Prior to this week’s Earth Day activities, a new report released by the National Research Council provided analysis of the effects of genetically engineered crops on “farm-level sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social effects.”

I thought the most interesting sentence in the key findings summary, as Earth Day was just around the corner, related to GE crops’ environmental impact. “Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally,” the report noted.

Of course, activists who believe all GE crops and all genetically modified organisms are bad used the week of Earth Day to spout rhetoric about the environment being destroyed by farmers growing GE crops.


The National Research Council analysis explained that planting GE crops has meant that fewer and less environmentally impactful pesticides have been used in crop production during the past 14 years. As the announcement of the results noted, “Improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops. Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduced erosion.”

The first GE crop introduced was Roundup Ready soybeans, and several crops have been developed that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide since 1996. Since that year, other crops have been developed that are resistant to glyphosate as well as to other herbicides.

The other big GE breakthrough was crops that protect themselves from attacking insects. The GE plants don’t require insecticide protection because the plant has its own internal mechanism that stops insects from feeding on the plant. Soybeans were the first herbicide-resistant crop, and cotton was the first GE-crop with insecticide protection. Now, more than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton commercially grown in the U.S. are protected against weed competition and/or insect damage through the planting of GE seed.

Of course, as with all reports that are compiled by a group of scientists, there are the mandatory warnings and requests for additional funding to study or assess specific areas in more depth.


One activist complaint about releasing GMOs into the environment was addressed as follows: “Gene flow between many GE crops and wild or weedy relatives is low because GE crops do not have wild or weedy relatives in the United States or because the spatial overlap between a crop and its relatives is not extensive.”

As to the concerns of GE grain being in organic products or shipments of world-traded grain, the scientists suggest that a standard needs to allow for “adventitious presence” which recognizes that even in non-GE varieties there are non-standard gene grains. Resolving the issue of GE grain in markets that require strict non-GE presence standards “will require the establishment of thresholds for the presence of GE material in non-GE crops, including organic crops, that do not impose excessive costs on growers and the marketing system,” according to the report.

The warning that more and more weeds are showing up resistant to glyphosate herbicide because of over use is an area that both the original developer of Roundup Ready crops and Roundup herbicide, Monsanto, and other herbicide manufacturers have been addressing—without government intervention. As though it was a huge revelation, the NRC report scientists note, “GE herbicide-resistant crops should not rely exclusively on glyphosate.”


In the two-page report announcement, there was little related to the livestock industry. “Studies also should examine impacts on industries that rely on GE products, such as the livestock industry,” it was noted in the news announcement.

Written within the summary was the following: “Livestock producers constitute a large percentage of corn and soybean buyers and therefore are major beneficiaries of any downward pressure on crop price due to the adoption of GE crops.” It was suggested for one specific situation that “livestock producers also benefit from increased feed safety due to reduced levels of mycotoxins in the grain.”

Again the report suggested that the effects on livestock producers “have not received adequate research” leaving open the door for more scientists to come up with more studies.

Source: Richard Keller, AgProfessional editor