As the global population continues to boom, international scientists and governments are fervently searching for optimal agricultural practices to make food accessible to the world. One of the technologies that has been developed to much controversy is the practice of genetically modifying organisms (GMOs) to increase crop yield, decrease pesticide usage, and enhance certain nutritional qualities, such as higher vitamin content. The backlash primarily stems from a concern over whether or not these GMOs can have long-term and substantially negative effects on the environment at large.
Among agricultural GMOs, Bt corn, or transgenic corn, is one of the most common. The gene normally found in bacteria that is responsible for killing specific insect species can be inserted into corn DNA, producing corn that also exhibits insecticidal properties. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess both the environmental and economic impacts of Bt corn and other GMOs, but a consensus has yet to be reached.
A phenomenon on which most seem to agree, however, is that genetically engineered crops dramatically reduce the required amount of pesticides to be sprayed on fields of crops. One study even suggests that between the years of 1996 to 2016, the usage of such crops led to an overall reduction of 671.2 million kg of pesticide use. Certain analyses have shown that the introduction of biotech-cotton can lead to increases in the diversity of beneficial insects in cotton fields in the US and Australia.
Although extensive research must be conducted before the introduction of any genetically modified crop, there are still various factors that are difficult and at times impossible to account for, which can affect the environmental effects of the GMO. Through a process called “outcrossing,” these engineered crops may inadvertently breed with wild crops and transmit their genetic information to these plants, potentially giving rise to new species. The GMOs could also persist longer than predicted in the introduced environment and ecologically interact in unforeseen ways with native species.
Bt corn was, for example, claimed to have adverse effects on the larvae of Monarch butterflies. This claim was deemed false by a study conducted in 2001 and by the EPA; however, crop developers and scientists should be no less vigilant about the potential ecological effects of other GMO species that may arise. Another concern is the risk of the development of insect resistance to genetically modified crops. This has led to the creation of a regulation that mandates that GM crop fields must be coupled with non-GM ones to prevent this artificial selection from affecting the insect population.
While genetic modification holds promise and demonstrates the potential for more efficient agriculture, crop developers, scientists, and other involved parties must proceed with caution, carefully assessing how these organisms may interact with their new environment.