What is the purpose of genetic engineering?
The following crop species were genetically engineered between 1995 and 2010, soybean, cotton, maize, canola, sugar beet and alfalfa.
The implied purpose of biotech and genetic engineering is to attack flaws in the genetic traits of the seeds. Traits include herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, drought tolerance and disease resistance.
According to Biotech industry advocates biotechnology is supposed to provide farmers with tools that can make production cheaper and more manageable. For example, some biotechnology crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, which makes weed control simpler and more efficient. Other crops have been engineered to be resistant to specific plant diseases and insect pests, which can make pest control more reliable and effective, and/or can decrease the use of synthetic pesticides. These crop production options can help countries keep pace with demands for food while reducing production costs. A number of biotechnology-derived crops that have been deregulated by the USDA and reviewed for food safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been adopted by growers.
Many other types of crops are now in the research and development stages. While it is not possible to know exactly which will come to fruition, certainly biotechnology will have highly varied uses for agriculture in the future. Advances in biotechnology may provide consumers with foods that are nutritionally-enriched or longer-lasting, or that contain lower levels of certain naturally occurring toxicants present in some food plants. Developers are using biotechnology to try to reduce saturated fats in cooking oils, reduce allergens in foods, and increase disease-fighting nutrients in foods. They are also researching ways to use genetically engineered crops in the production of new medicines, which may lead to a new plant-made pharmaceutical industry that could reduce the costs of production using a sustainable resource.
Genetically engineered plants are also being developed for a purpose known as phytoremediation in which the plants detoxify pollutants in the soil or absorb and accumulate polluting substances out of the soil so that the plants may be harvested and disposed of safely. In either case the result is improved soil quality at a polluted site. Biotechnology may also be used to conserve natural resources, enable animals to more effectively use nutrients present in feed, decrease nutrient runoff into rivers and bays, and help meet the increasing world food and land demands. Researchers are at work to produce hardier crops that will flourish in even the harshest environments and that will require less fuel, labor, fertilizer, and water, helping to decrease the pressures on land and wildlife habitats.
In addition to genetically engineered crops, biotechnology has helped make other improvements in agriculture not involving plants. Examples of such advances include making antibiotic production more efficient through microbial fermentation and producing new animal vaccines through genetic engineering for diseases such as foot and mouth disease and rabies.
These hopes sound good but what are the consequences of this rapidly evolving industry when it comes to the hopes and claims?
Fast Facts About Agriculture
2.2 million farms dot
rural landscape. About 97 percent of America farms are operated by
families – individuals, family partnerships or family corporations. U.S.
Farm and ranch families comprise just 2 percent of the
Farmers account for about 1% of the population, and the average age of farmers is rapidly increasing.
Large-scale family farms account for 9% of all farms and 66% of agricultural production.
A mere 19¢ of every dollar spent on food in 2006 went back to the farm – in 1975 it was 40¢.
Four out of every five farm households earned the majority of their income from off-farm sources.
From 2002 to 2007, total cropland acres decreased from 434 million acres to 406 million acres.
Many parts of the
, including agricultural regions, are experiencing groundwater depletion (withdrawal exceeds recharge rate). U.S.
Nutrient runoff in the agricultural upper regions of the Mississippi River creates a hypoxic “dead zone” in the
Gulf of Mexico. The average size of the region was over 6,600 sq. mi from 2004 to 2008.
Despite a tenfold increase in insecticide use between 1945 and 1989, crop losses due to insect damage nearly doubled. In 2007 the agriculture sector used 877 million pounds of pesticides in the
Less than 20% of corn, soy, and cotton plants were genetically engineered in 1996; by 2011 88% of corn and 94% of soybeans were genetically modified.
In 2007, 1.73 billion tons of topsoil was lost to erosion, equal to about 200,000 tons each hour.
More than 21 million American workers (15 percent of the total
workforce) produce, process and sell the nation’s food and fiber. U.S.
Today’s farmers produce 262 percent more food with 2 percent fewer inputs (labor, seeds, feed, fertilizer, etc.), compared with 1950.
In 2010, $115 billion worth of American agricultural products were exported around the world. The
sells more food and fiber to world markets than we import, creating a positive agricultural trade balance. United States
One in three
farm acres is planted for export. U.S.
31 percent of
gross farm income comes directly from exports. U.S.
About 23 percent of raw
farm products are exported each year. U.S.
Farmers and ranchers receive only 16 cents out of every dollar spent on food at home and away from home. The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution. In 1980, farmers and ranchers received 31 cents.
Americans enjoy a food supply that abundant, affordable overall and among the world’s safest, thanks in large part to the efficiency and productivity of
’s farm and ranch families. America
Agriculture and the Environment
Careful stewardship by farmers has spurred a nearly 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water since 1982.
Conservation tillage, a way of farming that reduces erosion (soil loss) on cropland while using less energy, has grown from 17 percent of acreage in 1982 to 63 percent today. At the same time, total land used for crops declined by 15 percent (70 million acres).
Farmers have enrolled a total of 31 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program to protect the environment and provide habitat for wildlife. Since its inception in 1985, the program has helped reduce soil erosion by 622 million tons and restored more than 2 million acres of wetlands.
Farmers, ranchers and other landowners have installed more than 2 million miles of conservation buffers under farm bill initiatives. Buffers improve soil, air and water quality; enhance wildlife habitat; and create scenic landscapes.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of trees are planted on farmland.
More than half of
’s farmers intentionally provide habitat for wildlife. Deer, moose, fowl and other species have shown significant population increases for decades. America
Through the farm bill, funding is provided to farmers and ranchers for conservation, for programs that prevent soil erosion, preserve and restore wetlands, clean the air and water, and enhance wildlife.
Crop rotation, the practice of growing different crops in succession on the same land, is another way farmers take care of the land.
For contour farming, farmers plant crops across the slope of the land to conserve water and protect soil.
Alternative energy sources, including wind power and renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel (made from corn, soybeans and other crops) are beneficial to the environment and promote energy security.
GMOs, A Global Debate: US Leads in GMO Production
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a non-profit that promotes crop biotechnology, reports that the
United States has about 70 million hectares (170
million acres) of land planted with GMO crops; has about 40 million
hectares (90 million acres). Brazil
Since the first GMO was approved in the
States in 1994, GM crops have played an increasingly
larger role in
agriculture. Today, about 90 percent of all corn and soybeans planted in the U.S. United States are grown from GM seeds, and more
than 40 percent of all GM crops produced worldwide are grown in the ,
according to estimates by the University of California–Davis. United States
About 70 percent of all processed foods sold in
U.S. grocery stores contains GM ingredients,
according to .
Yet unlike most other developed nations, American regulators do not require
special labeling of GM products. The first ballot initiative that would have
made labeling mandatory failed last November in Colorado
State University . California
Colin Carter, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource
Economics at the University of California–Davis, it is clear that
needs GMOs. America
Almost two decades have shown the advantages of genetically engineered crops for farmers and growers, he said.
“I think the strongest arguments [for GMOs] are reduced pesticide use, reduced yield loss, and increased competitiveness of
agriculture,” Carter wrote in
an email. U.S.
He does not see a significant safety issue since, he said, no study has definitively shown a health risk for humans.
While Dr. Robert Gould, adjunct professor at the University of California–San Francisco, is a proponent for labeling, he cannot say whether GMOs are necessary or not. For Gould, it comes down to making wise choices in the face of uncertainty.
“A lot of animal studies are inconclusive on both sides in terms of demonstrating clear-cut harm,” Gould said.
Gould is also a former national president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, a global physician organization that has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on nuclear threats.
He sees a parallel between GMOs and the introduction of nuclear technology—the risks of nuclear technology mostly became known only after it had already been used and its impacts already felt.
“I have concerns when there is widespread application [of a technology] and not adequate testing of impacts,” Gould said.
Therefore, he stresses the need for more long-term and industry-independent studies to better determine any potential chronic impacts of GM crops and food on animals, humans, and the whole ecosystem.
The American Medical Association (AMA), the largest and oldest organization of medical professionals in the
, extensively reviewed existing
studies on the human health implications of GM food in a 2012 report. United
The report concludes, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”
The report, however, identifies three areas where “a small potential for adverse events exists”: horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity.
One concern is that GM crops could cause an allergenic or toxic reaction when the intentional transfer of certain genes results in the unintentional transfer of allergens or toxins into the crop. Horizontal gene transfer is the unintentional introduction of genetic material from GM food into body cells that could lead to antibiotic resistance.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently conducting a wide-ranging study, the project GMO Risk Assessment and Communication of Evidence (GRACE), which will not only look at health, but also at environmental, and socio-economic impacts of GM plants..