Food for Thought: Environmental Risks and Benefits of Genetic Engineering

Monsanto removes chips from its genetically engineered soybeans to test for traits. The seeds can still be planted. Photo: Carmen Troesser

Genetically modified agriculture holds both the promise of drought- and virus-resistant crops and the peril of unraveling the natural food chain. In the current issue of Audubon, I explore the environmental effects of GMOs. From "Food Culture":
The debate over genetic engineering’s ecological dangers has been raging since farmers planted the first transgenic crops 15 years ago. Their use has since skyrocketed; today they account for a whopping 92 percent of U.S. soybean crops and more than 80 percent of corn and cotton. That means that as much as three-quarters of the processed foods in U.S. grocery stores—soda and hot dogs, bread and frozen pizza—contain ingredients from GE plants, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates. At the same time, polls show that most Americans prefer not to eat GE foods and support labeling of GE products, which the government doesn’t require—a bone of contention with consumer groups, activists, and some politicians. The government, for its part, hasn’t seen any significant environmental risks to date in approved plants, says Jack Okamuro, one of eight U.S. Department of Agriculture national program leaders of crop production and protection.
GE's promise is intriguing. Monsanto’s drought-tolerant corn, for instance, might withstand the drier conditions climate change is expected to cause. Then there’s the South Dakota biotech company whose cattle are resistant to mad cow disease; an “Enviropig” that produces low-phosphorous manure (which could reduce water pollution from industrial hog farms); and another pig that produces omega-3, so consumers could get their dose of heart-healthy fatty acids from bacon instead of fish oil or flaxseed.
Yet no one knows exactly what will happen when transgenic products are released into the environment. After decades of dependence on Roundup, an herbicide applied to transgenic crops ranging from sugar beets to cotton, it has come to light that one of the world’s most popular pesticides is lethal to amphibians. Then there’s the controversy surrounding the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and GE sugar beets.
Now GE products that have raised concerns among activists and scientists may be nearing approval, including salmon that grow twice as fast and soybeans that can withstand multiple herbicides. Plenty is at stake—products with traits like these can take more than a decade and $100 million to bring to market.
“There’s a lot of debate about the cost and the technology and the need for new products,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We need to start with the bigger picture and ask, ‘Will this harm people or animals or the environment?’ ”
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