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Are transgenic plants safe to use in agriculture?

May 7, 2012

It is becoming common place for crop producers to grow transgenic plants in their fields rather then those that have developed naturally through time. Transgenic plants are genetically modified (GM) plants that have had one or more genes artificially inserted into their genetic code. These gene can be obtained from many different sources including from other plant species or even bacteria. They can produce a variety of different benefits for plants including:

  • Increased yields
  • Pest Control
  • Cold or heat tolerance
  • Drought resistance

Could transgenic crops be the answer to problems we are facing today with food crop production, or could they lead to even greater problems? (DSCS 2012).

The use of transgenic plants in agriculture has grown drastically since they began being introduced in 1996. As can be seen in Fig. 1, from 2000 to 2011 the use of GM corn increased over 350% and constitutes 88% of all corn crops. The use of both GM cotton and soybeans raised around 150% as well over this time, and as of 2011 GM crops comprised 90% of all cotton and 94% of all soybeans grown in the United States (USDA 2011).

Figure 1. This show the increasing percent of GM crop plants in farming within the United States from 2000 to 2011. Figure created using data obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture website (USDA 2011).

Many opponents for the use of genetically modified crops make the claim that their use can have detrimental consequences. One of the main concerns surrounding the use of transgenic plants is the potential loss of biodiversity due to cross pollination with naturally evolved plants. The likelihood of transgenic crops being able to reproduce with relative species is very high. Once these transgenic genes have intergraded into naturally occurring crops they are impossible to remove (Altieri 2005).

Since these transgenic genes are most likely to have an evolutionary advantage in modern agriculture, they are more likely to persist within hybrids causing an eventual decrease in biodiversity. This homogenizing of genes could in turn lead to the development of transgenic monocultures (Altieri 2005). Biodiversity in agriculture provides a varying range of ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling, pollination, and pest control. Evidence shows that crop monocultures on the other hand are often more susceptible to pests, diseases, and even climatic changes. To put into perspective the devastation a disease can cause on monocultures, in 1984 pathogens swept through Florida killing 18 million citrus trees (Garcia and Altieri 2005).

This growing concern over this issue has become large enough that many agroecologists are claiming that we may need to create “genetic sanctuary islands” in order to protect the worlds food crops. The purpose of these islands would be to maintain a reservoir of genetic diversity as a safeguard in the event of ecological failure due to the use of transgenic crops. These islands would need to be geographically isolated in order to prevent any genetic contamination by cross pollination from transgenic plants (Altieri 2009).

As of now, not enough information is available for anyone to fully predict the long term effects that such a widespread use of transgenic crops will have on biodiversity and agriculture. In general biotechnology companies do very little in way of research on how their transgenic crops will affect the environment. One 2003 study found that as little as 3% or less of all biotechnology budgets were spend on the study of possible affects on biosafety and biodiversity. Most biotechnology scientists agree that more research on this subject is greatly needed, and many feel that this research should have been done before allowing GM crops to become as widely used as they have become (Garcia and Altieri 2005).

In general it seems that transgenic crops do offer some benefits to the agricultural industry, but it also seems that the possible affects on biodiversity have the potential to cause damage on a disastrous level. Maybe the question we should be posing is whether or not we should be allowing biotechnology companies to alter our food sources when their sole purpose is not to create safe products, but instead to generate profits. When it comes to the worlds food supply, to much is at stake for us to be using such an untested technology so freely. If the use of transgenic crops continue at the current rate there may be no way to reestablish unaltered natural strains, and if this engineered monoculture takes a turn for the worse it maybe to late for any recovery.

References:

Altieri, M. A. “The Myth of Coexistence: Why Transgenic Crops Are Not Compatible With Agroecologically Based Systems of Production.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 25.4 (2005): 361-71. Print.

Altieri, Miguel A. “Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine July-Aug. 2009: 102-13. Print.

Department of Soil and Crop Sciences (DSCS). “What Are Transgenic Plants?” Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide. Colorado State University. Web. 05 May 2012. <http://cls.casa.colostate.edu/transgeniccrops/what.html>.

Garcia, M. A., and Miguel A. Altieri. “Transgenic Crops: Implications for Biodiversity and Sustainable Agriculture.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 25.4 (2005): 335-53. Print.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.” ERS/USDA Data. 1 July 2011. Web. 07 May 2012. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/>.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 11, 2012 9:21 am

    Cool stuff, Leland! Will you talk about the benefits of GM foods in a later posts, assuming there are any?

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