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Frontiers on GM Crops

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Genetically modified crops are attracting a lot of attention these days. They are a lightning rod for controversy, with people debating their possible health, economic and environmental repercussions. They are also touted as a panacea for global food insecurity. How does the average consumer parse the conflicting information and trade-offs to form an educated opinion? Enter the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit, nongovernment consumer advocacy and education organization focused on food and nutrition. Gregory Jaffe, the director of the CSPI's Biotechnology Project, discussed these issues at the final Frontiers in the Environment lecture of the semester April 25.

The CSPI holds the position that GM crops currently grown and sold in the U.S. are safe to eat. But the organization is also quick to caution that each new product must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Jaffe discussed the advantages and risks of GM crops, acknowledging that while GM crops can increase yields, reduce pesticide use and increase grower income, they can also cause allergies, harm nontarget species, and have negative impacts on biodiversity.

So are GM crops sustainable? Jaffe was frank during his discussion of the major issue surrounding GM crops: the development of insect and weed resistance. If trends continue as they have during the past several years, we could see massive amounts of insect and weed resistance emerge in GM crops. This could lead to declining crop yields, or even crop failures.

New technology is needed to stay ahead of the game. One innovation is "stacking" - introducing multiple herbicide tolerance or multiple pest resistance. This may be a good solution for herbicide resistant crops, but pests can still develop resistance using this method. According to Jaffe, a better solution for pest management is "refuge in a bag" seed.

Regulations require farmers to plant a certain amount of non-GM seed as "refuges" - habitat where pests are free of selection pressure to develop resistance. Refuge-in-a-bag seed has some non-GM seed mixed in, allowing for natural refuges to grow throughout GM fields. This takes the complicated issue of farmer compliance out of the equation and gives better hope for maintaining pest control ability in the long term.

With over 395 million acres of GM crops grown globally each year - 170 million of those in the U.S. - Jaffe made a strong case for a robust regulatory system, better government oversight, and continued watchdogging by the CSPI in order to protect GM technologies for future farmers.  He also stressed the need for innovation in GM crop technology in order to make their use sustainable and environmentally sound.

Interested in learning more? Watch the video of Jaffe's talk here

Photo courtesy of John Bollwitt via Flickr

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.