Few topics in agriculture are more polarizing than genetic engineering (GE), the process of manipulating an organism’s genetic material—including genes from other species—in an effort to produce desired traits such as pest resistance or drought tolerance.

GE has been hailed by some as an indispensable tool for solving the world’s agricultural problems, and denounced by others as an example of human overreaching fraught with unknown, potentially catastrophic dangers.

UCS experts analyze the applications of genetic engineering in agriculture—particularly in comparison to other options—and offer practical recommendations based on that analysis.

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Benefits of GE: Promise vs. performance

Supporters of genetic engineering in agriculture point to a multitude of potential benefits of engineered crops, including increased yield, drought tolerance, reduced pesticide use, more efficient use of fertilizers, and ability to produce drugs or other useful chemicals. UCS analysis shows that actual benefits have often fallen far short of expectations.

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Environmental and health risks

While the risks of genetic engineering are often exaggerated or misrepresented, GE crops do have the potential to cause a variety of health problems and environmental impacts. For instance, they may spread undesirable traits to weeds and non-GE crops, produce new allergens and toxins, or harm animals that consume them.

At least one major environmental impact of genetic engineering has already reached critical proportions: overuse of herbicide-tolerant GE crops has spurred an increase in herbicide use and an epidemic of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," which will lead to even more herbicide use.

How likely are other harmful GE impacts to occur? This is a difficult question to answer. Each crop-gene combination poses its own set of risks. While risk assessments are conducted as part of GE product approval, the data are generally supplied by the company seeking approval, and GE companies use their patent rights to exercise tight control over research on their products.

In short, there is a lot we don't know about the long-term and epidemiological risks of GE—which is no reason for panic, but a good reason for caution, particularly in view of alternatives that are more effective and economical.

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What other choices do we have?

All technologies have risks and shortcomings, so critics must always address the question: what are the alternatives?

In the case of GE, there are two main answers: crop breeding, which produces traits through the organism’s reproductive process; and agroecological farm management, which optimizes the performance of the entire system of biophysical components—in constrast to the industrial strategy of optimizing the output of a crop, one system component, by intensive use of purchased inputs.

These approaches are generally far less expensive than GE, and often more effective. The biotechnology industry acknowledges that GE is a complement to breeding, but markets their seed on the strength of its GE traits. The industry has used its formidable marketing and lobbying resources to ensure that its products—and the industrial methods those products are designed to support—continue to dominate both the seed marketplace and the policy conversation, at the expense of ecologically based, diverse farming systems.

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Does UCS have a position on GE?

Yes. We understand the potential benefits of the technology, and support continued advances in molecular biology, the underlying science. But we are critics of the business models and regulatory systems that have characterized early deployment of these technologies. GE has proved valuable in some areas (as in the contained use of engineered bacteria in pharmaceutical development), and some GE applications could turn out to play a useful role in food production.

Thus far, however, GE applications in agriculture have only made the problems of industrial monocropping worse. Rather than supporting a more sustainable agriculture and food system with broad societal benefits, the technology has been employed in ways that reinforce problematic industrial approaches to agriculture. Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.

These are a few things policy makers should do to best serve the public interest:

  1. Expand research funding for public crop breeding programs, so that a broad range of non-GE as well as GE crop varieties will remain available.
  2. Expand public research funding and incentives to further develop and adopt agroecologically based farming systems.
  3. Take steps—such as changes in patent law—to facilitate independent scientific research on GE risks and benefits.
  4. Take a more rigorous, independently verified approach to GE product approvals, so that products do not come to market until their risks and benefits are understood through non-biased review.
  5. Support food labeling laws that require foods containing GE crops to be clearly identified as such, so that consumers can make informed decisions about supporting GE applications in agriculture.

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