In this guide, we look at some potential answers to the following questions:
– Should GMO crops and foods continue to be used?
– Are GMO crops and foods actually needed?
– What is the future of GMO crops and foods, and what might be the best and safest way to use and manage them in the future?
*Note – obviously there will be different answers to these questions depending on who is being asked. With this in mind, this is an exploratory guide only, and not a definitive guide stating or arguing for on particular answer over another.
Summary – Should GMO Crops & Food Be Used, Are They Needed, & What’s Their Future?
Should GMOs Continue To Be Used?
We’ve broken the answer to this question down under four broad aspects.
Those aspects are:
– Potential impact on human health and safety
– Potential impact on the environment and wildlife
– Potential economic impact
– Potential impact on overall society (and specific groups of people)
Under the human health and safety aspect, we’ve looked both at what the current scientific consensus is on GM foods and crops, and also what other specific information says about GM foods for direct human consumption, but also for livestock feed consumption.
Are GM Foods & Crops Actually Needed?
We’ve looked at three main areas to attempt to answer this question:
– What problems GM crops and food are claimed to address or help with (which relates very closely to what they are used for)
– What the alternatives to GM seeds (at the farming level) and GM food (at the consumer level) are
– What alternative options exist to address specific issues GM crops & foods are supposed to help with
The answers in these areas can help develop an idea of what the net result/tradeoffs of GM crops and foods over the short and long term might be (in addition to the potential list of impacts outlined elsewhere in this guide)
What Is The Future Of GM Crops & Foods?
But, even in the countries that restrict or ban their cultivation, a reasonable amount of these countries may still allow processing or importation of GM foods and ingredients.
So, on a worldwide scale, GM crops and food look like they will continue to be used for the foreseeable future, as both crops, but also as ingredients in food in the food supply.
What Might Be The Best Way To Manage/Use GM Crops & Foods In The Future?
The best way to manage and use GMOs in the future is going to different depending on who is giving an opinion.
It might need to consider the current scientific consensus, but also to assess each GM product and situation on an individual case by case basis (by individual crops or food, by country, by State or Province, by farmer, by consumer, and so on).
The particular problem that is being attempted to be addressed should also be identified too i.e. are you trying to increase total food production, to increase yields from the same land area (and be more efficient), to increase pest resistance, to increase disease resistance, to grow in water scarce or even waterlogged conditions, or to address something else?
So, there might not be a one size fits all answer, but rather an individualized solution depending on these unique variables.
Overall, the net tradeoff or end result (over the short and long term) should be analysed across the different measurables such as impact on humans and human health, the environment and wildlife, economics, and society and groups of people in general.
Some groups have the opinion that we should be either 100% for GM technology, or 100% against it.
But, there are some groups that indicate that GMO and non GMO methods and processes can be used alongside each other to receive the benefits of both.
Examples of this are mixing farming methods like conventional farming, and sustainable or organic farming, with the use of some GM seeds.
GM foods and ingredients may also be available on shelves for consumers along with non GM foods (or there could also be the use of some GM ingredients in a food product without all ingredients being GM).
This is essentially a hybrid approach.
There may be also more room for improvement or change in how GM crops and foods are currently regulated or used. We list some of these points in the guide below.
What Are GMOs, & What Are They Currently Being Used For?
Read more about what GMOs are, and what they are already used for in this guide.
Should GM Crops & Foods Continue To Be Used?
To help attempt to answer this question, we’ve broken down the potential impact of GM crops and foods under 4 areas – human health, environment and wildlife, economics, and overall society and people:
Potential Impact On Human Health
– General Health Impact
To paraphrase: ‘GM crops have no more risk than those that have been developed by conventional breeding techniques … [when assessing] the safety of these crops in terms of human health and environmental impact’
The same goes for GM food and conventional food, but there is the condition that (paraphrasing again) ‘… each GM food [and crop] needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction’v
So, each new GM product may need to be assessed before approval.
What’s worth noting is that there does exist a statement that questions the conclusiveness of this consensus, which you can read more about here.
Part of that questioning involves pointing out the supposed lack of long term studies and research outlining the long term effects of GM crops and foods.
– What Other Sources Say On The Safety Of GM Food
There are other groups and sources who question the general health impact of GM foods.
Earthopensource.org for example has a whole section (Section 3) dedicated to the potential health hazards of GMO foods.
Some page resources that question the consensus and paraphrased page notes are:
[it shouldn’t be implied that everything that contains the same basic building blocks is without risk to humans]
[Most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause certain effects … and they main change certain body parameters … and the significance of this remains to be solved with chronic toxicity studies]
‘GM foods are not properly tested for safety for human consumption before they are released for sale … The only published studies that have directly tested the safety of GM foods for human consumption found potential problems but were not followed up’
There’s also these sources that question the overall health impact of GMOs:
responsibletechnology.org goes as far as to say ‘GMOs simply are unhealthy’ and outlines some unhealthy trends and patterns linked to GMOs
nongmoproject.org points out that “In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown”
There’s some suggestions that herbicide use has increased with increased GMO use, but theconversation.com says that ‘glyphosate is safe if used as directed’ and there is ‘no statistically significant evidence for an association [of glyphosate] with cancer’
– GM Feed For Livestock
There should be a distinction between food eaten directly by humans, and crops eaten by livestock (that humans end up eating as products like meat).
Forbes.com provides some feedback on the safety of GM feed for livestock and animals:
… 29 years of livestock productivity and health data from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed [was reviewed] …
The field data represented more than 100 billion animals covering a period before 1996 when animal feed was 100% non-GMO, and after its introduction when it jumped to 90% and more.
[they found that] … GM feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed.
There was no indication of any unusual trends in the health of animals since 1996 when GMO crops were first harvested.
Considering the size of the dataset, it can reasonably be said that the debate over the impact of GE feed on animal health is closed: there is zero extraordinary impact.
However, earthopensource.org may have a different stance on GM feed to share:
‘GM feed affects the health of animals and may affect the humans who eat their products’
Potential Impact On Environment & Wildlife
The current scientific consensus outlined above in the ‘human health’ section also applies to GM crops and foods’ impact on the environment.
Potential Economic Impact
GM technology isn’t cheap.
Whether or not it makes economic sense depends on how much biotech companies are making when the product goes to market, but also how much farmers and agricultural producers are making compared to how much GM seeds cost them upfront.
This would also have to be compared against non GMO farming methods to get an idea of opportunity cost, and how much farmers, agricultural producers, and food producers and suppliers could be making (or saving) without GM technology comparatively.
This financial data isn’t clear on these things though at this stage.
From the agricultural producers’ side, they may also be impacted economically if they have upfront debts to GM seed companies they can’t pay off, and any potential legal costs they may incur if they don’t use GM seeds (which are the property of GM seed companies) as per conditions of contract.
These things can be economic risks to agricultural and food producers.
Potential Impact On Society As A Whole, & Specific Groups Of People Or Individuals
Separate to health, there may be increased business and legal risk for farmers, and decreased sovereignty and independence for farmers as a result of using GM seeds.
This may be due to the fact that GM seeds are usually owned as property by the GM product companies, and that because the seeds aren’t renewable (like conventional seeds are), farmers may end up becoming reliant on the seeds.
If GM seeds are used, there raises a question of whether it’s desirable to reduce farmer and business owner sovereignty and independence.
There’s also the question of whether GM seeds and technology is the best use of resources, compared to investing in other farming techniques and solutions to meet food production demands.
Are GM Foods & Crops Actually Needed?
As we mentioned in the summary, we will explore some potential answers to three questions here:
What Issues & Problems GM Crops & Food Are Claimed To Help Address
A few examples include resistance from pests, resistance from disease, better water retention, just to name a few.
There’s a range of potential benefits that might stem from this, such as saving a higher % of the crops, a better overall yield and total production, not having to use as much water in irrigation, being able to grow in drier climates (and a range of other climates and conditions), and so on.
These benefits might be available to food crops, fibre crops (like cotton), and even crops that produce oils or biofuels.
If we zoom out beyond addressing these smaller scale issues, a larger scale issue GM crops and foods might help address might be helping meet the food production demand of a population, by being able to grow more food, under a greater range of conditions, in a greater number of ways, with different inputs and resources.
The population is expected to grow to reach around 9 billion by 2050, or 10 billion + by around 2100, so an adequate food supply to meet this population growth is needed.
Other larger scale issues GM crops and foods might help address might include issues such as the effects of overpopulation (with increased food and agricultural demand being one), different types of pollution, food waste and food loss, water scarcity, the sustainable use of resources, and more.
But, whether or not GM foods and crops actually do this depends on the credibility and amount of real world evidence and results backing these claims that biotechnology and GM seed companies should provide.
If the evidence and results exist and are credible, there may be issues or problems that only GM crops and foods can address/solve i.e. problems that can’t be addressed as effectively with non GMO solutions.
For example, conventional crop seeds aren’t engineered for claimed traits like better water retention, disease resistance, or pest resistance.
Therefore, there’s certain uncontrollable agricultural factors like climate and specific growing conditions they may never be able to overcome.
Regular foods can’t be engineered to have a more optimized nutritional profile either.
If there isn’t sufficient real world evidence and results though (of engineered traits leading to real benefits that solve real problems), these claims might be more accurately categorized as marketing, and may not provide any significant benefit over non GMO options. They may even be a net negative comparative to non GMO options.
There are those that make this precise point – that there’s no substantial evidence GM crops and food do what they are claimed to be engineered to do (or that there’s no substantial evidence of other benefits like increased yield or decrease in resource inputs required)
In this guide, we outline a TheConversation.com resource that points out that research shows that the adoption of GM technology has lead to the increase in crop yield, increase in profits in developing countries and reduced pesticide use. This is of course only one collection of research data though, and others might need to be assembled.
What Benefits & Drawbacks GM Crops & Foods Might Have
Additionally, if we are talking about risks, concerns and uncertainties with GMO crops and foods, we’ve listed some specifically at the bottom of this guide.
What The Alternatives To GM Seeds Are (At The Farming Level), And Also GM Food (At The Consumer Level)
When looking at the alternatives to GM crops and foods …
At the farm level, there’s conventional farming that uses non GMO conventional crop seeds.
There might also be other farming approaches like sustainable farming and organic farming (that also use non GMO seeds).
At the consumer level, there’s either 100% non GMO foods, or foods with only a small % of GM ingredients (as opposed to 100% GM ingredients).
What Alternative Options Exist To Address Specific Issues GM Crops & Foods Are Supposed To Help Address
If we identify one example of a large scale issue listed above – having enough food production for the population … we can see other options, other than using GM crops and food, may very well already exist.
For example, reducing food waste and loss, making changes to consumer diets and consumer food choices, changing the foods and crops grown and produced to be more suitable for climates and conditions, as well as making changes to different parts of the food production and consumption process may help.
Addressing overpopulation in countries with the highest population growth rates might also help more to reduce food demand rather than using GM seeds to meet increased food demand. It may also be a better option than any other potential solution listed above.
So, there are essentially other options (in theory) other than GM technology to address this problem.
And, other problems like water scarcity, different types of pollution, and sustainably managing resources, may all have non GMO solutions that can be pursued too.
Some examples of problems that might have non GMO solutions to help solve them (instead of engineering crops or foods to do so) might include:
Water scarcity issues can be addressed with better water management strategies, and with technology such as desalination and waste water recycling
Crops can be better matched to the local conditions and climate i.e. don’t grow water hungry crops in dryer climates or places with water scarcity issues
Disease resistance can be addressed through conventional selective plant breeding
Better food nutrition can be achieved through smarter and more food diverse diets
Reducing food waste and loss can happen via a number of ways other than trying to engineer foods for a longer shelf life
… Essentially, GMOs might just be a band aid or quick fix type solution to bigger social and environmental issues that can be addressed in other ways.
RoyalSociety.org outlines how crop performance can be improved with other methods other than using GM crops:
Crop genetic improvement, by GM or conventional approaches, is only one of many methods that can be used to improve crop performance
Others involve improvements in farm practices, irrigation, drainage, and herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser use.
Better food storage and transportation to reduce waste … [the use of] GPS (global positioning systems) in [precision agriculture to better apply fertilizers and pesticides in the right locations and amounts] … [the use of] Remote sensing combined with computer technology is leading to better prediction and prevention of disease epidemics … [the use of] robots [to selectively kill weeds] … [and a] New understanding of the interactions between crops and other plants or with microbes in the soil will [will all give farmers other options to manage thir crops]
Organicconsumers.org and earthopensource.org both outline reasons why a heavy reliance on GMOs might not be necessary at all.
One of the things they mention is that the real problems with food supply are ‘poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on’ and GM crops and foods just distract from solving the core problems causing these issues.
Other relevant points they make are:
‘… there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available, and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist.
Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant, and pest- and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.
The quality and efficacy of our food production system depends only partly on crop genetics. The other part of the equation is farming methods.
What is needed are not just high-yielding, climate-ready, and disease-resistant crops, but productive, climate-ready, and disease-resistant agriculture.’
Miscellaneous Considerations When Deciding If GM Crops & Foods Are Needed
The final point that should be made about whether GM crops and foods are needed is that the answer should be both individualized, and also take into account external factors.
External factors include things such as how big a population actually gets, and what impact that has on food demand.
Individualized means that whether or not GM products are needed might be mean each GM product needs to be assessed on a case by case basis, and also the individual countries and food production systems in place need to be assessed
There’s also other practical considerations, such as whether or not GM technology can be scaled, and also whether potential barriers can be overcome, such as the time and cost it takes to get a GM product through regulation, approval and finally to market.
msutoday.msu.edu lists some external factors as [population growth, and scarcity and quality of agricultural land]
What Is The Future Of GM Crops & Foods?
Countries like the US use GMOs heavily for a number of key crops, so it looks likely they will continue to be used at least in the US in the foreseeable future.
Other countries and regions around the world may continue to be restrictive on cultivation of GM crops, or even completely ban them. But, even in some of these countries, they still allow processing and importation of GM foods.
So, processing and importation of processed GM foods and ingredients may continue to be used worldwide for the foreseeable future too.
In … the United States, 80% of food contains derivatives from genetically engineered crops …
The food market is already reliant on GM crop production to feed the people alive right now, and the demand for GM crop production will only increase as the population grows in the future.
What Might Be The Best Way To Manage/Use GM Crops & Foods In The Future?
Different groups are going to have different answers to this question.
This is especially true when comparing the views of GM seed companies vs advocates for organic farming as one example.
Another example is comparing the views of regulatory parties in countries where GM crops are cultivated widely vs where they are restricted or banned.
So, competing interests, politics, and other priorities and impacts can all lead to different answers.
– General Approach
In terms of managing the use of GM foods and crops in the future in the safest and most effective way, there might be an emphasis on assessing GM food and crop products on an individual case by case basis
So, assess not only the individual GM product, but also the geographic location and individual variables and factors, and come up with decision that takes into account each of these unique and nuanced aspects
There might not be a one size fits all answer for every region, farming and food consumption as a whole, every farmer, every crop or type of food, and so on.
It might also consider feedback from farmers (profit/revenue, yield, etc), farm workers, the government and regulatory bodies (third parties involved in the process too), scientists and researchers (including independent researchers), GMO companies, consumers and members of the public, Developed and developing countries + other relevant factors and parties
It might consider short and long term impacts, as well as impact on human health and safety, the environment and wildlife, the economy, and society at large (as well as any particular groups of people).
– Consider Benefits Of A Hybrid Approach Of GM & Non GM Technology/Methods
TheConversation.com outlines how an organic mixed with GM technology approach could be beneficial:
‘… [we] propose that the case-by-case scrutiny of GM crops would allow the organic industry to show it is willing to use the smartest technologies for improving the sustainable productivity of food and fibre production.
Adoption [of GM organics] would massively improve the productivity of organic agriculture, and the productivity boost would help make organic food price competitive.
[It’s also worth noting that that theconversation.com resource compares the results of a farming approach with GMOs compared to a non GMO organic approach (of regular cotton) where GMO technology reduced pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yield by 22%, increased farmer profits by 68%. and notes] … The yield and profit gains are considerably higher in developing countries than in developed countries, and 53% of GM crops are grown in developing countries.
[It’s worth noting though that a bigger set of data across different climates and geographical regions would likely be needed to make more accurate conclusions on which farming practices and technology are best in different circumstances]
RoyalSociety.org reinforces theconversation.com’s point …
[We listed a range of methods further up in this guide from royalsociety.org for how crop performance can be improved, and royalsociety.org says this about those methods when using them alongside GM technology in the future in agriculture:]
‘None of these innovations, including GM, are exclusive of each other and although some may be more expensive to implement than others, all could play a part in delivering sustainable agriculture that meets global needs.’
blogs.umass.edu outlines how weeds might be more effectively managed whist simultaneously enjoying the benefits of GM seeds with herbicide resistance:
Create stacked herbicide resistant crops (resistant to different types of herbicides)
Encourage farmers to spray their crops with different herbicides other than just glyphosate
Use a wider variety of weed management methods such as crop rotation, cover crops and mulches, reduced tillage, precision agriculture, adequate seeding rates, seed quality, etc
Test using Roundup Bioactive (which can be up to 14 times less toxic) instead of the original Roundup
Changing the management practices of using herbicides will reduce the detrimental effects that many GM crops have on the environment, while simultaneously allowing humans to enjoy their benefits.
The potential for a hybrid approach is something we’ve previously pointed in our guide about organic cotton.
– Specific Points To Consider
Specific points to consider in future management of GM crops and foods might be:
Use a hybrid approach of GM and non GM seeds where possible in agriculture and food
Consider how the research and study process, and the testing, regulation, approval and labelling processes can be improved, changed or standardized (in the linked guide – one suggestion is a hybrid approach of the US and European approaches to GM crop and food regulation). Also consider how the credibility, transparency and quality standards in these processes can be maximized.
Consider whether an international GM organization might benefit a independent and standardized approach to GM use – consider both the US approach and the European approach to GMOs
Address specific things such as the substantial equivalence principle, voluntary consultation, and so on
Consider the safety of GMOs for both direct human consumption, and consumption via livestock feed
Make potential conflicts of interest of in the GM industry more transparent e.g. companies that supply seeds and agricultural chemicals, regulating bodies, and also politics between different countries
Have some awareness over the potential monopoly a small number of companies has over GM seeds and some types of herbicides
Consider the short term, as well as the long term impact of GMOs – differentiate between them in reports and findings
Consider how world issues like population growth, food production, climate change, water scarcity and so on can be addressed in other ways other than with GMOs
Understand that agriculture is a business for farmers – you can’t expect them to pursue a certain type of farming if it has high risk and lower revenues//profits unless you subsidise them for it and help cover their risks and lost profits
– Potential Areas For Improvement
There may be more room for improvement, change or more monitoring of specific issues in the area of GM crops and food.
For example …
– Research and study might incorporate more independent information
– Regulations and the approval process might continue to be modified
– There might be more critique into the market share and control that GMO companies and herbicide companies as well as regulating bodies have
– The long term and safety of consumers might continue to be monitored
– The sovereignty, independence and ownership/control that farmers and food producers have over their self owned and renewable seeds, and agricultural products (compared to potentially being reliant on GMO companies for their patents, and their non renewable GM seeds that are company property … along with forfeiting any legal rights that come along with that) might continue to be monitored and preserved
– Consider what might be the best balance for a hybrid approach of GMO and non GMO technology at both the farming, and also the consumer levels.
Ultimately, there’s always going to be a list of tradeoffs to any decision made.
[Overall, Forbes says: we should be] worried about the current implementation of GMO due to its effects on cropland, the ecosystem, and human health, and that research into GMOs is taking resources away from potentially much more helpful cross-breeding projects in the short run.
Consolidated List Of Some Of The Main GM Food & Crops Points To Be Aware Of Or Understand
Below is a list of what might be some of the main points to take into consideration when assessing GM crops and foods:
What GMOs are, and what are they currently used for. Understand that GMOs are used for crops and foods, but also for other uses too
The current scientific consensus on GM crops and food is
Questioning of the consensus – specifically questioning the conclusiveness of the consensus
Questioning the study and research on GM crops and foods
Questioning GM crop and food regulations – whole deregulation process of study and research, testing and pre approval, and finally approval. This applies to both crops, and also foods that are introduced to the food supply at the commercial level. There’s then labelling of food. In addition to growing of GM crops, there’s processing and importation of GM foods and ingredients to consider. Regulations differ in different parts of the world, and some question standardisation, as well as adequacy of regulations
Some countries grow GM crops widely, whilst other countries partially ban/restrict or fully ban/restrict the cultivation of GM crops. Even countries that might partially ban/restrict or fully ban/restrict GM crop cultivation may still allow importing and processing of GM foods and ingredients
Humans directly consume GM food, but livestock also consume GM feed, and humans obviously end up consuming animal products like meat
Potential impact of GM crops and foods on human health and safety, environment and wildlife, economy, and people and society in general
The full range of potential pros and cons of GM crops and foods.
Assessing how much of the claimed benefits of GMO foods and crops is marketing and claims from GM seed, biotech, and agricultural chemical companies, without solid evidence and results to back it up. Additionally, how many of the claimed benefits of engineered traits of GM seeds and foods are backed up by real results and evidence across a range of geographic locations
The potential risks, concerns and uncertainties to do with GM crops and foods
Alternatives to farming using GM seeds and GM crops – conventional farming with non GMO seeds, and also other types of farming like sustainable and organic farming that also uses non GMO seeds. Is a hybrid approach better than using 100% one approach over another?
Understand that meeting the population’s food production demands is only one issue related to farming and the food supply. Examples of other issues include but aren’t limited to effective and sustainable resource management, pollution, and food waste and loss
Understand that there are other options and solutions to addressing large scale issues like meeting food demand for a population. Some examples might include using different farming techniques, changing consumer lifestyles, better managing food waste and loss, and so on
Asking at what scale and how quickly GM crops and foods can be adopted and used. Is it affordable for all farmers and countries or is cost a barrier?
Asking if farmer sovereignty is compromised when using GM seeds, and if this potential dependence/reliance of farmers on biotech companies and GM seed providers (who own the rights to technology and have the seeds as their company’s property) is good for the rights of the individual and open and free markets long term … compared to if farmers use seeds and technology they individually have control and ownership over.
A nuanced approach could be good for GM crops and foods, instead of treating all GM products the same. Assess on an individual basis – on the individual GM crop or food, from individual companies, in individual geographical locations, for individual farmers and food producers, and individual consumers
Some of the parties involved in GMOs are consumers, biotechnology and GM seed companies, agricultural chemical companies (as herbicides have reportedly increased in use with an increase in use of GM seeds, and there’s a link between the small number of companies that own GM seeds and own certain herbicide products), regulatory bodies and parties, scientists and researchers, farmers, and other parties up and down the agricultural and food supply supply chain.
Other Potential Concerns, Risks, Issues & Uncertainties With GM Crops & Foods
Aside from the potential issues with GM crops and foods we list in this guide, and in the guide above, some summarized issues and concerns might include:
Some of the miscellaneous risks, issues and concerns with GMOs might include:
The key areas of controversy [and concern] related to GMO food are whether GM food should be labeled, the role of government regulators, [the overall rigor of the regulatory process], the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, the role of GM crops in feeding the world population, … contamination of the non-genetically modified food supply, … consolidation of control of the food supply in companies that make and sell GMOs, … [and] concerns over the use of herbicides with glyphosate.
… risks have not been adequately identified and managed, and they have questioned the objectivity of regulatory authorities.
Some health groups say there are unanswered questions regarding the potential long-term impact on human health from food derived from GMOs ….
[we should be] very worried about the current implementation of GMO due to its effects on cropland, the ecosystem, and human health, and that research into GMOs is taking resources away from potentially much more helpful cross-breeding projects in the short run.