Are GMO crops bad for the environment?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

Are GMO crops bad for the environment?

By Emily Journey / Contributor

Much has been researched and written about the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. And the findings and opinions are fervently divided.

By now you’ve figured out that there’s a debate about many aspects of GMOs, such as labeling (link), banning (link), and the complicated relationships between GMO-free and organic foods (link).

So it should come as no surprise that the debate gets equally heated when talking about whether GMO crops are bad for the environment.

So are GMO crops bad for the environment? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

One Opinion: GMO crops are NOT bad for the environment

GMO Answers’ website has positive things to say about GMOs’ impact on the environment. They claim that:

  • GMO crops have contributed to additional global production and higher yields of maize, soybeans, cotton and canola.
  • GMO crops have reduced agriculturally related greenhouse gas emissions, reduced CO2 emissions, and between 1996 and 2013 have led to 1.2 billion pounds less pesticides being used.
  • GMO crops help conserve water because their herbicide and drought tolerances aids in soil moisture. This means farmers don’t have to irrigate as often.
  • GMO crops have reduced the need for pesticide applications by 37 percent.

A Forbes magazine article co-authored by David R. Just and Harry M. Haiser echoes the claims of GMO Answers. Not too surprising since both authors are also GMO Answers contributors.

In the Forbes article, Just and Haiser credit GMOs for an increase in corn yields, which has neutralized grain price spikes that were causing food riots around the world. With close to a billion people malnourished and the world’s population only increasing, they say it’s imperative to continue with this technological progress in agriculture. The article says GMOs are likely to play a leading role in helping to increase food production with a lower negative environmental impact.

Feed the hungry around the world? That’s a noble cause and good reason to continue, especially if they claim the environmental impact is low.

But of course that’s only one side of the debate. Others have differing opinions — that GMO crops are actually bad for the environment.

Another opinion: GMO crops ARE bad for the environment

One Green Planet sites some problematic environmental concerns with GMO crops. They claim that:

  • The chemical pesticides and herbicides commonly used with GMOs have toxic properties that are inherent to the plants.
  • The toxicity is causing bees and monarch butterflies to become endangered, and are putting birds and other wildlife at risk.
  • Pests that are targeted by these chemicals are developing a resistance to them, meaning they won’t always be effective.
  • The genetic changes in plants may cause GMOs to become persistent, weedy and invasive to the natural ecosystems because they are modified to be resistant to modern agricultural techniques.
  • GMOs put biodiversity at risk, because they are planted in a monocrop fashion with heritage seeds no longer used. The growing process then becomes dependent on GMO seed, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to grow a single crop.
  • Toxins are released into the soil and nutrients are not returned, so the soil becomes dry and void of all nutrients.
  • Irrigation carries all of these problems into water sources and the air, potentially ending up in compost, animal feed, and transporting it to other organisms.

According to an article in AgMag which features an interview with author and food activist Michael Pollan, GMO crops haven’t done what seed and chemical companies such as Monsanto claimed they would do. GMO crops were supposed to make agriculture more sustainable, improve yields, reduce pesticide use and make food healthier.

Instead, he says the only outcome of GMO crops is that they’ve been engineered to resist glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup herbicide. And as a result:

  • Since the mid-1990s, farmers now apply 16 times more of the herbicide than they use to, which kills all the weeds in the fields except for the GMO crops.
  • The World Health Organization concluded that farmers exposed to glyphosate had twice the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

So how does our government fit into all of this? If a crop is genetically engineered to carry a gene for at Bt toxin, EPA requires that the developer verify that the toxin is environmentally safe and free from allergens. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all work together to regulate agricultural technology in the US. You can read the regulatory framework on their website.

Do you think GMO crops are bad for the environment? With such conflicting research, reports, and opinions it can be hard to know what to believe. Do you think the EPA is doing enough to protect our environment? Are you concerned about the reported increase in pesticides being used on our GMO crops, or the ripple effect it could potentially have on our ecosystem? Please comment below and let’s get the conversation started!