Choosing Sustainable Agriculture Over Genetically Engineered Crops

Biotechnology companies want you to believe that genetically engineered crops are needed to address the needs of Earth’s growing population. But can common-sense, tried-and-true concepts when choosing sustainable agriculture produces the same results? Many experts say they can.
By Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
October/November 2008
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Biotech companies tell us that genetic engineering will provide insurance against growing demands on our food supply, but scary questions remain.
Illustration by Dave Channon


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Choosing sustainable agriculture over genetically engineered crops. Sustainable agriculture, not genetic engineering, may be the answer to the world’s growing food needs.

Choosing Sustainable Agriculture Over Genetically Engineered Crops

The recent spike in food prices, as well as concerns about what the future may hold, are weighing on the minds of people across the globe. The biotech industry is exploiting such worries and claiming, contrary to evidence, that genetically engineered (GE) crops must be accepted to help the world feed itself. The industry hopes to use these scare tactics to expand into the many countries, especially in Europe and the East, that have wisely rejected GE foods because their human health and environmental safety have not yet been assessed.

After 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, GE crops have a track record that allows us to evaluate their performance. So far, there has been little progress in achieving important goals such as increased yields, better stress (drought) tolerance and improved sustainability in the form of decreased need for fertilizers, tilling and pesticides. Moreover, food safety and environmental risks from genetic engineering also remain to be addressed.

The most widely grown genetically engineered crop in the United States, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, has not increased yield above its conventional counterparts, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) trend data and numerous field studies. Insect-resistant GE crops have sometimes indirectly improved yields, but such yield increases have been modest, and recent studies suggest that much of the apparent improvements may instead be due to advances in conventional breeding. New insights from our growing knowledge of crop genetics are improving these conventional breeding techniques — without genetic engineering.

What about environmental benefits? Those, too, have been modest at best. Overall pesticide use (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) has not been reduced through genetic engineering. In fact, some weeds have developed a resistance to the herbicide used with GE crops, which forces greater overall herbicide use and cancels out the decreased insecticide use from insect-resistant GE crops.

In many cases we can accomplish the same or better results at less expense by applying the science of agroecology. Insecticide use can be reduced by increased crop rotation. Soil erosion and degradation can be reduced by planting cover crops between seasons and decreasing tillage. These and other practices improve soil condition, which thereby retains more water, helping crops through droughts. Many of these issues are discussed in a recently published report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, an organization sponsored by the World Bank and The United Nations.

Finally, to the extent that genetic engineering may provide benefits in the future, it must be adequately regulated to ensure food safety and protect the environment. Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only a voluntary regulatory process for GE food safety, and the USDA was criticized in 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences for insufficient scientific rigor in its environmental safety assessments. Its own inspector general severely criticized its regulatory apparatus in 2005. The USDA is revising its regulations, but current drafts do not adequately address previous criticisms.

So far the claims of the biotechnology industry are not backed up by scientific evidence; its rosy rhetoric obscures our choices. This can keep us from investing in tools such as conventional breeding and agroecology that, based on their track record, should be leading the way to helping the world feed itself.


Sustainable Agriculture: Better Farming, Naturally

These common-sense techniques are all proven ways to improve food production. Who needs controversial genetic engineering?

• Yields can be increased with selective breeding techniques.
• Chemical use can be reduced by rotating crops.
• Soil's water-holding capacity and resistance to erosion can be enhanced with reduced-till practices and cover crops.


Reprinted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.


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Post a comment below.

 

Kevin Steigner_1
1/23/2009 9:30:22 AM
I am not a writer, farmer or activest I am very concerned about the food I eat and able to buy at the store or farmers market. I am 70 years old and by nessisity must watch my health as well. I have read many articles about GMO's and the companies behind them. These companies are motivated by profit and rightly so, however there have been many rigged or slanted reports submitted reporting that GMO food are perfectly safe however the last report that I read used rats and offered them natural corn and GMO corn they would not even approach the GMO corn. This is a test anyone can preform and view the results for them selves. I my self am not able to eat GMO corn or soy products because of the reaction I have when I do, Is it mental? I do not think so! If you want to read about these tests just do a search about Monsanto and read the reports on the net. The move to sustainable farming is the best hope for our future I am now reading the book Food not Lawns which to me is a sensible approach to help everyone to eat healthy.

Johnette
1/22/2009 12:34:15 PM
of course biotech companies would say that!.. they have the most to gain from it!!! altering the natural form of ANY food intended for consumption is just plain wrong. even cooking it destroys its valuable nutrients. i am very much opposed to anyone using science to play God. food is His gift to us and we have the audacity to think we can make it better?!? we have no business messing with any of his creation.. stuff like cloning and engineered "food" is all stepping on his toes. That's not our place and we will pay the price.. we are seeing the effects every day, only we are too self-absorbed to notice. Have you seen the continuing decline of health and rise in obesity? Why do you think that is? now more than ever we are consuming massive amounts of un-natural food .. and i hesitate to even call it food because it's not.. it once was, but now most of what you see in the grocery store is manufactured "food products". is there really any mystery as to why our bodies are rejecting it? bodies react by gaining weight and developing diseases, that we then attempt to treat the symptoms with synthetic chemicals that we call medicine. really.. when will people wake up??? of course biotech companies want to convince people that their food needs to be engineered... those companies will make tons of money! not to mention they can patent what they create so they will protect their profits! just like the big pharmaceutical companies have done! the USDA knows how profitable that business model works.. don't think they won't have their hands all in it. so why shouldn't they do it with food too?! i don't know about you, but the whole thing stinks and i can smell it miles away. I refuse to have any part of it. i will grow and eat my own natural food and I suggest you do the same.. before it's made illegal.

Mary_5
1/21/2009 1:08:01 PM
I do not have a degree in science, but I am a humble farmer that is working with a family farm that is 3 generations old. I can say without doubt that GMO soybeans fall short of it's promises. In the last 5 years, we have at the home farm planted Heritage seed, and on the rented farm land, the roundup ready beans. The round up ready's have consistently been lower in average of the heritage seed (which we were told would not happen) and the use of roundup has almost doubled this past couple of years. The weeds are resistant and now the herbacide is not even working chopping away at our crop totals even further. We farm in a no till manner, and this has made a great difference, but the RR soybeans simply do not measure up to the claims that we were told by the reps. As far as the safety issue with RR soybeans. It is proven that the protein is far lower than it's heritage counterpart. This is just common sense as Round up is designed to kill amino acids (the building block to protein), and this leaves the protein levels low. This makes it a poor food source for anyone or thing. Genetic modification does not work, has not work, and from a farmer's point of view, has come close to driving family farms completely out of business. It is time to get rid of the GMO's. If farmers in countries like the United States and Canada can go bankrupt buying this seed and it's chemicals, how do you expect a third world country farmer to afford it? Time to get rid of them, completely.

Brian Steinwand
10/23/2008 12:23:37 PM
When it comes to evaluating the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops and food the world should rely on experts with good credentials. The media can, of course, add words of caution from critics. But it must be clear which opinions come from detailed knowledge and training, and which may be driven by other agendas. Evidence-based reports showing the low risks associated with GM crops are scarcely reported. For example, there was little, if any, coverage of the International Council for Science 2004 report. It stated that there is no evidence that current GM crops damage the environment, or that consuming foods containing GM ingredients harms people. Rather, headlines about 'frankenfoods' are common, with alleged health threats and environmental risks frequently gracing the pages of newspapers around the world. Most of these stories come from biotechnology critics and anti-GM lobby groups. A few are extreme extrapolations and one or two exaggerations from a kernel of truth. Such scare stories consistently lack evidence from quality peer-reviewed literature. A 2002 report (updated in 2008) by the American Medical Association said "attempts to introduce GM foods have stimulated not a reasoned debate, but a potent negative campaign by people with other agendas. Opponents ignore common farming practices and well investigated facts about plants, or inaccurately present general problems as being unique to GM plants". Genetically modified crops are not a panacea, but they are also not the bogeyman the media has allowed the public to believe. So how can the media differentiate between fanciful hypotheses and real concerns regarding GM crops and food? Just because someone calls themselves an 'expert' in GM crops does not mean they have formal credentials in the field. Far too many critics have little or no training in the science - their opinions should be corroborated before being believed. Science writers would be well served








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