The Environmental Impact of GMOs

An article made available in Science Direct, 2022, unpacks the potential benefits that genetically modified crops have for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Authors of the document, Emma Kovak, DanBlaustein-Rejto and Matin Qaim, claim that “genetically modified (GM) crops can help reduce agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In addition to possible decreases in production emissions, GM yield gains also mitigate land-use change and related emissions”.

How Do GMOs Affect The Environment?

GM (genetically modified) crops are agriculture plants that have had stretches of DNA added, effectively modified or turned off within their genome to achieve desired traits. GM crops are commonly designed to be more resistant to insects and tolerant to herbicides. Modified crops can therefore lower the need for chemical pesticides, which are greenhouse gas contributors. Also, yield increases from GM crop use may prevent greenhouse gas emissions from the conversion of natural land (land that is uncultivated) to cropland. Land conversions promote greenhouse gas emissions through tilling and forest clearing.

GMO Climate Change Strategy

The article contrives a hypothetical scenario in which the European Union (EU) lifts its “quasi-ban” against widespread GM crop use. Authors of the article assume that yield increases from genetically modified crop adoption in the EU would offer benefits similar to those observed in other industrialized, temperate-zone countries that use modified crops. They further assume that enhanced crop production in the EU will bring about proportional decrease in agriculture production elsewhere. The latter of these assumptions is built on the belief that land will be spared (remain uncultivated) because the EU will be producing more crops domestically, consequently shrinking land conversion demands in outside territories.

Avoided emissions estimates from increased yield are intentionally underestimated in the article. Although authors state that “…higher GM crop adoption in the EU would likely also lead to higher [technology] adoption elsewhere”, their avoided emissions estimates do not account for the implementation of technology related to genetically modified crop use.

Avoided emissions estimates also do not account for the implementation of novel modified crops and traits. In other words, estimates are strictly based on well known genetically modified crops (soybean, cotton, canola, maize, and sugar beet) and the traits that they are designed with.

GMOs Reduce Carbon Emissions

Even though estimates are based on already-existing technology for modified crop application as well as already-existing modified plants and traits, it may be fair to assume that new technologies and new crops and traits would emerge from increased modified crop adoption in the European Union. Authors of the article assert that the EU can and should “increase agricultural productivity through embracing new crop technologies, thus contributing to global environmental benefits”.

GMO Benefits

Adopting genetically modified crops in places like Europe, which has higher wheat crop loss levels-caused by insects and pathogens-that the global average, may result in improved crop growth by making vegetation more resilient to environmental stressors, such as disease, insects and herbicide application. Increased vegetation is expected to lead to enhanced soil fertility and improve carbon absorption in soils and biomass. By boosting crop yields in areas that have not broadly accepted genetically modified vegetation, tilling and forest clearing-related emissions can be mitigated.

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