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Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops

Updated on November 9, 2012

Environmental groups have led the campaign against GM, but biotech advocates claim that these green campaigners are shooting themselves in the foot, since GM technology could offer considerable environmental benefits. Their claims are numerous. Insect-resistant plants - with "natural" pest resistance built in - can mean less pesticide being pumped into fields, hence improving soil fertility and reducing both pollution and poisoning of farmers. Herbicide-resistant crops, meanwhile, allow for special "designer" weedkillers that are safe to use and quick to break down in the soil, and which make it easier for farmers to adopt non-tillage (plough-free) techniques, which reduce soil erosion and degradation and can help lock carbon in the soils.

GM could also make possible higher-yield crops, or ones able to grow in soil that's been left saline by irrigation (pumping water onto crops often results in salty groundwater rising up and damaging the soil). Both these technologies could help the world meet its ever-increasing demands for food without having to cut down forests to claim new farmland. And the applications aren't limited to food: biotechnology is already being used to research ecologically sound replacements for products such as bleach and formaldehyde.

Most environmentalists are unconvinced by these claims. After all, in the case of herbicide-resistant crops, there's as much evidence to suggest they end up increasing weedkiller use and harming wildlife as there is to suggest the opposite. In parts of Argentina, for example, the development of weeds resistant to the designer herbicides has led to huge amounts of other herbicides being used, harming local people’s health and crops. There's also a concern that various herbicide-resistant GM crops might cross-pollinate with each other, resulting in "super-weeds" resistant to multiple herbicides. Even the British government's farm-scale evaluations of four GM varieties suggested that three could be harmful to wildlife. And that was comparing them to their equivalents from conventional intensive farms; a more meaningful study would compare GM crops to organically grown produce, environmentalists claim.

As for increasing the world's food supply, that's also a red herring, the greens argue. Most GM crops are simply supplying feed for the intensive livestock industry, the land for which is now one of the most important drivers of the disastrous clearance of Amazon rainforest. Hence we should be looking to consume less meat and redistribute more, not simply increase production.

There is one area where some GM critics concede that biotechnology may have proved environmentally beneficial. Pest-resistant crops - such as cotton plants engineered to produce Bt toxin, a pesticide based on a naturally occurring bacterium and widely used by organic farmers - seem to have succeeded in increasing yields and reducing pesticide use in China and elsewhere. But the question remains as to whether we should release any GM crops into the wild without absolute certainty that they won't cause environmental or health problems. After all, contamination (or "cross-pollination", depending on who you're talking to) is inevitable, as farmers in the US and Canada have already found. And even if this doesn't prove dangerous, it limits consumer choice and risks the livelihoods of organic farmers, since no GM-tainted crop can be sold as organic.

Some GM advocates, such as molecular biologist Conrad Lichtenstein, claim that organic farmers should simply embrace biotechnology: "GM technology ... is by definition a very organic technology", he once wrote. "There is no contradiction between organic and GM." Most organic farm­ers and consumers beg to differ.


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