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Author: Dr. Jennifer Wells
In agriculture, sustainability can be defined as supporting the profitability and resiliency for farmers while helping protect the earth’s natural resources. If we look at these parameters, how do GMOs (genetically modified organisms) fare?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an animal, plant, or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.1 Traditional plant breeding also alters a plant’s DNA by mixing the DNA of the two plants that are bred and screening the progeny for the desired outcome. Genetic engineering techniques allow the gene of choice (i.e. disease or insect resistance) to be singled out and inserted in a laboratory, making achievement of the desired outcome much quicker. In the grocery store there are many products labeled as “GMO free”. It is interesting to note that only 11 species of genetically modified foods are commercialized and sold in the United States. These include apple, field corn, sweet corn, squash, canola, alfalfa, sugar beet, cotton, soybean, papaya and potato.2 Uninformed consumers often pay more for items such as orange juice or strawberries because they have a “GMO Free” label, when none of these products on the market contain GMOs.
While many people have strong feelings against GMOs, there is scientific evidence that shows they have attributes that favor the environment in several ways.
Lower Pesticide Use
The most common traits in GMO crops are resistance to insects, diseases and herbicides. These traits have given plants the ability fight off insects and diseases from within the plant and lower the farmers dependency on chemical pesticides. In fact, since the inception of GMO crops in 1996, farmers have been able to lower their chemical pesticide usage overall by 37%.3 This is good for both the farmer’s ROI and the environment. The most common insect resistance trait, Bacillus thuringiensis, has both reduced insecticide use, and created a safter environment for beneficial insects such as honeybees and other pollinators. While the agricultural industry continues to struggle to find new modes of action for pesticides, the genetic trait library is wide open. As new traits are developed, I anticipate we could continue to reduce our pesticide usage even more.
Increase yield and decrease land use
As the world’s population continues to increase, and available farmland continues to decrease due to urban encroachment, farmers are charged with growing more with less land and resources. It is estimated that to feed a growing population, we will need to increase the food supply by 60 to 70 percent by 2050.3 GMO traits such as drought tolerance and insect and disease resistance have proven to grow healthier plants and continue to increase yields.3 In fact, studies show that yields of GMOs, averaged across all crops, have increased by 22% worldwide since their inception, with the biggest increase found in developing countries.3 Corn yields have increased by 25% and dangerous food contaminations, such as mycotoxins, have dramatically decreased.4
Increase no-till and reduce co2 emissions
Perhaps one of the most favorable attributes of GMOs is their contribution to no-till farming and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. When farmers plant herbicide resistant crops, they don’t need to depend on cultivation as a means of weed control. When a farmer practices no-till or reduced till on their farm, they can improve their soil health, reduce soil erosion, and keep carbon trapped in the soil which can reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. No-till and reduced till acres continue to increase in the US, thanks to technologies from GMOs.6 Currently 21% of cultivated land utilizes a no-till program.6 With the growth of carbon credit markets in the agricultural space, this will likely increase.
So back to the original question. Are GMOs sustainable? In my opinion 100% yes. GMO crops provide opportunities to help preserve the earth’s natural resources by allowing lower pesticide use, increased yields per acre and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. While doing all these things, they can also provide opportunities for farmers to increase their potential return on investment and profit per acre. Some of these practices, such as transitioning to no-till farming have even more added benefits such as NRCS funding and carbon credit programs. To learn more about NRCS programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov. If you are interested, you can learn more about the Truterra carbon program here.
1 - https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/genetically-modified-organisms
2 - https://ag.purdue.edu/GMOs/Pages/WhatareGMOs.aspx
3 - https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2018/02/gmo-crops-increasing-yield-20-years-progress-ahead/
4 - https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2018/02/19/gmo-corns-yield-human-health-benefits-vindicated-21-years-studies/
5 - https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2020/01/24/gmo-sustainability-advantage-glyphosate-sparks-no-till-farming-preserving-soil-carbon/
6 - https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/11/30/saving-money-time-and-soil-economics-no-till-farming
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