Few topics in farming drive more debate than GMOs. Unfortunately, much of the controversy is based on misinformation and misunderstanding. In reality, GMOs protect the environment and our food supply system. They allow farmers to produce healthier crops, yielding more food on less land with fewer chemicals, while conserving soil and water, using less fuel, reducing greenhouse gasses and improving air and water quality.
So how exactly do GMOs support sustainable agriculture?
- GMO crops reduce the use of pesticides. GMO technology allowed farmers to reduce the application of pesticides on key crops such as corn and soybeans by 8.1% between 1996 and 2015. This amounts to 1.4 billion pounds less active insecticides applied to crops. That means less insecticide added to our environment. This is accomplished through genetic modification that imparts resistance to specifically targeted insects. It selectively targets insects that damage crops without harming beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies while reducing the need to spray insecticides that do harm them.
- Farming GMO crops reduces soil erosion. Healthy soil is vital to a strong food production system. Soil naturally contains nutrients plants need to thrive, as well as billions of microorganisms. One cup of soil could be home to more than 7 billion bacteria that recycle organic material to improve soil fertility and support strong plant growth. It can take more than 500 years to form two centimeters of topsoil, the topmost layer of soil containing the highest concentration of nutrients. Topsoil is crucial for growing healthy crops, but, sadly, more than 12 million acres of topsoil are lost every year to erosion, primarily to wind and water erosion. Disturbing the soil for weed control can exacerbate erosion, but farming methods that avoid disrupting the soil help reduce erosion rates. Herbicide resistant crops enable farmers to practice no-till or conservation-till farming by reducing the need for mechanical weed control, thus reducing soil erosion in the U.S. by more than 1 billion tons each year. This prevents erosion into our waterways, keeping rivers and streams healthy. It keeps topsoil healthy, allowing the population of microorganisms to thrive. It improves moister retention and sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the environment.
- GMO crops improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gasses in the environment. In addition to increasing the amount of carbon trapped in the soil through no-till and conservation-till farming, GMOs reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. By enabling no-till farming and conservation-tilling, reducing spray applications and keeping soil healthy to reduce the need to apply nutrients, on-farm fuel consumption has been reduced by as much as 58 billion pounds in a year. That’s roughly equivalent to removing 12 million cars from our roadways. Through conservation-tilling practices alone, on-farm fuel consumption can be reduced by nearly 308 million gallons annually, cutting carbon emissions by almost 7 billion pounds.
- Farming GMO crops improves water quality and conserves water. By preventing soil erosion into our waterways, herbicide-resistant crops prevent sedimentation of our waterways and reduces runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. Insect-resistant crops help reduce runoff of pesticides into our rivers and streams. Together, these genetic modifications keep our water cleaner and establish healthier habitats for fish. Plants genetically modified with improved drought tolerance allow plants to thrive in stressful conditions without additional irrigation. Many types of GMO crops thrive and reach maturity with significantly less water. Reduced tilling produces a healthier soil system rich with organic matter, resulting in markedly improved water retention. According to the USDA, each one percent increase in the amount of organic matter in soil enables U.S. farms to retain, or store, water equivalent to that which flows over Niagara Falls in 150 days.
- GMOs preserve land by maximizing the productivity of current acreage. According to Crop Life International farmers worldwide lose between 35% and 42% of the world’s potential crop production due to the impact of weeds, insets, diseases and other pests. These factors allowed farmers to produce an additional 180.3 tons of soybeans, 357.7 million tons of corn, 25.2 million tons of cotton and 10.6 million tons of canola. Without GM technology to produce healthier crops and reduce loss, farmers would have had to cultivate an additional 48 million acres of land to produce the same quantity of crops. Region-specific genetic modification could allow crops to thrive and increase yield by 20% to 35% in areas of the world subject to drought and food insecurity. The ability to grow larger, healthier crops also keeps foods affordable. Without GMOs, some crops such as corn and soybeans could cost between 6% and 10% more at the grocery store.