GE crops: good for farmers, good for the planet?

What was the 18th century French historian Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d’Aussy talking about when he said : “The pasty taste, the natural insipidity, the unhealthy quality, which is flatulent and indigestible, has caused it to be rejected from refined households and returned to the people, whose coarse palates and stronger stomachs are satisfied with anything capable of appeasing hunger.”

Well done if you recognised the potato, newly introduced into France at the time.

Comments like Legrand d’Aussy’s raise a smile today, but in fact we’re far more conservative about food now than in previous generations (when was the last time you knowingly ate a crow?). For example, over the years, most of the 7000 or so edible plants farmers have cultivated have been marginalised, and a few major crops and animals assure most food supplies.

The big difference is in the variety of ways ingredients are processed by the food industry, and, more recently, in new ways of producing food.

The most controversial of these is genetic engineering, GE. Supporters see it as continuing a long line of technical innovations that have boosted agricultural productivity and contributed to improved food security. Opponents argue that we don’t know enough about the consequences of GE crops and it’s foolish to push ahead, especially when so many other solutions to food security are underused. 

The National Research Council of the National Academies has just published a report on the economic and environmental impacts of GE crops looking at the impacts of GE in the US. (In other OECD countries, notably in Europe, consumer hostility means that GE crops are less widespread than in the US.)

According to the NRC, there are significant environmental benefits.

Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.

There are economic benefits too. In many cases, farmers who have adopted GE crops have either lower production costs or higher yields, or sometimes both, due to more cost-effective weed and insect control and fewer losses from insect damage.

It sounds great, but the report also issues a number of warnings.

Gains aren’t guaranteed. For instance, insect or weed resistance could render genetically engineered crops ineffective and force farmers to resume using more toxic chemicals. The NRC says that more needs to be done to slow the evolution of resistant weeds, such as spraying more than one kind of chemical.

Although farmers have gained economic benefits, more research is needed on the extent to which these advantages will change as pests adapt to GE crops, other countries adopt genetic engineering technology, and more GE traits are incorporated into existing and new crops.

Industry mergers and the dominance of a few players might stifle competition, an issue the Department of Justice is examining.

What do you think?

Useful links

OECD report on Biotechnologies in agriculture and natural resources to 2015

OECD Agriculture homepage

FAO on biotechnology in food and agriculture

20 questions about GM food answered by WHO

Greenpeace says no to genetic engineering

ISAAA says share the benefits of crop biotechnology

Avaaz would like more research, and a ban until it’s done

Patrick Love

32 comments to “GE crops: good for farmers, good for the planet?”

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  1. Dr. Omvir Singh Kanwar - 20/04/2010 Reply

    It is good initiative to increase productivity quality and reduces the chemicals uses.

  2. A K Jayalekha - 20/04/2010 Reply

    GE crops are definitely going to be an answer for ensuring food security. The authorities concerned should make sure that all required safety tests are conducted thoroughly and decisions taken instead of totally opposing the technology.

  3. Helen Garces - 20/04/2010 Reply

    GE crops should not be seen as a threat but as an answer to human needs. However, regulation should be made in order that in the field crops are safety maintained and close by crops are not disturbed. Authorities concerned with this subject should make sure the right rules are followed and informing people (even the more educated ones) of what is really a GE. Most people I believe are against crop improvement due to pure ignorance on the subject.

  4. Baye Kambui - 20/04/2010 Reply

    My opposition to GE crops covers three areas: [1] we simply do not know enough; [2] I have a basic problem with corporations owning a patent for a type of food which can grow from the ground; [3] organic farming appears to be a better business alternative.

    Humans do not have a great track record when it comes to imitating nature’s “magic touch” with foods. Margarine and baby formula are only a handful of examples. I think we need more time to understand GE crops’ effect on biodiversity. If history is a guide, it’s highly likely that the insecticide benefits of GE crops will disappear as bugs eventually evolve to address a man-made obstacle. We’re already hearing about the birth of a “Super Bug” in Asia. That’s not surprising…

    I also keep thinking about the Monsanto/Cargill experience in India and wonder if we want a world where the ultimate distribution of food depends on whether or not compliance with seed patent provisions exists. That’s not a business model I am morally comfortable with.

    I am a bigger advocate of organic farming, where GE crops are not used. In addition, U.S. organic farms on average generate more revenue and realize higher profits than all farms, according to the USDA:

    song currently stuck in my head: “quasar” – herbie hancock

  5. Pritam Mazumder - 21/04/2010 Reply

    The very idea of GM food is to ensure food for all & be able to mitigate the adverse environmental conditions. Choice is quite simple. For those who say it’s having harmful in term consumption, I would (& most starved population of the world) would rather eat GM & die in 25 years, than starve & die in 1 year (& probably lesser time)
    Though choice is yours, please be wise !!

  6. Prafulla Naphade - 21/04/2010 Reply

    It is now proved from Bt cotton that farmer net income can increase through GM crop. It is need of the time to satisfy the demand of growing population.

  7. Devendra rana - 21/04/2010 Reply

    Helping for new generation in all our country.

  8. Mahindra S Datir - 22/04/2010 Reply

    GM crops help agriculture play a crucial role in preserving the natural environment by reducing the number of insecticide applications on insect-resistant crops.Farmer experiences with GM crop (Bt Cotton)technologies that have been developed specifically for the needs of developing-country farmers.

  9. Ricardo J. Licea Moreno - 22/04/2010 Reply

    It had been demonstrated that GMOs technology is good, and safe (more than “ecological” crops), for agriculture, for health, for animal, for environment, for farmer economy. There are no solid reasons to hamper its use in EU.

  10. Dr Govind Sharma - 22/04/2010 Reply

    Scientific Agriculture as a whole being transformed from Gene to genomics and efforts now being directed towards Protiomics-has demononstrated the benefits of these advances to feed the population.Considering population growth and static crop acreages universely, food security has already became a challange right now. One of the area to increase food production remains on protecting crop losses due to pest pressure-where recent biotechnological break through as development of GM Crops seems to be economically viable, environmentally safe and delivering demand to many populous countries.
    -Focus should be directed on benefits rather than myth.

  11. Dr Gururaj Kulkarni - 23/04/2010 Reply

    Instead of completely opposing it, conduct science based,unbiased studies to assess GM food safety. Based the results, take decsion as reports suggest. This technology should be used for the benefit of the humans. In the past, humans have used the resources for the their benefit, it is also one of the modern technology tool available to fullfill the food needs of the growing population. GM food technology must be encouraged and exploited.


    Products from biotechnology are no less safe than traditionally bred crops. In fact, they may be even safer, because they represent small, precise alterations with the introduction of genes whose biology is well understood. Often these genes are derived from other food crops. Further, genetically improved products are subjected to intensive testing, while conventional varieties have never been subjected to any such regulation for food safety or environmental impact.People, who battle weather, pests, and plant disease to try to raise enough for their families, can benefit tremendously from biotechnology,It also helps to phase out diseases by making crops resistant to them. Genetic engineering can also improve the nutritional value of an item, which could be particularly beneficial to developing countries whose people can’t necessarily get the nutrition they need.As a conclusion we can say that GE crops benefits may be accounted in a way of pest resistance,herbicide tolerence,disease resistance,cold tolerance,drought & salinity tolerance,nutritional value,pharmaceutical developments,phytoremediation,environment safety and food security for growing population and ….many more.

  13. Dr. V W Narladkar - 23/04/2010 Reply

    Worldwide cultivation of Bt cotton proved that increse in crop productivity & farmer’s net income without any harmful effect on humanbeing and environment. Application of this technology to other crops will further enhance the productivity in these crops and it will mitigate the future requirement of incresed population.

  14. A.R.Saxena - 23/04/2010 Reply

    A positive innovation, helping to improve food security and quality, while reducing chemical use

  15. Tapas Konar - 23/04/2010 Reply

    GM-Crops are boon to mankind as biotechnology has derived crops which will arrest pest attack and secure food for us .Also it gives a safer environment due to less/needbased application of toxic pesticides , which most of the times are being used much before ETL .Particularly , when highly toxic pesticides like phorate , carbofuran are still in use , we should only think of having a better place to stay with GM crops , which not only will take care of the threat of food security, but also will be beneficial for the environment by reducing random use of pesticides .GM Crops is not a menacing threat , rather a great hope for the entire mankind .

  16. Pramod Tiwari - 23/04/2010 Reply

    Need for food and feed is increasing with increasing population and farming community is under pressure of productivity due to decreasing agricultural land and irratic agroclimatic conditions. This calls for big need of genetically engineered crops that will help us grow enough food and feed in the challenging environment that is to come. The living exmple in India is GM cotton that has given a new hope to cotton farmer of India.

  17. Baye Kambui - 23/04/2010 Reply

    I would “almost” see the case for Genetically-Engineered crops if global hunger is a pure scientific problem, but there are significant economic, political and business drivers which cannot be ignored. Under the proposed model, it sounds like some of the proponents of GE crops position the solution as a “die now or possibly die later” proposition. The refusal to address poverty as the root cause of hunger will mean that people will simply die under any set of circumstances short of a radical change.

    Our most recent global recession proves a point most economists already knew – there is a point where producing more goods is meaningless when there are no customers around who can afford to buy these goods. More than 1 billion people around the world survive on USD 1 per day. In addition, many countries lack the capital to invest in distribution systems to connect customers with the food, assuming the customers could afford to buy the food in the first place. All the GE crops in the world will not help the most impoverished of people – particularly when the patented/seed lease policies of the large food companies are not designed for social charity.

    GE crops will not stop the international “land grab” being committed by large corporations at the expense of poor farmers. In addition, the political landscape in many countries makes addressing hunger a significant challenge. Neither of these drivers will go away simply because GE crops are introduced.

    The establishment of a new business architecture for farmers to have stronger access to capital, markets and best practices would be a more effective way to address poverty/hunger…

  18. Patrick Love - 23/04/2010 Reply

    We received the following comment from Rachel Dujardin of Greenpeace:

    GM crops are a threat to food security rather than a solution to the food crisis. Genetic engineering does not increase yields and GM crops have failed under extreme fluctuations in temperature.

    Rather than increasing critical biodiversity, genetic engineering puts the world’s natural biodiversity at risk of contamination in an unforeseeable and uncontrolled way. Since 1996, there have been 216 cases of crops being contaminated by GMOs in 57 countries (

    Genetic engineering is also expensive and risky for farmers. Its seeds are subject to patent claims which will indirectly increase the price of food and, as a result, will not alleviate poverty or hunger and pose a threat to food sovereignty.

    This analysis is shared by the 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. Initiated by several UN bodies and the World Bank, the report is the first global scientific agriculture assessment. Compiled by over 400 scientists from around the world, the assessment sees no role for GM crops in achieving the Millennium Development Goals or in eradicating hunger.

    Traditional and modern conventional breeding techniques can help achieve long-term solutions to the food crisis. They increase plants’ ability to withstand the unpredictable and variable weather brought by climate change.

  19. Patrick Love - 23/04/2010 Reply

    We recveived the following comment from Nagendra Pratap Singh:

    Genetically engineered crops are going to provide the food self sufficiency and also taking care of the providing better nutritional value in near future. But it requires the thorough food safety testing before coming to a conclusion that GE crops are a threat to biodiversity.

  20. Cyril - 24/04/2010 Reply

    Actually GMOs use more chemical products, the plant doesn’t defend by itself, it only resist to Round Up etc, so farmers use more of them.

    And for the raise in productivity, just ask Indian farmers who use the cotonBT by Monsanto 🙁

  21. Cynthia - 24/04/2010 Reply

    They use less pesticides on GMO’s because instead of putting it on the outside of the plant, the entire cellular makeup of the plant is made to BE a pesticide. This means that GE corn, soy, and the like MUST BY LAW BE REGISTERED AS A PESTICIDE, NOT A FOOD. If that sounds like something you all want to eat, that’s fine, but it’s causing lots more problems than just health in humans. It’s ruining fields and fields of land and making soil sterile, also the crops can not be contained and are ruining other farmers “ORGANIC” farms and they can no longer call their crops organic, ruining their livelyhood. Not to mention that Monsanto’s “Patents” make it impossible for farmers to harvest their own seeds, they need to buy more each year driving them into the poor house. That is not how nature works.

    This article is a joke. GMO’s can not feed the world, organic farming can. If GMO’s are used to feed the world there are going to be a lot more Auto-immune diseases and allergies that then need to be treated medically, all over the world. It’s already happening. Good luck to you people who believe this article. But I’m growing my own NON-GM, ORGANIC garden right in my back yard….YUM!!! I can register my crops as food, the way god intended it.

  22. Yog Raj - 26/04/2010 Reply

    Let this tool of progressive science use to serve human kind for food security and sustainability by knowledgeable evaluation, assessment and depoloyment.

  23. emily brooks - 26/04/2010 Reply

    Most of us watched Jurassic Park as entertainment.
    Remember Jeff Goldbloom’s character? The scientist? Who had a long diatribe about how we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature – she’s smarter than us?
    We think Jurassic Park is mindless entertainment – fictional – irrelevant.
    IT’S NOT. We mess with Mother Nature EVERY DAY, thinking we can outsmart her . . . beat her at her own game.
    Nope. We will lose. Big time.

  24. shashi Banakar - 27/04/2010 Reply

    GE crops increase the productivity & capital of farmers,eco-friendly by reducing the use of pesticides. so use of this technology for othercrop is safe & positively increase the economy

    Shashi Banakar
    Bayer Bioscience

  25. R S Mahala - 06/05/2010 Reply

    Genetic engineering is a great tool in the hands of humankind. If technology is used wisely, benefits could be tremendous and beyond our imagination. Current products of GM crops are primarily targeted defensive traits. They are much safer then consuming chemicals in the form of pesticides. GE technology is evolving at much faster pace then ever. It might serve as routine tool in addressing issues like drought, quality, productivity and many more. Crop growing conditions are changing and never going to be the same due to human intervention with nature. Bigger issue is survival and sustainability of exploding population. When there are no alternate options in hand, GM crops are the only way to produce more food and quality food in near future. We have already seen more benefits as compare harmful effects in several crops and many more benefits are underway in many crops.

  26. Erica Gray - 01/06/2010 Reply

    I see alot of the comments left here are in favor of gmo crops. Yet I wonder how many of these folks actually grow or have ever grown food.
    As an organic home grower and seed saver,I don’t want my seeds to become contaminated with gmos. I and millions of other people want to retain our right NOT to eat gmos.
    There is plenty of evidence starting to surface of problems with these crops and not just weed problems either.
    As oil continues to spew into the gulf,the public watches in horror,only to realize industry and regulators were cozy bedbuddies.
    No difference in the agricultural sector either.
    America is way over due for real assesments and true environmental impact studies.
    Trust the information industry puts out to the public? Knowing the monetary liability will be limited and far less to continue to do buisness as usual.
    Just as teams are being deployed all over the what were white beaches and highly important animal breeding and fishing grounds, cleaning up the goo…yet,the invisible and not yet determined environmental damage/destuction remains unknown.
    Where is the precautionary principle,be it in energy or agriculture???

  27. Prof. Philip L. Bereano - 01/06/2010 Reply

    The NRC report, on which this statement relies, used a narrow data set and thus did not capture the decline in effectiveness a few years after adoption (eg, the growth of herbicide tolerant superweeds, resistant insects, etc.) After all, Darwin was right, n’est pas?

    The fact remains that NO countries (with the possible exception of Norway) are known to do rigorous risk assessemnts, such as those in the Guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius (which I participated in developing). It is absurd to call “policies” such as “substantial equivalence” by the label “science-based’ since they are mere logical constructs (analogies) devoid of any supporting experimental or observational data.

    Further, scientific experiments which have indicated some of the risks of GE have not been followed up (eg, Pusztai’s work). Such decisions are pollitically based, not scientifically grounded.

    for Washington Biotechnology Action Council (Vice-President) and
    49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium (co-Director)

  28. Anthony cain - 01/06/2010 Reply

    IT looks to me that from the nature and source of the replies above that Bayer, Monsanto and the GE companies have employed Rent-a-crowd in India to peddle their propaganda. There are an awful lot of Indian names and a disproportionate number of them seem to be in favour of GE technology. This is surprising when the failure of the GE cotton crops in India and the subsequent suicides of farmers there is well-documented.
    Nobody is paying me to write this —- can they say as much?

  29. Dr.Shishir Golhar - 25/07/2010 Reply

    GM crops are addressing the safe and sustainable solutions to boost agricultural productivity which has proved perfect complementary to the conventional means of crop improvement in the given time frame. Agricultural industry is looking, towards these innovations with a great hope to take care of food and feed needs of increasing population with decreasing agricultural land and changing agroclimatic conditions.
    A scientific, practical, biosafety & regulatory deployment should be encouraged while commercial application of this technology.

  30. Lisa - 05/01/2011 Reply

    The bt injected into the DNA of plants and the Glyphosate resistance also acquired into the DNA of
    plants do more harm than help.

    Bt levels have skyrocketed in the soil. Hence creating/created pest resistant to one of the safest
    natural pesticides known to man. However Bt was never in the DNA of anything in the first place, it was contained in the soil, putting it into the DNA has caused the increase of BT in the soil and no one knows what the consequence will be.

    Now lets talk about Glyphospate. The plants designed to withstand glyphospate (roundup ready – RR) are also causing resistant species. One of these species is a soil pathogen that already caused major crop damage and millions of dollars worth of losses. Now this pathogen is becoming resistant to all RRplants.

    Fusarium. Fusarium is the cause of sudden soybean death, not too mention many other
    diseases. So Monsanto has taken a problem, tried to make it better, but made it worse.

    More productive crops are only part of the solution to the world’s food crisis. There are many reasons for the current and projected food crisis. Among the most important are lack of income to buy food, lack of infrastructure like roads to get products to market, trade policies that disadvantage farmers in the developing world, lack of inputs such as fertilizer, lack of information, and low-yield farming practices.

    More productive crops will do little to alleviate hunger if deficiencies in those areas are not addressed as well.

    Where more productive crops are needed, there is little reason to believe that genetic engineering will be
    better than other technologies — in particular, sophisticated traditional breeding — at producing higher yielding crops.

    Many technologies can increase the yields of crops. These include traditional breeding, production of hybrids, so-called marker-assisted breeding (a sophisticated way of enhancing traditional breeding by knowing which plant cultivars carry which trait), and tissue culture methods for propagating virus-free root stocks. All of these could help improve the productivity of crops in the developing world, but currently only limited resources are available for applying them there.

    So far, there no reason to believe that genetic engineering would be markedly better than these more traditional technologies in improving crops. Early “gene dreams” were of nitrogen-fixing crops, higher intrinsic yield, and drought tolerance. But so far none of these seems realistic because most involve complex multigene traits.

    For the most part, genetically engineered crops are limited to one or two gene transfers and have relatively few applications of use to hungry people. Those that are of use, such as insect resistance and virus tolerance, do not increase intrinsic yield and vary in effectiveness. In addition, they appear to be short lived due to the almost certain evolution of resistant pests and pathogens.

    As an afterthought… wouldn’t it be nice and easier on the eyes to see one less gas station, one less shopping mall, one less fast food restaurant and one less parking lot and more family owned farms and gardens and orchards? Earth gives us life, in case we have forgotten, why should we smother her in concrete?

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