GE crops: where we’ve been and where we’re going

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From conservation tillage practices and the use of GPS technology in precision agriculture to increased production of genetically engineered crops, technological advancements in recent decades have led to increased production and efficiency in agriculture in the United States. Since the first successful commercial introduction of genetically engineered crops in the United States more than 15 years ago, their adoption has been widespread, with nearly half of the land used for crops in 2013 being planted with genetically engineered crops, according to a recent report by USDA’s Economic Research Service.

field While the use of GE crops has allowed farmers to be more efficient, and use fewer herbicides and insecticides, the study says questions remain about the economic and environmental impacts, the evolution of weed resistance and consumer acceptable. The study took a look at historical production trends, economic impact and consumer response to genetically engineered crops.

According to the study, genetically engineered crop traits have been classified into one of three generations, with the first generation featuring enhanced input traits such as herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects and resistance to environmental stress. The report says the second generation features value-added output traits such as nutrient-enhanced seeds for feed, and the third generation features traits to allow production of pharmaceuticals and products beyond traditional food and fiber. Most GE crops planted in the United States have first-generation traits, but USDA says all three generations of GE crop traits and in various stages of research and development.

Three crops, corn, cotton and soybeans, made up the majority of acres planted to GE crops in 2013. Farmers used herbicide-tolerant soybeans on 93 percent of all planted soybean acres and herbicide-tolerant corn on 85 percent of acres planted to corn in 2013. Farmers planted insect-resistant (Bt) corn on 76 percent of acres in 2013. As of September 2013, USDA APHIS had approved 96 petitions for deregulation, allowing GE seeds to be sold, and had approved 30 for corn, 15 for cotton and 12 for soybeans. Additionally petitions have been approved for tomatoes, canola, potatoes, sugarbeets, papaya, rice, squash, alfalfa, plum, rose, tobacco, flax and chicory. There is no commercially available GE seed for wheat.

According to the report, the adoption of Bt corn has increased yields by mitigating yield losses. Additionally, seeds with more than one GE trait, stacked seeds, tend to have higher yields than seeds with only one GE trait. GE corn with stacked traits grew from 1 percent of corn acres in 2000 to 71 percent in 2013. The increase in planting of Bt corn has resulted in less insecticide use, with only 9 percent of all U.S. corn farmers using insecticides in 2010. However, according to the report despite efforts to delay evolution of Bt resistance, there are some indications that insect resistance is developing to some Bt traits in some areas.

The price of GE soybeans and corn increased by about 50 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 2001 and 2010, according to the report. But the report says that planting Bt corn and cotton is more profitable, as measured by net returns, than planting conventional seeds.

On the consumer side, the report found that acceptance of foods with GE products varies based on product characteristics, geography, and the information consumers are exposed to. Some studies cited in the report found consumers to be willing to try, and even pay a premium, for GE foods with positive enhancements, like nutritionally enhanced products. While other studies found a willingness to pay for non-GE foods. With regard to geography, some studies found increased willingness to pay for GE foods in developing countries compared to developed countries. Despite numerous reports being cited by USDA, the agency says consumer approval patterns are not clear enough to draw definite conclusions.   

Non-GE foods are available in the United States, but they represent a small share of retail markets. While critics of GE crops and the food products they make continue to push for mandatory labeling requirements, science has shown, and the U.S. government and World Health Organization agree, that plants and crops grown from GE seeds are safe for human consumption. With the population continuing to grow and the amount of farmland continuing to fall, the ability of farmers to produce food and fiber more efficiently will continue to be one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture around the globe.

I participated in a tour of a wheat farm during harvest a couple of years ago, and other participants included a group of bloggers from cities around the United States and wheat millers from Nigeria. While there is no commercially available GE wheat, the topic of GMOs came up in conversation. The responses reinforce what this USDA report claims. The bloggers from the United States were skeptical and questioned GMOs and GE seeds. However, the wheat millers said these technologies will help feed their people and the world.

What are your thoughts? Will the use of GE crops, and continued research and development of new varieties, help address the challenge of feeding the world in the future? Leave us a comment below. 

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NE  |  February, 25, 2014 at 05:52 PM

You should be Drovers- monsantoNetwork. The studies on GMOs are pretty scarey. The ones not paid for by the seed companies. What happens when health problems start seen? I think modified foods are the worst farming developement ever. And we are sharing them with the world. Think about it: do you want to eat food that has pesticides in them? Horrific!

Mark Cook    
south dakota  |  February, 25, 2014 at 07:19 PM

BT corn produces a natural substance that prevents the development of insects that consume it. Many organisms produce "Pesticides" to prevent insect damage. Jalapeno peppers manufacture their own pesticides which is why humans are the only animal dumb enough to eat them. You can't compare the organic salt in BT corn to a chemical pesticide. However, I do think we have not had enough time to truly evaluate the long term effect of eating higher quantities of the organic salt. Only time will tell if long term health issues develop.

Lance Loudder    
Texas  |  February, 26, 2014 at 09:04 AM

Hi Judy. The last time I saw data on the studies showed 1700 studies that showed no danger and one that did. That study was later discredited by scientists and the journal that printed it for bad methodology. I would be interested to read any legitimate study and not a blog of someone who has no knowledge but plenty of opinion. Thanks

texas  |  February, 26, 2014 at 09:12 AM

How long is long enough? GMO crops have been around long enough that if there was any evidence of health risks there would be a line of lawyers 500 miles long filing lawsuit after lawsuit.

February, 26, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Everything we humans do (and everything we don't do) has consequence. At a farm meeting at least twenty years ago, a local farmer stood up to ask if weeds might develop a resistance to glyphosate. Despite flippant remarks to the contrary from the salesmen peddling glyphosate, farmers now battle resistant superweeds like pigweed and marestail with ever stronger chemicals. Adaptation is the way of evolution and creation. Insects and weeds adapt far faster than people and other mammals do because they turn generations much more rapidly. Thus, they will always adapt faster than humans and technologies do. No matter what we invent, that fact remains true. We simply don't know what widespread long-reaching effects our chemical technologies will prove to have in the future. We cannot resume the eradication (intentional or unintentional) of whole species, as we did in the dangerous days when DDT was legal. We are fooling ourselves if we believe we can grow such huge percentages of GE crops with impunity. Every corporation that has ever set out to profit from a greedy alteration and exploitation of nature has eventually reaped some negative consequence along with its profits. Although no corporation has funded research, some scientists now believe that a correlation exists between widespread introduction of genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant crops in the late 1990s and the obesity epidemic that has rapidly expanded the waistlines of Americans since that era. In my humble opinion, based on a half-century of farming and raising livestock in every manner from organic to industrial and back, improving our farm's soil with cover crops and grazing has worked far better than trying to bully it into submission with chemicals.

February, 26, 2014 at 03:21 PM

Oh please, give me a break. We're facing an obesity problem because everybody has become too d*** lazy. And the ones that aren't lazy have been helped by technology to rapidly reduce their workload. Good grief !!!!!!

February, 26, 2014 at 04:17 PM

Oversimplification is also a form of laziness.

February, 26, 2014 at 04:30 PM

Actually, I refer to it as reality and/or common sense. Too many people not working. Can't see how it could get any simpler than that. Sometimes the politically correct answer is not the right one.

February, 26, 2014 at 06:38 PM

I just have one question. Are you using "herbicide tolerant" to cover up the fact that you are ADDING Round-Up (a deadly poison) to our corn? If you corrupt companies would LABEL your poison, you'd find out that NO ONE wants to eat your poison.

Iowa  |  February, 26, 2014 at 08:06 PM

The biggest benefit of GMO crops has been convenience for the farmers and reduction of some passes across the fields. Farmers can farm more ground when each acre takes less time. As far as increased yields-an article in Feedstuffs magazine last year pointed out that corn yield increases are growing at a slower rate since the introduction of GMO corn. Yields are still going up but at a lesser rate than with just conventional breeding. Overall use of insecticides and herbicides went down at first but now both are coming back up because more and more resistance is showing up. People in elevators around here say they sell as much insecticide as they ever did. With the introduction of 2-4D resistance to the GMO mix one article said they expected overall herbicide use to quadruple over the next few years. I don't know why farmers pay the huge price for the seed when the Round-up and BT traits don't seem to work anyway. As far as safety goes-many people are worried about the glyphosate that may be in the crops and coming into what we eat. Glyphosate may be safe short term but no one has done any studies on the effects of long term exposure to low levels. That is what has many people concerned. Glyphosate will tie up trace minerals and it has an antibiotic effect that will influence the normal bacterial populations in our intestines. Some of these bacteria produce compounds that are essential for normal nervous system development. The Chinese have shown that glyphosate can cause neuron damage very similar to what is seen with Parkinsons disease. When you plot the rates of autism in this country and glyphosat use-the graphs are almost identicle

Iowa  |  February, 27, 2014 at 12:22 PM

Curare is a "natural" substance. Hemlock is a "natural" substance. There are numerous "natural" substances that are much more deadly than man-made products.

Florida  |  February, 27, 2014 at 07:21 PM

GMO corn causing tumors in rats..and this is safe for human consumption? This should be an outrage!

Texas  |  February, 28, 2014 at 07:51 AM

This is the study that was debunked. The rats used in the study are a genotype that genetically gets cancer. Even then all the rats didn't develop tumors. Have you read the hundreds of other studies that show no damage?

February, 28, 2014 at 11:34 AM

Iowa: A red herring fallacy is an observation that draws attention away from the central issue in an argument or discussion as this comment does. We are governed by our beliefs, and they sometimes make us irrational and unable to be honest even with ourselves. Most Americans (and hence many corporations run by Americans) prefer to believe that anything done for our own profit is justifiable, and that simply is not true. If we are rational and reasonable, we must admit that the long-term effects of the widespread use of GMOs and GE crops are largely unknown. The "long term" has not yet happened, and we have no perspective on this issue. If and when some entity with adequate means and funds has a reason to seek the answers, perhaps we will have real substantial proof whether or not our gamble with genetic engineering and chemicals has caused harm. In the meantime, we can only ask ourselves, "is this worth the risk?" A wise friend of mine made this unflattering comment about the American baby-boom generation. "More likely than not, our descendants will look back on us as the largest, most shortsighted, selfish, greedy, and destructive generation in the history of mankind." Ouch.

Texas  |  March, 02, 2014 at 06:20 PM

Great argument W.E. Let us just ignore all that "red herring" scientific research and use your rational and reasonable approach of which it is neither. If we used your mind set we would still be grubbing worms and roots and eating them cold because we were afraid of fire. Go wring your hands somewhere else.


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