The debate over genetically modified crops is commonly seen as a conflict between known benefits and unknown consequences. The pro-GMO side talks confidently about how these crops offer increased yield and lower pesticide use, and are critical to feeding a growing world population. Anti-GMO groups counter with questions about potential harmful impacts to human health and the environment. This focus on unproven future consequences has made it easy for anti-GMO activists to be labelled “anti-science.”
Recently, these roles have started to reverse as new data suggest the benefits aren’t as clear as proponents claimed and the consequences are no longer theoretical. For years, GMO opponents expressed concerns about the danger of herbicide-resistant crops that allow farmers to attack weeds with more targeted pesticide application. This practice, they argued, was likely to spur the evolution of weeds that are immune to the most common pesticides. Herbicide-resistant “superweeds” are no longer just a hypothetical doomsday scenario – they have already infected more than 60 million acres of U.S. farms. And a recent New York Times study offers evidence that the increased yield and decreased pesticide use promised by GMOs may not be so factual after all.
While U.S. crop yields have increased since the first genetically modified seeds were introduced to the market in the early 1990s, yields in Western Europe – where GMOs are banned – have increased at the same or higher rate. The New York Times’ analysis also found that, while U.S. fungicide and insecticide use has declined since 1992, the use of herbicides, the most common pesticide nationally, has increased 21 percent. France has reduced pesticide use more effectively than the United States, and did so without planting any genetically modified crops.
The New York Times study isn’t the first or only evidence that genetic modification has failed to increase production, limit pesticide use, or feed the world. A literature review by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year found no evidence that genetically engineered crops have produced higher yields on U.S. farms. Data collected by the USDA show that total pesticide use has decreased by less than 2 percent from 1990 to 2008. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently announced that the key to addressing food insecurity will actually be widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.
The commonly cited benefits of planting genetically modified crops in the United States appear increasingly uncertain, while some of the future risks have already become reality. The widespread adoption of these seeds when there is much stronger evidence for their downsides than their upside is not just absurd – it’s unscientific.
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