cotton - gecrops

Even cotton is a ge crop, modified so it increases yield.

Florida Food & Farm wants your comments about GMOs. Here, FFF provides a discussion on whether GMOs/GE crops have lived up to their promise. This is the last of a three-part series on GMOs. Read the full series on GMOs

In the mid-1990s, genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced for commercial use. Reactions, as expected, were mixed.

Skeptics feared possible ill effects on humans and the environment. Advocates, on the other hand, believed that a burgeoning population needed a more productive food supply and that GE crops (also known as GMOs, or genetically modified organisms) were the answer. GMOs might also lower pesticide use.


(According to the United Nations, “The current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100.”)

Today, skeptics and advocates still don’t agree on GMOs. But a new study and a story by The New York Times lends support to the first group. “Doubts About a Promised Bounty: Genetically Modified Crops Have Failed to Lift Yields and Ease Pesticide Use” ran in the Oct. 30 edition.

The NYT article builds on the findings reported in a 420-page book by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects is based on a wide variety of National Academies studies conducted from 1987 to 2010.

The publisher, National Academies Press, in its abstract about the new book, said it shows “there are uncertainties about the economic, agronomic, health, safety or other impacts of GE crops and food.”

One positive result: In the U.S. during the past two decades of growing GE crops, the use of insecticides has dropped 33 percent. However, during the same period, the use of herbicides has increased by more than one-fifth.

Comparisons with Europe

The NYT exposé compared crop production in Europe, which has largely forbidden genetic engineering, with GE crops grown in the U.S. and Canada: “Comparing results on the two continents … shows how the technology has fallen short of the promise.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “The Americas constitute the largest growing region” for GM crops.  Worldwide, “Almost 150 million hectares (more than 370 million acres) (are) planted with GM crops.”

Thus, the potential for rewards – higher, even safer food production – are great. And GE crops seem safe.

In its informational pamphlet Genetically Modified Crops, the FAO notes that its studies have found no hard evidence of health problems associated with human consumption of GM crops:

“So far, there is no conclusive information on the definitive negative impacts of GMOs on health or the environment.”

That’s good news, given that, in America, GMOs are very common. In fact, according to the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, “70% of all processed foods in the United States contain at least one genetically modified ingredient — usually a product of soy plants.” Thus, the stakes are high.

Another issue with GE crops

But health problems are not the only potential issue with GMOs. Twenty years after the introduction of commercial GE crops in the U.S., the N.Y. Times story notes, ironically:

“for crops like cotton, corn and soybeans, the use of chemicals that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent. By contrast, in France, use of insecticides and fungicides has fallen by a far greater percentage — 65 percent — and herbicide use has decreased as well, by 36 percent.”

So the U.S., which grows many genetically engineered crops, is nevertheless using far higher percentages of insecticides and herbicides (collectively called pesticides) than France.

Study: Children are losing IQ points due to pesticides

Although pesticide use has dropped in the past two decades in the U.S., the “potential harm … has drawn researchers’ attention,” the NYT story notes.

One of those researchers is David Bellinger. In April 2012, while a researcher at Harvard Medical School, he published “A Strategy for Comparing the Contributions of Environmental Chemicals and Other Risk Factors to Neurodevelopment of Children” in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Bellinger estimated the that the number of IQ (intelligence quotient) points lost by 25.5 million children in the U.S., ages 0 to 5 years — due to exposure to “organophosphate pesticides” only — totaled 16.899 million. Of the 16 risk factors he studied, only “preterm birth” and “lead exposure” caused a greater loss of IQ points among the children (34.03 million and 22.94 million, respectively).

He says in his report’s conclusion: “it appears that when population impact is considered, the contributions of chemicals to (IQ) loss in children are substantial.”

Apparently, eating genetically engineered foods is safe. Insecticides are not. But there is yet another issue.

Yields haven’t increased much

According to The New York Times‘ story, “Doubts About a Promised Bounty,” even two decades after the introduction of commercial GE crops, “a broad yield advantage has not emerged.”

The NYT compared production of GE rapeseed, which is used to produce canola oil, in the U.S. and Canada with the production of non-GE rapeseed in Western Europe. The comparison used regional data from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization for 30 years — a period that began 10 years before the introduction of commercial GE crops.

“Despite rejecting genetically modified crops, Western Europe maintained a lead over Canada in (rapeseed) yields,” The Times concluded.

The story also compared GE corn production in the U.S. with non-GE corn grown in Western Europe: “Over three decades, the trend lines (showing production) between the two barely deviate.”

And non-GE sugar beets “have shown stronger yield growth recently in Western Europe than (the GE sugar beets grown) in the United States, despite the dominance of genetically modified varieties over the last decade,” according to the NYT story.

So, what is your opinion? Are GE crops good … bad … dangerous … beneficial? Is it too early to tell? Let us know what you think, and why. Thanks.