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How safe are genetically modified crops?

Genetically modified (GM) foods are subjected to extensive testing before being made available to the public. Since becoming available in 1996, not a single food safety or health issue associated with genetically modified foods has ever been recorded.

In 2016, the National Academies of Science issued perhaps the most comprehensive report on genetically modified crops after reviewing more than 900 studies and consulting with 80 globally recognized experts.

This multi-year assessment found no difference in safety between GM crops and their conventional counterparts.

In fact, it found that in some cases such as with insect-resistant crops, there was a human safety benefit of GM crops due to reduced pesticide exposure.

This finding has been mirrored by other expert scientific bodies around the world, such as the The Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy.

Genetic engineering as a modern option

Genetic engineering, which introduces new genes to plants, was developed as a method more than 30 years ago. Today there are 10 GM crops commercially available: corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, apples, and potatoes.

In 2016, more than 100 Nobel laureates advocated the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Already today genetic engineering make plants more resistant to pests or diseases. It can add useful nutrients or vitamins to plants or quite simply enable farmers to produce higher yields. In the future genetic engineering might help plants to cope better with heat, drought, moisture or soil salinity and it may even be conceivable to make plant roots more absorptive to certain nutrients or to substantially improve the storability of food and animal feed.

These traits are of significant importance to global agriculture as the climate is changing the instances of extreme weather increase. What’s more, the biotic stress factors affecting plants are changing all the time, too, as new competing weeds, insect pests and plant diseases are spreading. As the development of a commercially viable variety can take 10 and 15 years, breeders must plan quite far in advance.

Genetically modified crops have proven their value

Recently, a new variety of potato was introduced on the market that produces less acrylamide, a cancer-causing substance, when roasted or deep-fried – a clear advantage for consumer health.

Genetically engineered corn cultivated in many countries around the world that is resistant against certain insects offers numerous advantages. It safeguards yields, requires less insecticide application and is affected with fewer of the fungal toxins – also known as mycotoxins – that otherwise appear in crops after insect infestation because fungi develop in the chewed areas. Mycotoxins can be poisonous, trigger allergies or cause cancer.

Another example of the benefits provided by genetic engineering: in the late 1990s a papaya variety developed using genetic engineering saved the Hawaiian papaya industry, which otherwise would have been completely wiped out by the so-called ringspot virus transmitted by aphids.

Hawaiian farmers who today cultivate organic papayas do so with the protection of genetically modified “rainbow” papaya plantations arranged in a circle around them, because the latter prevent the virus from spreading to the organic papayas.

Does genetic engineering result in farmers using more crop protection products?

Some critics claim the cultivation of genetically modified plants has led to significantly greater use of crop protection products. A glance at the facts disproves this general allegation.

A 2014 study by agricultural scientists at the University of Göttingen, Germany, evaluated roughly 150 publications and reports from all over the world investigating the impact of genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton field crops. These publications included studies by nongovernmental organizations.

The researchers came to the conclusion that when compared to farmers growing non-GM crops, on average, farmers using GM crops used 37 percent less crop protection products, but harvested a 22 percent increase in yield. And despite the higher costs for seed, the farmers’ profits increased by a 68 percent.

A heavy reduction in the use of crop protection products was particularly noticeable in insect-resistant plants.

The positive effects were greatest for farmers in developing countries, who were able to increase their earnings even more significantly than farmers in industrialized countries, such as the United States and Canada.

For further information contact our subject matter experts.

Ing. Chimico e Alimentare Camila Schiavinatto Godoy

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