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Benefits Of GE Crops Highlighted In USDA Report

Farmer adoption of genetically engineered (GE) crops is associated with time savings, lower insecticide use, and more conservation tillage, according to a new USDA study.

The report, “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States” by Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, Seth James Wechsler, Michael Livingston, and Lorraine Mitchell was released by USDA’s Economic Research Service on Feb. 20.

According to USDA: “Genetically engineered (GE) crops (mainly corn, cotton, and soybeans) were planted on 169 million acres in 2013, about half of U.S. land used for crops. Their adoption has saved farmers time, reduced insecticide use, and enabled the use of less toxic herbicides. Research and development of new GE varieties continues to expand farmer choices.”

An unfortunate article by Reuters claims, “GMO crops are under intense scrutiny” despite the latest ISAAA report released two week ago affirming that biotech crops are the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history. “This adoption rate speaks for itself in terms of its resilience and the benefits it delivers to farmers and consumers,” says ISAAA.

What is regrettably lacking in media coverage of this report is a summary of most of the report’s key findings, such as:

The adoption of Bt (insect resistant) crops increases yields by mitigating yield losses from insects. The yield advantage of Bt corn and Bt cotton over conventional seed has become larger in recent years as new Bt traits have been incorporated and stacked traits have become available. Planting Bt cotton and Bt corn continues to be more profitable, as measured by net returns, than planting conventional seeds.

Farmers generally use less insecticide when they plant Bt corn and Bt cotton. Corn insecticide use by both GE seed adopters and nonadopters has decreased — only 9 percent of all U.S. corn farmers used insecticides in 2010. Insecticide use on corn farms declined from 0.21 pound per planted acre in 1995 to 0.02 pound in 2010. This is consistent with the steady decline in European corn borer populations over the last decade that has been shown to be a direct result of Bt adoption.

HT (herbicide-tolerant) soybean adoption is associated with an increase in total household income because HT soybeans require less management and enable farmers to generate income via off-farm activities or by expanding their operations. The adoption of HT crops has enabled farmers to substitute glyphosate for more toxic and persistent herbicides.

It is important to note that the ERS report does look at trends in glyphosate use and concludes: “An overreliance on glyphosate and a reduction in the diversity of weed management practices adopted by crop producers have contributed to the evolution of glyphosate resistance in 14 weed species and biotypes in the United States.”

Weed resistance is indeed a concern for all of agriculture – not just for biotech crops – but can be mitigated through the use of best management practices (BMPs). BMPs include applying multiple herbicides with different modes of action, rotating crops, planting weed-free seed, scouting fields routinely, cleaning equipment to reduce the transmission of weeds to other fields, and maintaining field borders.

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