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?
OECD report on Biotechnologies in agriculture and natural resources to 2015