By Eric Hoffman

On April 13, 2010 The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Sciences recently released their report, "The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States" in Washington, DC. This report set out to document the environmental, economic, and social effect of genetically engineered (GE) crops on farms and farmers throughout the country. While the report should be applauded for its attention to the serious threat farmers face from the emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds, it ignores the true culprit of this problem - GE - and instead promotes further use of technology to solve problems created by the technology itself. 

The NRC report notes that since the introduction of Roundup-Ready crops -which can survive the spraying of glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup-nine weed species in the U.S. have evolved resistance to glyphosate. This has caused farmers to complement their glyphosate usage with more toxic herbicides and use tilling methods that lead to increased runoff and soil degradation. The NRC's report warns that continued use of glyphosate will eventually render it ineffective. Two types of pests have also built a resistance to another GE trait, Bt-toxin, a pesticide that is grown inside the cells of some GE plants.

The proposed solution is to develop new GE herbicide resistant crops, putting us in a futile fight to outsmart nature. Weeds and bugs will continue to evolve resistance to chemicals regardless of how many billions of dollars are spent on genetic engineering, just as we see with antibiotic resistance in medicine.1 Genetic engineering will never out-engineer evolution.

The NRC believes that genetic drift from GE crops to non-GE crops is not a serious concern. This could not be further from the truth. Unlike traditional pollution that dissipates over time, genetic contamination-the flow of undesirable genes from one plant to another-is permanent and can spread endlessly throughout a species. The effect of GE on humans and the environment has yet to be well documented or tested, and current safeguards to prevent contamination are inadequate. Permitting the potential for such irreversible contamination to occur when so many unknowns remain and so little oversight is in place is irresponsible public policy that endangers public health, our agricultural economy, and the environment.

The most outlandish claim from the NRC is that GE crops help organic farmers by creating a market for non-GE foods, for which they can receive a premium price. This is like saying that the Manhattan Project created a market for personal fallout bunkers. Genetic drift from GE crops is a direct threat to GE-free crops such as organics and has led to numerous farmers losing access to this "niche" market. A recent report documented 39 cases of genetic contamination of organic and conventional non-GE seeds in 2007 and more than 200 in the last decade.2 Recent controversies involving Monsanto's GE alfalfa and other GE crops shows that the environmental and economic damage caused by GE seeds is real, causing farmers to lose their very livelihood due to genetic contamination.3

The NRC believes that the federal government should fund private and public institutions to develop "public good" traits that could increase yields, increase nutritional value, and survive droughts. Yet we already have seen small-scale, sustainable and agro-ecological approaches to agriculture that do all of these things. Sustainable agriculture can meet the world's growing demands for food and has proven to increase yields,4 increase nutritional value,5 mitigate the dangers posed by climate change,6 and can increase soil and water quality.7 Why waste billions of taxpayer dollars on technology that a few corporations will own and have yet to deliver any real benefits to society? 

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD),8 which was written by more than 400 scientists and signed by nearly 60 governments around the world, says that industrial agriculture has degraded our natural resources and threatens the world's food, water, and energy security. The report, sponsored by the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank, continues by stating that industrial agriculture's "business as usual [approach] is not an option." GE crops will not reduce hunger and poverty, and will only exacerbate social inequality and environmental degradation. IAASTD concludes that sustainable agriculture-where farmers have access to and control of their resources and local markets-is the right solution. A 2007 study from the University of Michigan concluded that organic agriculture could actually increase global food production by as much as 50 percent without using more land.9 Genetic engineering, on the other hand, has already failed to increase yields.10 What has increased due to the planting of GE seeds is the amount of pesticides being sprayed-over 300 million more pounds during the last 13 years.11 Sustainable agro-ecological farming methods are being used throughout the world and are threatened by the spread of GE crops-often forcibly through U.S. trade and food aid policies.

The NRC's continued reliance on more GE for the very problems GE causes is troubling. Instead of promoting research into a technology that forces farmers to buy expensive chemical inputs, threatens the livelihoods of non-GE food producers around the world, and provides no real-world benefit to those who eat the food, we should promote the sustainable agro-ecological practices that have been tested for over ten thousand years. Sustainable agriculture has been shown to increase yields, increase nutritional value, and can mitigate the dangers posed by the climate crisis while increasing soil and water quality. We must shift our research money and efforts away from unreliable and dangerous genetic engineering technology and towards sustainable food production. It is not often we are lucky enough to have a low-tech, low-cost solution that can feed the world and regenerate our environment sitting right in front of us. It is time the U.S. broke away from this failed technology and started supporting real-world solutions that have proven benefits and global support.


Eric Hoffman is the Genetic Technology Policy Campaigner for Friends of the Earth.



1. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. Rep. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 2008. Web. <>.
2. GM Contamination Register Report 2007. Rep. Greenpeace International. <>.
3. K.L. Hewett, The Economic Impacts of GM Contamination Incidents on the Organic Sector, 16th IFOAM Organic World Congress, Modena, Italy, June 16-20, 2008.
4. Badgley, Catherine, and Ivette Perfecto. "Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply." Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22.2 (2007): 86-108.
5. Benbrook, Charles, Xin Zhao, Jaime Yáñez, Neal Davies, and Preston Andrews. New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods. Rep. The Organic Center. Web. <http://www.organiccenter. org/tocpdfs/NutrientContentReport.pdf>.
6. LaSalle, Tim, Paul Hepperly, and Amadou Diop. The Organic Green Revolution. The Rodalte Institute. <>.
7. Ibid.
8. To learn more about IAASTD, please visit:
9. Badgley, Catherine, and Ivette Perfecto. "Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply." Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22.2 (2007): 86-108.
10. Gurian-Sherman, Doug. Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops. Union of Concerned Scientists. <>.
11. Benbrook, Charles. Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years. The Organic Center, Nov. 2009. <>.

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