Food scientists engineer genetically modified (GM) crops — often referred to as GMOs, or genetically modified organisms — for a variety of traits, like herbicide tolerance and drought resistance. Over the past few years, these crops have become an increasingly weighty topic as more farmers have begun to plant them — sometimes raising concerns about their long-term impacts on both human health and the environment.
Below, we’ll cover how GMO crop production is changing — whether it’s on the rise, its possible impacts on the environment and what new GM crops researchers are trying to develop right now.
How Is GMO Crop Production Changing?
At the moment, GM crop growth is slowing down, but mostly because it has nowhere to go. Right now, GM crop production dominates U.S. agriculture. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 90% of acreage reserved for major staple crops — like cotton, soybeans and corn — is growing genetically modified crops.
People are generally quick to adopt GMO crops if there’s proof their modifications can make crops better investments. For example, after GM sugar beets — an alternative to sugarcane that grows in colder environments — received approval for use, it took only three years before 95% of all sugar beets grown were genetically modified.
However, these numbers only really represent the United States — worldwide, things look a little different. In general, outside of developed countries, the adoption of GM crops has been a bit slower. GMO crops comprise only 12% of global agriculture acreage, and nearly half of that is in eight developed countries — the U.S., Canada, Australia and a handful of EU states. Despite the acreage available, worldwide GM adoption is slowing down — as a result, it doesn’t seem like the same explosive growth in GM production is coming to the developing world soon.
The Impact of Genetically Modified Crops
Despite how widespread the cultivation of these crops is, scientists aren’t entirely sure what kind of impact GMO crops are having on the environment right now — or what the shift to GMOs will mean for agriculture, human health and the planet in the long run.
Some research has found strong evidence that herbicide-tolerant GMOs encourage farmers to use more herbicides. One of the most popular of these herbicides, glyphosate, has prompted debate — both among researchers and among the public — mostly because we aren’t sure what impacts it could have on our health and the environment. Some studies suggest none, while others suggest increased risks of cancer and other severe side effects.
However, it’s hard to separate the effect GMOs have had on herbicide use. In general, farmers are using more herbicides, even those who aren’t growing GMO crops — especially those farmers on factory farms, which tend to have some of the most severe impacts on the environment. It’s possible herbicide usage would continue to grow, even if every farmer agreed not to grow GM crops.
At the same time, there’s also evidence that GMO crops can improve agriculture’s sustainability by indirectly increasing crop yield and reducing the amount of land the average farm needs. This reduced land use could allow fields to lie fallow and serve other purposes — like temporary solar farms — as part of a broader regenerative farming strategy. Other GMOs, like drought-resistant crops, could prove essential in the next few years as water becomes increasingly scarce in developing countries.
Some also argue that improved yields from GMOs will help reduce world hunger and may be necessary to feed the growing global population in the coming years.
However, others have countered that right now, hunger is more about logistics than yield — especially in the developed world. Vast amounts of food grown in the United States either goes to feed livestock or gets wasted — the USDA estimates that as much as 40% of the U.S. food supply ends up as food waste. The food is there, but it’s not making it to the people who need it. Improving crop yield may not be a guaranteed solution to world hunger.
What the Next GMO Crops Will Look Like
Scientists are also working on developing a new generation of GMO crops that may have even more significant impacts on agriculture.
Current GMO crops can improve yields indirectly by reducing crops lost to pesticide or drought, but most can’t produce more crops. However, this is starting to change. Yield-improving GMOs, like C4 rice, are undergoing trials right now, and may receive approval in the next few years. By some estimates, these GMOs could improve the yield of staple grains like rice and wheat by up to 50%.
Some yield-improving GMOs are already thriving. A genetically modified variant of eucalyptus that reduces the time it takes for the tree to reach maturity and increases the amount of wood the tree produces received approval in Brazil in 2015.
The Future of Genetically Modified Agriculture
Right now, GMO crops dominate agriculture in most developed countries. If a genetically modified variant of a major crop exists, most farmers in the U.S. are probably growing it right now.
Despite how widespread these crops are, it’s not clear what long-term impacts they may have on both the environment and human health. Some research suggests GMOs are driving the use of more pesticides, which could cause severe damage to our health. At the same time, other research has found that GMOs may be making agriculture more sustainable by reducing land and water usage.