With an increasing global population and the ongoing risks of climate change, effective human interactions with the environment are critical to nurture all aspects of natural life. One of these key interactions is the use of GM (genetically modified) crops, which strongly contribute to the agricultural food supply and the environmental outlook of our planet.
What are GM Crops?
GM crops are plants whose DNA has been modified before using them in agricultural practices. GM crops were initially developed to increase resistance against certain pests, diseases, and environmental conditions. However, they have evolved to not only alter the nutritive value of various foods, but to also be incorporated into the production of biofuels and pharmaceutical products. The use of GM technology has dramatically increased overtime, with acreage rising from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185.1 million hectares in 2017.
Environmental Advantages of GM Crops
According to a 2014 meta-analysis, GM technology has reduced the utilization of chemical pesticides by 37%. In addition, it has increased crop yields by 22% and has elevated farmer profits by 68%. These benefits are significant because decreased pesticide use has preserved the nutritional characteristics of various crops, while allowing more foods to be sold and consumed at the same time. Hence, GM crops have the potential to feed enormous amounts of people and will continue to harness changes in agricultural production. In fact, it is expected that about 9.5 billion people will be living on Earth by 2050, which is an increase of three billion people in less than 50 years.
Another critical benefit of GM crops is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. This massive reduction was actually equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the roads in 2016 alone. Therefore, GM crops can play a significant role in mitigating the harmful effects of climate change, specifically global warming.
Environmental Disadvantages of GM Crops
Although GM crops have major advantages that can transform the global food supply and the rate of climate change, this form of agriculture also brings some risks.
Toxicity- This is a serious issue when it comes to the herbicides and pesticides that are often used in GM crops. More specifically, the toxins from these chemicals have indicated negative effects in non-target organisms, such as bees and monarch butterflies. Furthermore, these harmful substances can be released into the soil, leading to fewer soil bacteria that enable plants to grow in a natural and healthy way. Irrigation systems that help cultivate GM crops can also negatively different water sources and the overall atmosphere.
Insect Resistance and Invasive Species- There have been various instances of insects developing resistance to the harmful chemicals in certain GM crops, with the first case reported in Canada in 2019. Additionally, specific herbicides have contributed to the emergence of “superweeds” and other invasive species that are unaffected by these herbicides. As a result, invasive species can appear in their natural ecosystem, which can disturb the broader ecology of the planet.
What is the long-term potential of GM Crops?
Considering the fact that GM crops have ground-breaking benefits as well as serious disadvantages for the environment, the long-term implications of GM crops remain complex and uncertain. Although regulations exist to ensure that these crops are safe, they must be evaluated individually since certain genetically-engineered foods can pose different effects on human and ecological health. In addition, the comparison of the risks and benefits of GM agriculture with other farming techniques will be able to illustrate the effectiveness of each method. Nonetheless, GM crops are an essential element as we look towards more global challenges, along with various resources to overcome them.