We are not producing our food sustainably. Climate change is already reducing productivity in some areas, and this is projected to worsen. Agriculture is also responsible for a substantial share of climate-change gases, most unsustainable uses of fresh water, and is the main cause of the several hundred global “dead zones,” such as in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay.
Genetic engineering is often proposed as a major and necessary way to address these problems. But as developed so far, globally it has not contributed meaningfully to the changes we need.
Large corporations that dominate development of genetically modified crops have produced only a very few commercial successes — despite close to 30 years of effort. Over 99 percent of biotech crops are immune to herbicides, more commonly known as weedkillers, or control insect pests. That has led to hundreds of millions of pounds more of herbicide use, tens of millions of acres of herbicide resistant weeds, and a new generation of resistant crops that will greatly increase the use of older, riskier herbicides. Soil-preserving conservation tillage, sometimes attributed to genetic engineering, was largely adapted in the United States before herbicide-resistant crops, which have probably increased its adoption only modestly.
A strain of genetically modified corn that is insect resistant, known as Bt, has reduced insecticide volume, but some of these reductions are being reversed. Insects naturally immune to Bt are multiplying while others, formerly susceptible, adapt to tolerate Bt. And in many countries, including the United States, most grain seed is now treated with insecticides, even on crops containing Bt traits. Although used at lower volume than sprayed insecticides, seed treatments are implicated in the decline of honeybees. Increases in seed treatments despite Bt is, in part, because genetically modified crops have become part of, and have facilitated, our current unsustainable industrial agriculture system that aggravates pest problems.
As for food security, we produce enough food. Poverty and marginalization prevent access. Genetic engineering is used mainly in livestock feed crops and biofuel crops that are not useful to those who need more or more nutritious food. On the other hand, inexpensive ecologically based systems have been shown to improve production of food crops more, and more reliably, than is typically seen from the few available genetically engineered traits used by poor farmers.
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