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What non-farmers should know about genetically modified organisms

Friday, August 28, 2015

U.S. crop farmers who raise genetically modified (GM) crops such as corn, soybeans, or cotton, choose to do so because this technology makes sense for their financial bottom line. These seeds help them reduce pesticide and/or herbicide costs. In general, U.S farmers have had good yield experience with these seeds because of superior genetics. These views of the value of agricultural biotechnology are shared broadly among U.S. crop farmers, reflected by the fact that more than 90% of the area planted for each of these three major crops uses GMO seed.

However, there are a lot of people in the United States who are not farmers or do not live on farms (more than 300 million at the latest count), and many of them have concerns about eating food that contains GMO ingredients.  In fact, in an ABC News poll in June 2014, 52% of Americans polled believe that such foods are unsafe to eat, and 93% believe the federal government should require labeling of such products. Although these numbers are higher than have been reflected in similar polling by other organizations, these kinds of views are widely held. That’s why efforts to require labeling such foods have gained traction in some states in recent years.

On July 14, 2015, the House Agriculture Committee passed legislation aimed at forestalling what could become a confusing array of state rules regarding GMO crops, by creating federal rules for voluntary GMO labeling that would pre-empt any existing or future state or local measures that require GMO labeling or ban the cultivation of such crops. The future prospects of this legislation are unclear.

Here is some basic information about agricultural biotechnology that should be of interest to non-farmers, including the extent of its use, the U.S. approval process, its safety record, and the benefits it creates.

GM crops have been around for about 20 years. The first GM field crop, Round-up Ready soybeans, was planted in 1995. This technology has now been embraced by farmers in 28 countries, with 448 million acres of GMO crops grown in 2014. More than half of that area is found in developing countries, including several of the major emerging economies, such as China, Brazil, Argentina, India, and South Africa.

The main GMO field crops planted around the world are corn, soybeans, cotton, and rapeseed. Other crops for which GM varieties are commercially available include sugar beets, alfalfa, tomatoes for processing, papayas, zucchini squash, onions, sweet corn, and sweet peppers, but these crops account for relatively little planted area so far.

Responsibility for regulatory oversight of GMO crops in the United States rests primarily with three agencies—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for potential health impacts on humans and animals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for crops with pest resistances incorporated, such as Bt corn, and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to evaluate potential adverse impacts on other plant species.

Over the past two decades, there have been no documented cases of adverse human health impacts from eating food made with ingredients from GMO crops. A handful of animal-based studies have claimed to show health effects from GMOs, but those studies were later debunked because questionable research methodologies were used.

To date, most GMO crops in cultivation provide direct benefits primarily to farmers, in terms of improved agronomics and economic performance. Non-farmers do enjoy benefits indirectly because planting GMO seeds can allow farmers to use fewer agricultural chemicals and facilitate adoption of conserving agricultural practices, such as no-till cultivation, which contribute to reduced agricultural runoff and water pollution.  In part as a result of these changes, USDA’s National Resources Inventory (NRI) indicates that soil erosion from cropland declined by 41% between 1982 and 2010.  

However, over the last few months, new GMO varieties of potatoes and apples have been approved for cultivation which will provide specific benefits to end-users. In November 2014, USDA approved the new Innate potato, which will allow people who consume this potato as French fries or hash browns to ingest less acrylamide, a substance suspected of causing cancer. The new GMO apple, approved by USDA in February 2015, will be more resistant to browning when cut or sliced as compared to conventional apples.

If the farmers of the world are to produce enough food to feed more than 9 billion people in the year 2050, it would be unwise to restrict their use of agricultural biotechnology or any other useful tools in the toolbox.


Stephanie Mercier Stephanie Mercier (smercier@farmjournalfoundation.org)
Farm Journal Foundation @samara333

View more posts by Stephanie Mercier

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.