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 beneting 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 benet 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 specic 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 benecial ones such as honey beesor natural predators of pests, crops producing Bttoxins target only the specic 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 aroundelds 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 prole 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,
(Bt).The Bt toxins are lethal to the larvae of particular species of moths, butteries, 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.