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Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, Report in Brief

Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, Report in Brief

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Published by earthandlife
Advances in molecular and cellular biology now allow scientists to introduce desirable traits from any other species into crop plants through genetic engineering. Since their introduction in 1996, the use of genetically engineered crops has grown rapidly, and corn, cotton, and soybean that have been engineered to resist insect pests and herbicides are now planted on almost half of all U.S. cropland.

In this report, analysis of the U.S. experience with genetically engineered crops shows that they offer substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops; however, these benefits have not been universal, some may decline over time, and potential benefits and risks may become more numerous as the technology is applied to more crops.

Studies show that GE crops can be effective at reducing pest problems with economic and environmental benefits to farmers, but genetic engineering could potentially be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, and for a greater diversity of purposes -- for example, GE crops could help address food insecurity through the development of plants with improved nutritional qualities or resilience to a changing climate. Understanding the impacts of genetically engineered crops is vital to ensuring that crop-management practices and future research and development efforts realize the full potential of genetic engineering for commercial as well as public goods purposes, while maintaining the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of U.S. farms.

Advances in molecular and cellular biology now allow scientists to introduce desirable traits from any other species into crop plants through genetic engineering. Since their introduction in 1996, the use of genetically engineered crops has grown rapidly, and corn, cotton, and soybean that have been engineered to resist insect pests and herbicides are now planted on almost half of all U.S. cropland.

In this report, analysis of the U.S. experience with genetically engineered crops shows that they offer substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops; however, these benefits have not been universal, some may decline over time, and potential benefits and risks may become more numerous as the technology is applied to more crops.

Studies show that GE crops can be effective at reducing pest problems with economic and environmental benefits to farmers, but genetic engineering could potentially be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, and for a greater diversity of purposes -- for example, GE crops could help address food insecurity through the development of plants with improved nutritional qualities or resilience to a changing climate. Understanding the impacts of genetically engineered crops is vital to ensuring that crop-management practices and future research and development efforts realize the full potential of genetic engineering for commercial as well as public goods purposes, while maintaining the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of U.S. farms.

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Published by: earthandlife on Dec 08, 2010
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The Impact of Genetically EngineeredCrops on Farm Sustainability in theUnited States
Studies show that when best management practices areimplemented, GE crops have been effective at reducing pest problems with economic andenvironmental benets tofarmers. Genetic engineeringcould potentially be used inmore crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insectresistance, and for a greater diversity of purposes. For example, GE crops could help address globalfood insecurity through the development of  plants with improved nutritional qualities or resilience to a changing climate.This National Research Council report provides the rst comprehensive assessment of the effects of the GE-crop revolution on farm-level sustainability in terms of environmental,economic, and social impacts on both the farmsthat adopt GE crops and those that do not. Itdetails the challenges and opportunities for futureGE crops and offers recommendations on howcrop-management practices and future researchand development efforts can help to realize thefull potential offered by genetic engineering.
W
ith the advent of genetic-engineeringtechnology in agri-culture, the science of cropimprovement entered a newrealm. Advances in molecular and cellular biology now allowscientists to introduce desirabletraits from other species intocrop plants through geneticengineering. The ability totransfer genes between species isa leap beyond crop improvement through previous plant-breeding techniques, which could transfer desired traits only between related types of plants.The most commonly introduced geneticallyengineered (GE) traits allow plants either to produce their own insecticide, reducing croplosses to insect damage, or to resist herbicides,so that herbicides can be used to kill many typesof weeds without harming crops. Those traitshave been incorporated into most varieties of soybean, corn, and cotton grown in the UnitedStates. Since their introduction in 1996, the useof GE crops has grown rapidly and accounted for over 80 percent of soybean, corn, and cottonacreage in the United States in 2009.
Corn, cotton, and soybean that have been engineered to resist insect pests and herbicidesare now planted on almost half of all U.S. cropland. An analysis of the U.S. experience withgenetically engineered crops shows that they offer substantial net environmental andeconomic benets compared to conventional crops; however, these benets have not beenuniversal, some may decline over time, and potential benets and risks may become morenumerous as the technology is applied to more crops. Understanding the impacts of geneti-cally engineered crops is vital to ensuring that crop-management practices and futureresearch and development efforts realize the full potential of genetic engineering forcommercial as well as public goods purposes, while maintaining the environmental,economic, and social sustainability of U.S. farms.
Corn earworm, a common pest.
Source: Clemson University—USDA CooperativeExtension Slide Series, Bugwood.org
 
 Environmental Effects of GE Crops
Adoption of herbicide-resistant crops could helpimprove soil and water quality
Farmers have traditionally tilled elds to disruptweeds, but tilling can erode and compact soil,reducing its ability to absorb water and leading torunoff that can pollute rivers with sediments andchemicals. The use of herbicide-resistant crops allowsfarmers to apply herbicides to the eld to removeweeds after crops emerge from the soil, reducingthe need to till and beneting soil and water quality.Given that runoff from agriculture is the largestsource of surface water pollution in the United States,this could represent the largest single environmental benet of GE crops, but the infrastructure to track and analyze these effects is not in place.
Reliance on one herbicide reduces theeffectiveness of herbicide resistance as aweed-management tool
Because herbicide-resistant crops resistglyphosate, farmers who plant GE crops often usethis herbicide exclusively. However, the repeated useof glyphosate as the only weed-management strategyfavors the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds.It also allows weeds that already have a naturalresistance to glyphosate to thrive in elds withherbicide-resistant crops. Eventually, repeated usewill render glyphosate ineffective. To limit the evolu-tion of glyphosate-resistant weeds, farmers of herbicide-resistant crops should incorporate morediverse management practices, such as herbiciderotation and tank-mixes of more than one herbicide. Inaddition, new genetically engineered herbicide-resistantcrops are currently under development which may provide growers with other weed-management options.
Targeting specic insect pests with Bt toxins incorn and cotton has been successful, andinsecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops
Unlike broad-spectrum insecticides that killmost insects, even benecial ones such as honey beesor natural predators of pests, crops producing Bttoxins target only the specic pests that feed on thecrops. Repeated plantings of Bt crops could lead tothe emergence of Bt-resistant insects, but a successfulrefuge strategy mandated by the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency has prevented this from occurringso far. The strategy mandates a certain percentage of every Bt eld must be planted with non-Bt seed toensure that a population of insects susceptible to Bttoxin will survive. The introduction of multiple Bttoxins in new crop varieties further reduces the probability of insect resistance to Bt crops.
The transfer of GE traits from GE crops to othercrops or relatives has not been a concern for mostnon-GE crops
There is the possibility that GE traits could betransferred via wind or insect pollination to relatedspecies, but this is only a concern for the species, suchas cotton and sugar beet, which actually have wild or weedy relatives in the United States; corn and soybeando not. Gene transfer could be limited by plantingrestrictions to ensure that adequate space is left aroundelds of GE crops to prevent wind or insect pollinationof nearby related species. How gene ow between GEvarieties and non-GE relatives is managed in the futurewill depend on what GE crops are commercialized andwhether related species with which they can interbreedare present. For farmers who produce food for marketsthat prohibit GE material, gene ow of approved GEtraits into non-GE crops remains a serious concern.
 Economic Effects of GE Crops
Many adopters of GE crops have experiencedeither lower costs of production or higher yields,and sometimes both
Many farmers who use GE crops have experi-enced more cost-effective weed control and reducedlosses from insect pests. Farmers who previously
The Most Common GE Traits inUnited States Agriculture
Resistance to herbicides, insects, and viruses has been genetically engineered into only a few crops inthe United States. Nevertheless, GE crops have a high prole because herbicide-resistant and insect-resistanttraits are incorporated into three of the most widelygrown crops in the United States: soybean, corn, andcotton. Almost half of U.S. cropland in 2009 was planted to a GE variety of one of these crops.Most herbicide-resistant crops are resistant to theherbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate kills most plantswithout substantial adverse effects on animals or onsoil and water quality, unlike some other classes of herbicides. Because the crops are resistant to thechemical, glyphosate can be applied to kill weeds both before and after the crops emerge from the soil.Insect-resistant crops contain toxins from asoil-dwelling bacterium,
 Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt).The Bt toxins are lethal to the larvae of particular species of moths, butteries, ies, and beetles, but areharmless to humans, animals, or types of insects notsusceptible to the toxin. The toxins are effective onlywhen a susceptible insect feeds on the plant.
 
Gene ow of GE traits into non-GE crops hasthe potential to jeopardize crop value by renderingoutputs unsuitable for high-value foreign or other markets that limit or do not permit GE material infood products, though the extent of that effect hasnot been documented during the last 5 years. On theother hand, the segregation of GE traits from organic production may have beneted organic producers bycreating a market in which they can receive a premium for non-GE products.
 Social Effects of GE Crops
GE crops may have social impacts similar toprevious technological developments inagriculture
Research on earlier technological developmentsin agriculture suggests that there are likely to besocial impacts from the adoption of GE crops. For example, it is possible that farmers with less accessto credit or those who grow crops for smaller marketswould be less able to access or benet from GE crops.The introduction of genetic-engineering technologyin agriculture could affect labor dynamics, farmstructure, community viability, and farmers’ relation-ships with each other, but the extent of the socialeffects of GE crops are poorly understood becausethere has been little research on the topic to date.
Ongoing research is needed to investigate howmarket structure may affect access to and thedevelopment of GE traits
The U.S. seed industry has evolved from small,family-owned businesses to a market dominated bya handful of large, diversied companies. Thesecompanies have invested signicantlyin the research, development, andcommercialization of patent-protectedGE traits for the large seed markets of corn, soybean, and cotton, but have sofar chosen not to commercialize GEtraits in many other crops, either  because the market size is insufcientto cover the necessary research anddevelopment costs, or due to concernsabout consumer acceptance of thecrops and the risk of transfer of GEtraits to other plants. Universities and public research institutions could helpdevelop alternative crops for smaller markets, but full access to state-of-the-art technology developed by thelarge seed companies is often notavailable due to patent protections.faced high levels of insect pests that were difcult totreat before insect-resistant crops have particularly benetted from applying lower amounts of or lessexpensive insecticides. More effective managementof weeds and insects also means that farmers may nothave to apply insecticides or till for weeds as often,translating into lower expenditures for pesticides andless labor and fuel for equipment operations.
Farmers value increased worker safety andgreater simplicity and exibility in farmmanagement
Studies show that the high rates of adoptionof GE crops can be attributed in part to the valuefarmers place on increased worker safety, the perceived greater exibility in farm management,and the lower production risk associated with thecrops. Farmers and their employees not only facereduced exposure to the harsh chemicals found insome herbicides and insecticides used before theintroduction of GE crops, but also spend less timein the eld applying the pesticides.
The economic effects of GE crops on farmersof conventional crops are poorly understood
The decisions to adopt GE crops can havefar-reaching effects on other farms—for example,livestock producers constitute a large percentage of corn and soybean buyers for feed and therefore aremajor beneciaries of a reduction in crop price thatmight result from an expanded feed supply due to better yields from GE crops. However, there has been no quantitative estimation of savings to live-stock producers due to the adoption of GE crops,or of the resulting effect on the protability of livestock operations.To the extent that genetic-engi-neering technology successfullyreduces pest pressure on a eld andregionally, farmers of elds plantedwith non-GE crops may benet fromlower pest-control costs associatedwith reductions in pest populations.However, farmers who do not usegenetic-engineering technology alsocould suffer from the development of weeds and insects that have acquired pesticide resistance in elds planted toGE crops. Similarly, if GE traits wereto cross into weedy relatives, it is possible that weed-control expensescould be higher for all elds on towhich the weeds spread, whether afarmer grows GE crops or not.

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