is planted with GE seed. This acreage is made up almost entirely of three crops - soy, cotton, and corn - and the traits that are worked into these crops are mostly herbicide resistance to glyphosate and insect resistance. All of the commercialized crops so far have been developed to benefit industry which the authors see as troubling.

If these crops have the potential to create sustainability of agriculture [GE technology] needs to move away from industry. We need public private partnerships to actually realize public goods. [Biotech companies] won't invest enough to fully realize these crops.

Research institutions should receive government support to develop GE traits that could deliver valuable public benefits but provide little market incentive for the private sector to develop. Examples include plants that decrease the likelihood of off-farm water pollution or plants that are resilient to changing climate conditions. Intellectual property that has been patented in developing major crops should be made available for these purposes whenever possible.

The chair of the committee that wrote the report, David Ervin from Portland State University explains how the knowledge gaps in the study need to be filled

"...benefits [of GM technology] are not universal for all farmers. And as more GE traits are developed and incorporated into a larger variety of crops, it's increasingly essential that we gain a better understanding of how genetic engineering technology will affect U.S. agriculture and the environment now and in the future. Such gaps in our knowledge are preventing a full assessment of the environmental, economic, and other impacts of GE crops on farm sustainability."

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Tags: Agriculture | Genetically Modified Food