After 15 years on the market, and constituting 80 percent of soybeans, corn and cotton grown in the U.S., we still know remarkably little about genetically engineered (GE) crops; and some of what we do know is cause for alarm. This is one of the main conclusions of a report released April 13 by the National Research Council.
First, the headline picked up by the New York Times and others: there has been a rapid rise in weeds resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup) that could rapidly undercut any environmental or economic benefits of GE crops. Glyphosate-resistant crops allow farmers to kill weeds with the herbicide without destroying their crop. To date, at least nine species of weeds in the U.S. have developed resistance to glyphosate since GE crops were introduced. The other primary type of GE crop is designed to produce Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria deadly to insect pests. Thus far, two types of insects have developed resistance to Bt. The loss of effectiveness of glyphosate and Bt crops could lead to increased use of more potent herbicides.
“This problem is growing, it’s real, and it’s going to get worse,” said chair of the NRS committee David Ervin, of Portland State University, at a press conference on April 13.
But just as alarming as growing weed and pest resistance is the dearth of research data on so many fundamental issues surrounding GE crops. The NRC report focused on how GE crops are affecting U.S. farmers. The assessment looked at GE crops through the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. In the end, the researchers didn’t have enough data.
“As more GE traits are developed and incorporated into a larger variety of crops, it’s increasingly essential that we gain a better understanding of how genetic engineering technology will affect U.S. agriculture and the environment now and in the future,” said Ervin. “Such gaps in our knowledge are preventing a full assessment of the environmental, economic and other impacts of GE crops on farm sustainability.”
More specifically, what we don’t yet know about GE crops:
- The full extent of weed resistance problems, or what those problems will mean in the future to the environment and farmers’ bottom line.
- Little understanding of how the use of GE crops affects water systems — positively or negatively.
- The effects of GE crops on farmers not growing GE crops, including both conventional and organic farmers. The committee reported on anecdotal information that farmers have had trouble finding conventional non-GE seeds. And as Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farm Research Foundation noted at the press conference, there is little peer-reviewed research on the enormous costs borne by organic farmers for testing to prove their crop is GE-free, let alone farmers who have lost organic certification from GE contamination.
- The impact of consolidation in the seed industry — accelerated by the transition to proprietary GE seeds — on prices and seed choices.
- Other social issues that have been overlooked include the impact of GE crops on labor dynamics, farm structure, farmer and community conflict and property rights.
The White House and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack should take a good look at this report. After 15 years, we still can’t fully assess whether GE crops are good for U.S. farmers — let alone consumers. Yet, the White House and Vilsack continue to aggressively push for other countries to use GE crops. As IATP’s Dennis Keeney and Sophia Murphy wrote last month in the Des Moines Register, GE crops that are widely used in the U.S. don’t make sense for the challenges facing Africa, for example.
Given the NRC report’s findings, it’s hard to justify the enormous amounts of money spent on the development of new GE crops, and harder still to justify pushing the technology on other countries, until we fill in the enormous research gaps that remain.