The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
The Fake Promises of GE Crops
By Janet Cotter
There's been a lot of "noise" recently about how genetically engineered (GE) crops can help "feed the world" and that they can help agriculture in a climate-affected world. But are these promises real or just hype?
If we look at recent studies, they actually highlight the failures of GE technology to deliver on its promises, and the mounting evidence that agricultural productivity is better served by a focus on ecological agriculture1. For instance, the latest study by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand found that:
Despite the claims that GE might be needed to feed the world, we found no yield benefit when the United States was compared to West Europe, other economically developed countries of the same latitude which do not grow GE crops.
This is not altogether surprising as there simply are no GE crops designed to increase yield. They do not exist.
The majority of currently existing GE crops—for example Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" GE soya—are herbicide tolerant, which allow herbicides to be sprayed liberally, killing all plants apart from the GE crop. This is not good for biodiversity because it affects animals such as birds2 and insects3 by reducing the abundance of plants that they feed on. This might also include bees, adding pressure to already declining populations.
The remainder of GE crops are mostly insect resistant and produce their own pesticide (for example GE Bt corn). These are also not good for biodiversity as these GE crops can kill other insects such as butterflies4. Problems of insect resistance5 and other, secondary6 insect pests, mean that farmers have to continue spraying pesticides with GE Bt crops. With GE crops, farmers are still on the pesticide treadmill.
The reality is that the promised "beneficial" GE crops are stuck at the development stage in the lab. The reason is that scientists are finding that the traits we need to help crops to cope with climate change (e.g. heat tolerance) or increased nutrition (e.g. enhanced vitamins) are actually quite complex and controlled by several genes. Genetic engineering is a crude technology and is no match the tightly controlled network regulating gene expression in cells. For example, "Golden" rice, a GE rice variety, is still in development after 20 years, largely because of the complexity of the genetic engineering.
Meanwhile, advances in conventional breeding mean that several of the crops promised by genetic engineering are already in farmer's fields. For example, both flood and drought tolerant rice are already in farmer's fields and drought resistant maize is available in many parts of Africa where it's needed. Nutrient enhanced crops also exist already—without using genetic engineering but a more sustainable solution is to improve access to a healthy and diverse diet.
It's clear that GE crops are not capable of producing the crops that farmers and consumers need, whilst the quiet revolution in conventional breeding techniques is already producing these crops.
GE crops are stuck with two simple traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. These do not help to "feed the world", but pose threats to human and animal health, as well as biodiversity.
Visit EcoWatch’s GE FOOD page for more related news on this topic.
1 Heinemann, JA et al. 2013. Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability: DOI:10.1080/14735903.2013.806408
1 Jacobsen SE et al.2013. Feeding the world: genetically modified crops versus agricultural biodiversity. Agronomy for Sustainable Development: DOI 10.1007/s13593-013-0138-9
1 Quist DA et al. 2013. Hungry for Innovation: pathways from GM crops to agroecology. Ch. 19 in: European Environmental Agency (EEA) Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation. Vol. 2. EEA Report no 1/2013 pp. 490-517
2 Heard MS et al. 2003a. Weeds in fields with contrasting conventional and genetically modifies herbicide-tolerant crop – I. Effects on abundance and diversity. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society London B 358: 1819-1832; Heard MS et al. 2003b. Weeds in fields with contrasting conventional and genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops. II. Effects on individual species. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society London B 358: 1833-1846
3 Pleasants JM & Oberhauser KS 2012. Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4598.2012.00196.x
4 Dively GP et al. 2004. Effects on monarch Butterfly larvae (Lepidoptera: Danaidae) after continuous exposure to Cry1Ab expressing corn during anthesis. Environmental Entomology 33: 1116-1125
5 Tabashnik B et al. 2013. Insect resistance to Bt crops: lessons from the first billion acres. Nature Biotechnology 31: 510-521
6 Catangui MA & Berg RK 2006.Western bean cutworm, Striacosta albicosta (Smith) (Lepidoptera : Noctuidae), as a potential pest of transgenic Cry1Ab Bacillus thuringiensis corn hybrids in South Dakota Environmental Entomology 35 1439-1452
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Low-Fat Diets Rich in Fruits and Veggies May Reduce Women’s Risk of Breast Cancer Death, Study Finds
Colorado senator and 2020 hopeful Michael Bennet introduced his plan to combat climate change Monday, in the first major policy rollout of his campaign. Bennet's plan calls for the establishment of a "Climate Bank," using $1 trillion in federal spending to "catalyze" $10 trillion in private spending for the U.S. to transition entirely to net-zero emissions by 2050.
When Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan in August 2018, its own estimates said the reduced regulations could lead to 1,400 early deaths a year from air pollution by 2030.
Now, the EPA wants to change the way it calculates the risks posed by particulate matter pollution, using a model that would lower the death toll from the new plan, The New York Times reported Monday. Five current or former EPA officials familiar with the plan told The Times that the new method would assume there is no significant health gain by lowering air pollution levels below the legal limit. However, many public health experts say that there is no safe level of particulate matter exposure, which has long been linked to heart and lung disease.