Expert Report

Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010)

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Advances in molecular and cellular biology now allow scientists to introduce desirable traits from any other species into crop plants through genetic engineering. Since their introduction in 1996, the use of genetically engineered crops has grown rapidly, and corn, cotton, and soybean that have been engineered to resist insect pests and herbicides are now planted on almost half of all U.S. cropland.

In this report, analysis of the U.S. experience with genetically engineered crops shows that they offer substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops; however, these benefits have not been universal, some may decline over time, and potential benefits and risks may become more numerous as the technology is applied to more crops.

Studies show that GE crops can be effective at reducing pest problems with economic and environmental benefits to farmers, but genetic engineering could potentially be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, and for a greater diversity of purposes -- for example, GE crops could help address food insecurity through the development of plants with improved nutritional qualities or resilience to a changing climate. Understanding the impacts of genetically engineered crops is vital to ensuring that crop-management practices and future research and development efforts realize the full potential of genetic engineering for commercial as well as public goods purposes, while maintaining the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of U.S. farms.

Key Messages

  • Genetically engineered crops may have social impacts similar to previous technological developments in agriculture
  • Many adopters of genetically engineered crops have experienced either lower costs of production or higher yields, and sometimes both
  • Reliance on one herbicide reduces the effectiveness of herbicide resistance as a weed-management tool
  • Targeting specific insect pests with Bt toxins in corn and cotton has been successful, and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops
  • The adoption of herbicide-resistant crops could help improve water and soil quality by reducing the need for tilling
  • The transfer of genetically engineered traits from genetically engineered crops to other crops of relatives has not been a concern for most types of crops