From conservation tillage practices and the use of GPS technology in precision agriculture to increased production of genetically engineered crops, technological advancements in recent decades have led to increased production and efficiency in agriculture in the United States. Since the first successful commercial introduction of genetically engineered crops in the United States more than 15 years ago, their adoption has been widespread, with nearly half of the land used for crops in 2013 being planted with genetically engineered crops, according to a recent report by USDA’s Economic Research Service.

GE crops: where we’ve been and where we’re goingWhile the use of GE crops has allowed farmers to be more efficient, and use fewer herbicides and insecticides, the study says questions remain about the economic and environmental impacts, the evolution of weed resistance and consumer acceptable. The study took a look at historical production trends, economic impact and consumer response to genetically engineered crops.

According to the study, genetically engineered crop traits have been classified into one of three generations, with the first generation featuring enhanced input traits such as herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects and resistance to environmental stress. The report says the second generation features value-added output traits such as nutrient-enhanced seeds for feed, and the third generation features traits to allow production of pharmaceuticals and products beyond traditional food and fiber. Most GE crops planted in the United States have first-generation traits, but USDA says all three generations of GE crop traits and in various stages of research and development.

Three crops, corn, cotton and soybeans, made up the majority of acres planted to GE crops in 2013. Farmers used herbicide-tolerant soybeans on 93 percent of all planted soybean acres and herbicide-tolerant corn on 85 percent of acres planted to corn in 2013. Farmers planted insect-resistant (Bt) corn on 76 percent of acres in 2013. As of September 2013, USDA APHIS had approved 96 petitions for deregulation, allowing GE seeds to be sold, and had approved 30 for corn, 15 for cotton and 12 for soybeans. Additionally petitions have been approved for tomatoes, canola, potatoes, sugarbeets, papaya, rice, squash, alfalfa, plum, rose, tobacco, flax and chicory. There is no commercially available GE seed for wheat.

According to the report, the adoption of Bt corn has increased yields by mitigating yield losses. Additionally, seeds with more than one GE trait, stacked seeds, tend to have higher yields than seeds with only one GE trait. GE corn with stacked traits grew from 1 percent of corn acres in 2000 to 71 percent in 2013. The increase in planting of Bt corn has resulted in less insecticide use, with only 9 percent of all U.S. corn farmers using insecticides in 2010. However, according to the report despite efforts to delay evolution of Bt resistance, there are some indications that insect resistance is developing to some Bt traits in some areas.

The price of GE soybeans and corn increased by about 50 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 2001 and 2010, according to the report. But the report says that planting Bt corn and cotton is more profitable, as measured by net returns, than planting conventional seeds.

On the consumer side, the report found that acceptance of foods with GE products varies based on product characteristics, geography, and the information consumers are exposed to. Some studies cited in the report found consumers to be willing to try, and even pay a premium, for GE foods with positive enhancements, like nutritionally enhanced products. While other studies found a willingness to pay for non-GE foods. With regard to geography, some studies found increased willingness to pay for GE foods in developing countries compared to developed countries. Despite numerous reports being cited by USDA, the agency says consumer approval patterns are not clear enough to draw definite conclusions.   

Non-GE foods are available in the United States, but they represent a small share of retail markets. While critics of GE crops and the food products they make continue to push for mandatory labeling requirements, science has shown, and the U.S. government and World Health Organization agree, that plants and crops grown from GE seeds are safe for human consumption. With the population continuing to grow and the amount of farmland continuing to fall, the ability of farmers to produce food and fiber more efficiently will continue to be one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture around the globe.

I participated in a tour of a wheat farm during harvest a couple of years ago, and other participants included a group of bloggers from cities around the United States and wheat millers from Nigeria. While there is no commercially available GE wheat, the topic of GMOs came up in conversation. The responses reinforce what this USDA report claims. The bloggers from the United States were skeptical and questioned GMOs and GE seeds. However, the wheat millers said these technologies will help feed their people and the world.

What are your thoughts? Will the use of GE crops, and continued research and development of new varieties, help address the challenge of feeding the world in the future? Leave us a comment below.