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GMO crops may cause major environmental risks, USDA admits

Published time: February 24, 2014 21:26
Edited time: February 26, 2014 16:36
Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

A new report published by the United States Department of Agriculture demonstrates that the vast majority of corn and soybean crops grown in America are genetically-engineered variants made to withstand certain conditions and chemicals.

But while GMO seeds have been sowed on US soil for 15 years now, the latest USDA report reveals that Americans still have concerns about consuming custom-made, laboratory-created products, albeit nowhere near as much as in Europe.

The report was released by the USDA’s Economic Research Service and published on their website Feb. 20. And though the paper takes into consideration the trends that have shaped how scientists and agriculturists have approached genetically-modified organisms since they were first introduced in the US a decade-and-a-half ago, the consensus seems to be that no one is certain just yet about what toll the surge in GMOs will truly have.

Between 1984 and 2002, the study’s authors wrote, the number of GMO varieties approved by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, grew exponentially. Today GMO crops are found in most of America’s biggest farms, they continued, and scientists have in the last several years discovered groundbreaking new ways to make situation-specific seeds that have traits more desirable than traditional crops.

“As of September 2013, about 7,800 releases were approved for GE corn, more than 2,200 for GE soybeans, more than 1,100 for GE cotton and about 900 for GE potatoes,” the USDA affirmed.

Just last year, the agency added, GMO crops were planted on about 169 million acres of land in the US — or about half of all farmland from coast-to-coast.

Around 93 percent of all soybean crops planted in the US last year involved GMO, herbicide-tolerant (HT) variants, the USDA acknowledged, and HT corn and HT cotton constituted about 85 and 82 percent of total acreage, respectively.

“HT crops are able to tolerate certain highly effective herbicides, such as glyphosate, allowing adopters of these varieties to control pervasive weeds more effectively,” reads an excerpt from the USDA report.

As those weed-killers are dumped into more and more fields containing HT crops, however, USDA experts say it could have a major, as-yet-uncertain impact on the environment.

“Because glyphosate is significantly less toxic and less persistent than traditional herbicides,” a portion of the report reads, “…the net impact of HT crop adoption is an improvement in environmental quality and a reduction in the health risks associated with herbicide use (even if there are slight increases in the total pounds of herbicide applied). However, glyphosate resistance among weed populations in recent years may have induced farmers to raise application rates .Thus, weed resistance may be offsetting some of the economic and environmental advantages of HT crop adoption regarding herbicide use. Moreover, herbicide toxicity may soon be negatively affected (compared to glyphosate) by the introduction (estimated for 2014) of crops tolerant to the herbicides dicamba and 2,4-D.”

That chemical, as RT has reported on in the past, is a component in Agent Orange and has been linked to health risks. Should the USDA give the go-ahead for GMO companies to manufacture 2,4-D-resistant crops, then that agent could appear in alarming numbers across America’s farmland. But while anti-GMO advocates consider that just one of the reasons they oppose the influx of man-made crops being grown in exponentially large numbers across the county, the USDA said activism along those lines has been comparatively small in the US.

“Some consumers, including those in the European Union, have indicated a reluctance to consume GE products. In other countries, including the United States, expression of consumer concern is less widespread,” the report reads.

“Despite the rapid increase in adoption rates for GE corn, soybean, and cotton varieties by US farmers, some continue to raise questions regarding the potential benefits and risks of GE crops.”

But even if the jury is still out with regards to the risks of GE crops, the USDA said they are being grown in record numbers, the likes of which has prompted herbicide manufactures to experience a surge as well. Whether that’s’ good or bad, however, has yet to be determined.

"We are not characterizing them (GMO crops) as bad or good. We are just providing information," Michael Livingston, a government agricultural economist and one of the authors of the report, told Reuters.

According to the report, herbicide use on GMO corn increased from around 1.5 pounds per planted acre in 2001 to more than 2.0 pounds per planted acre in 2010.

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