PULLMAN, Wash. — Recognizing that the social dimension is as important as the technological and economic aspects, the National Academy of Sciences turned to Washington State University when it wanted expertise to assess the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.
Raymond A. Jussaume, WSU professor of rural and community sociology, served on a NAS National Research Council committee that recently published a report called “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.”
Jussaume’s primary role on the committee was in assessing the social impact of genetic engineering technology in American agriculture. Genetic engineering involves the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes. Genetic engineering is different from traditional breeding, where the organism’s genes are manipulated indirectly.
“We conducted a broad survey of all scientific work in this area in order to shed light on the farm-level impacts of GE technology on U.S. agriculture,” Jussaume said.
“We found that farmers who have adopted genetically engineered crops are reaping economic benefits. But the benefits really depend on the particular farm and its situation,” Jussaume said.
For instance, farmers wanting to control weeds with the herbicide glycophosphate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup) benefit from GE crops, as genetically modified soy beans, corn and cotton are resistant to the effects of the herbicide.
“It’s not just the genetics that make the positive impact,” Jussaume said. “It’s a whole package of management practices. By having to spray less, for instance, the farmer is freed up to do other tasks or find off-farm employment.”
Improved water quality may be the single largest benefit of using GE crops, the report says. Insecticide and herbicide use declines with the adoption of GE crops, reducing runoff into streams and lakes, while tillage to control weeds also decreases, thus enabling farmers to adopt conservation tillage techniques that help reduce erosion and improve soil quality.
“It’s important to realize that there’s no infrastructure in place to track the effects of glycophosphate on water quality,” Jussaume said. The report recommends that the U.S. Geological Survey, along with other federal and state environmental agencies, should be provided with financial resources to document effects of GE crops on U.S. watersheds.
The report also says that the benefits of GE glycophosphate-resistant crops may be lessened due to the rapid development of weeds that are also resistant to the herbicide.
“The report is nuanced,” Jussaume said. “It has multiple findings and conclusions, so it’s important to read the whole thing rather than zeroing in on one thing. And the bottom line is that, due to some significant gaps in the research base, it’s just not possible to determine whether this technology is contributing to the improved sustainability of U.S. agriculture. Those gaps are in turn due to a lack of resources going to fund needed research.”
One of the gaps that Jussaume identified is in research on farm-level social impacts of GE crop use.
“We heard some farmers talk about their concerns regarding the oligarchic nature of the seed industry, and that that will make it harder to purchase conventional seeds,” Jussaume said.
With the exception of the issue of seed industry consolidation, the effects of GE crops on other social factors of farming — such as labor dynamics, farm structure, or community viability — have largely been overlooked, the report says. More research is needed on the range of effects GE crops have on all farmers, including those who don’t grow GE crops or farmers with less access to credit. Studies also should examine impacts on industries that rely on GE products, such as the livestock industry
The report recommends that research institutions should receive government support to develop GE traits that could deliver valuable public benefits but provide little market incentive for the private sector to develop. Examples include plants that decrease the likelihood of off-farm water pollution or plants that are resilient to changing climate conditions. Intellectual property that has been patented in developing major crops should be made available for these purposes whenever possible.
The report is available on the Web at http://bit.ly/a8Vin9.