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Role of GMO/GE Crops in U.S. Farming

According to an article titled “GMO is out, ‘bioengineered’ is in”, the new term that is to be used for foods created from plants that have been genetically modified in a way that is not possible through natural breeding methods shall be labeled as “bioengineered”. However, the contents of the following narrative will use the term GE [“genetically engineered”] to replace the GMO term in most cases.

Since 1996 when GMO/GE crops were first available in the marketplace, their role in U.S. agriculture has been increasing in importance. According to information in USDA-ERS articles titled “Recent Trends in GE adoption”, “Biotechnology”, and “Genetically engineered crops continue to dominate soybean, cotton, and corn acres planted by U.S. farmers”, over 90% of these crops are currently being produced using GE varieties/hybrids. These GE crops are classified as either herbicide-tolerant [HT], insect-resistant [Bt], or a combination of these traits [stacked in corn and cotton]. The HT and Bt traits are the most used in U.S. crop production.

The percentage of U.S. soybean acres planted to GE varieties [almost exclusively HT varieties] rose from 17% in 1997 to 95% in 2023. In Mississippi in 2023, 99% of the soybean acres were planted with seeds of GE varieties. In 2023, GE corn and cotton seeds were planted on 93% and 97% percent of their respective acres in the U.S. There is no scientific evidence that these or any other GE crops are harmful to human health or the environment.

An article titled “Explained: How engineered crops can fight climate change” provides insight into how GE crops can be instrumental in mitigating the effects of climate change. Some of the major points of this article follow.

•    Crops can be genetically engineered to more efficiently capture CO2 and convert it to oxygen or store it in the soil.

•    GE can be used to improve root systems of crop plants so they will be more functional and better resist decomposition, which should minimize carbon [C] escape from the soil environment.

•    Crops can be engineered to withstand longer droughts or wetter periods.

•    GE can be used to develop disease- and insect-resistant food crops, thus improving both quality and quantity of food production while simultaneously reducing synthetic pesticide use.

•    Gene editing technology can be used to improve the ability of crop plants and soil microbes to capture and store more C from the atmosphere.

•    GE can be used to improve the relationship between plant roots and the soil microbial community.

•    Since C removal from the atmosphere is a significant factor in mitigating climate change, GE can be used to develop crop plants that do this in ways outlined above.

An article titled “How GMO Crops Impact Our World” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] provides further insight into the importance of GE crop plants. Pertinent points from that article follow.

•    Most of the GE crops grown by farmers today are used to provide 1) resistance to insect damage, 2) tolerance to herbicides, and 3) resistance to disease and virus pathogens.

•    Some GE crops were developed to benefit consumers by providing healthier food products or improving the quality and/or shelf life of products derived from those crops.

•    GE crops developed in the U.S. provide benefits to farmers and consumers in other countries of the world, thus potentially improving the diets for people in those countries.

The U.S. government has initiated an Agricultural Biotechnology Education and Outreach Initiative, which directs the U.S. FDA to work with the U.S. EPA and USDA to develop and share science-based educational information with consumers about GE crops and the safety of food products derived from them. This outreach effort resulted in the development of “Feed Your Mind” to help consumers better understand the how’s and why’s of GE foods and food products. Consumers can find answers in links to written articles or videos to such questions as: 1) What makes it a GMO?; 2) Is it called GMO or something else?; 3) What GMO crops are out there?; 4) Why do we have GMO’s?; 5) Do GMO’s affect your health?; and 6) Do GMO plants reduce pesticide use?

According to data provided in a USDA-ERS article titled “U.S. Soybean Production Expands Since 2002 as Farmers Adopt New Practices, Technologies”, U.S. soybean production accounted for more than 30% of the world soybean supply in recent years, and this large contribution of U.S. soybean production has been fueled by the increased use of fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, and precision technology, as well as the increased use of GE seeds. In the last two decades, soybean acres in the U.S. increased by 18%, and soybean yields increased from 38 bu/acre to over 50 bu/acre. During this time, the adoption of GE soybean varieties had increased to over 95% in U.S. soybean-producing regions, and this, along with the simultaneous gain in yield, has led to a decline in the cost to produce a bushel of soybeans in the U.S. Thus, use of GE soybean varieties has proven economically advantageous for U.S. soybean farmers.

A note to GMO/GE crop detractors. According to a Jan. 12, 2024 Delta Farm Press article titled “What will it take to feed the world  by 2050?” by Whitney Haigwood, the global population continues to grow and is projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Since there appears to be no curbing world population growth [thus an ever-increasing number of persons to feed], how can this projected population growth be adequately fed if modern GE technology is not used to produce better crops/higher yields? If forthcoming technology such as GE crops is not used to provide the increased food needed for an increasing world population, then where will the necessary increased food supply come from? This should be the overriding question that those concerned with feeding the world’s increasing population need to answer. Otherwise, a significant portion of that population will either starve or be severely malnourished, and both results are unacceptable by humane standards.

So is it humane to disparage GE technology that will likely be a major factor in increasing the world’s food supply? Those that have the money to buy the more expensive foodstuffs from non-GMO production certainly have the right to practice such discrimination, but do they have the right to push an agenda that will lead to failure to produce enough food to feed an ever-increasing world population? I am not qualified to answer this question, but I do trust science and newly-developed technology to provide safe solutions such as GE crops to increase the food supply. Otherwise, the number of hungry and/or malnourished people in the world will continue to increase.  Click hereherehere, and here for earlier articles about the development and safety of GE crops that were posted on this website.

The above narrative brought to mind an oil filter TV commercial from many years ago. The bottom line of this commercial was “you can pay me now or you can pay me later”. In the case of GE crops, we have a choice much like changing the oil filter. We can either adopt new and emerging GE technology for food production so that we can produce more food to feed an increasing world population, or we can forgo this adoption and see an increasing level of starvation and/or malnutrition in the world. After all, more people to feed will require more food, and the diminishing supply of finite resources needed to produce crops, plus the decline in quality land devoted to agriculture, means that we must produce more with less. And the adoption of GE technology as it becomes available will help bring that about.

Composed by Larry G. Heatherly, Jan. 2024, larryh91746@gmail.com