A new report conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council has answered some questions about Genetically Engineered (GE) crops, but has mostly brought up more questions, and established the importance of long-term, extensive research into GE crops, but also the livestock and humans who eat the GE products. Also, this was the first major study to include both farmers who use GE products and conventional or organic farmers who do not use GE products, but are certainly affected by them. The study's main conclusion is that "GE technology needs proper management to remain effective."
Since introduced in 1996, GE seeds have become extremely popular in the US, now constituting more than 80% of soybeans, corn, and cotton. This is because in general, although the seeds are expensive, they produce more profit for the farmer. While the technology is still new and evolves every year, most GE seeds are manipulated to be resistant to herbicides (especially glyphosate), to produce a bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, aka Bt) that kills most insects that target crops, to produce a higher yield, to withstand changes in climate (specifically low precipitation), and to make almost every piece of produce as good looking, tasting, and consistent as possible. Future manipulations discussed in the article include plants that decrease the likelihood of off-farm water pollution, and the possibilities are almost endless.
This all sounds perfect, right? Well nothing is, and GE crops are no exception. The first problem found in the study is that weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate because farmers who plant GE crops that are resistant to specific herbicides, like glyphosate, are now overusing the chemical, which happens to be incredibly inexpensive. Now, there are at least nine weeds that have become completely resistant to the common herbicide. The report suggests that farmers be encouraged, if not forced, to use a variety of herbicides and pesticides so that plants and insects do not develop resistances to a specific one. Another observation made by the report is that farmers who do not use GE crops in areas where there are many farms that do use GE crops end up getting much worse insect and weed problems. What is even worse is that weeds and insects are not the only things migrating onto the non-GE farms, now GE plants are "polluting" non-GE farms due to cross-pollination or seed mingling. This is very alarming to me because GE foods are so new that there is no long-term research done on the effects to humans over time. While I do not believe that there will be a danger, if there turns out to be one it may be too late, with GE crops destroying conventional farms in the same way that a weed or insect would. For now, farmers who grow organic or GE-free food can sell it for higher prices, but if the farms all become contaminated, the non-GE crops will die out because of natural selection.
Worst of all, GE seeds are patented. They are manipulated so that farmers cannot collect seeds from the crops to plant for the next season, but instead must buy the "new line of seeds" every year. Also, due to the patent, any GE plants that end up on farms due to cross-pollination or seed migration technically belong to the seed company, and not the farmer who owns the land, and never wanted the plants in the first place. This leads to legal battles, and usually the farmer must end up signing a contract to buy GE seeds. To control this problem, the report suggests that the government step in and both stop the consolidation of the seed industry, which is going on now, and also make GE seeds available to everyone who wants them.
This study is a milestone in the research of GE crops because it included the conventional farmers in the study. Throughout the article, further studies are suggested, especially dealing with livestock that eat GE crops and long-term effects on human health, acquired resistance to herbicides and pesticides, and the socioeconomic effects of GE crops.