Report Outlines Benefits and Drawbacks of Genetically-Engineered Crops; Looks Toward Future

The National Research Council (NRC), a part of the National Academies, recently published a report that provides a detailed assessment of the impact of genetically-engineered (GE) crops on farmers. Genetically-engineered crops were first introduced to farm fields in 1996. Today, GE crops account for over 80 percent of the soybean, corn, and cotton grown in the United States. The majority of these GE crops are resistant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp weedkiller) and make Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacterium that is poisonous to the insects that eat it.
The NRC tied GE crops to a number of benefits, including:

  • lower production costs,
  • fewer pest problems,
  • reduced use of pesticides, and
  • greater crop yields.

A number of environmental benefits were also associated with GE crops. The greatest benefit was seen in terms of water quality. Due to the use of fewer pesticides and insecticides, hazardous chemical run-off is less of a problem at farms that grow genetically-engineered crops.

One worry of using these glyphosate-resistant GE crops is that problems with weeds could arise in the future as the weeds themselves become resistant to glyphosate. This resistance has already arisen in nine weed species since the introduction of GE crops. The report authors suggest that farmers utilizing GE crops should not make the crops themselves their only weed/insect management program. Instead, to maintain the crops’ effectiveness against weeds, it is suggested that farmers use an integrated weed management system that involves pesticides other than glyphosate. As to fending off insect pests, the NRC recommends that farmers continue to utilize EPA-mandated “refuges” in which conventional crops are grown alongside their GE crop fields. The thought behind these refuges is that the insects will opt to feed on the conventional plants and not the GE crops, thus reducing the chance of the insects becoming resistant to the inserted Bt gene.

In the report, the National Resource Council provides a number of suggestions for future studies and research. One such suggestion is to further study the impact that genetically-engineered crops have on both conventional and organic farmers. In addition, the NRC suggests that government support be made available to researchers interested in studying genetically-engineered crops that provide a public benefit, such as reduced environmental impact.

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