Genetically Modified Crops: Tools to Protect the Environment


Why do farmers choose to use GMO seeds? What do they see as the benefits that impact their decision to adopt GMO technology? What has led to the rapid global adoption of GMO seed?

Opponents of GMO crop production suggest heavy pressure from seed companies and the inability to save seed  from GMO crops have skewed farmers’ decision making towards adoption of GMO varieties. Is it possible industry influence has  led to a 90% adoption rate of corn, soy and cotton GMO seed use, or are there other factors at play in farmers decision making?

Tony Lapierre of Chazy, New York is the fifth generation on Rusty Creek Farm, milking 500 cows and managing 1200 acres of land to grow feed for his dairy herd. Tony was an early adopter of GMO technology.

“We started using GMO crops pretty early,” said Lapierre. “I saw my neighbors using them and their results convinced me the GMO crops did what they were supposed to.”

Water Quality

The use of GMO technology allows farmers to use “no-till” farming; planting seeds directly into grass sod without plowing. As unwanted grass and weeds  grow up around crop seedlings,  they can be eliminated because GMO technology protects the crop fromherbicides.  With no-till planting, by leaving the sod in place over soil, there is reduced run-off of soil sediment carried in rainfall and snowmelt.

“GMO crops are better for my soils,” Lapierre said, “they let the soil environment  act like a sponge and  hold water.”  Using GMO crops to maintain a sod cover also improves water conservation by giving fields greater soil organic matter and increased water holding capacity.  Lapierre remarked “I use the GMOs to help improve my soil organic matter, it is really important that water stays on the field and doesn’t run off.” As farmers increase adoption of soil and water conservation practices GMO crops are an important tool.

Energy Use

GMO crops often require less energy use by farmers. The use of GMO crops reduces the need to plow soil, greatly reducing tractor fuel necessary to prepare fields for planting. If fields are plowed they also require harrowing, a second tractor step to smooth the soil in preparation for planting. Both plowing and harrowing require significant horsepower to drag heavy equipment through the soil.  Lapierre observed “I save a lot of money by using GMO crops; they take less tractor trips over the fields, also less tractor traffic means I don’t compact the soils and they can hold more water.”

As fuel prices fluctuate regularly, decreasing the time and money spent on tractor operation decreases crop production costs considerably. By reducing the fuel used to prepare fields and spray crops for pests GMO the technology has significantly reduced the release of fuel and soil greenhouse gas emissions from crop production, which, in 2010, was equivalent to removing 8.6 million cars from the roads.

Pesticide Use

GMO soy, corn and cotton fall into two broad categories:  herbicide resistance and resistance to pests such as the corn root worm. Before the wide spread adoption of GMO crops farmers used carefully chosen combinations of herbicides or pesticides to maintain the productivity and health of their crops.  With the advent of genetic engineering, crops are able to mount their own defense against pests, often eliminating the need for costly sprays and extra trips through the field to apply them.

“We use way less pesticides then we used to.  Compared to my father and grandfather I have really reduced our pesticide use,” Lapierre said. “With GMO crops the protection gene is there and available if we need it.”Lapierre also said if he has a mid-season weed problem the GMO crops allow him to use glyphosate, a pesticide with low residue concerns, to control it.

GMO technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 443 million kg (-9.1%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops (as measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)) by 17.9%.

Farmers use tools that work.

It took a span of nearly 90 years from the first use of a tractor in a farm field for the “wheeled horse”  to replace the hooved horse on US farms. By contrast, in the 18 years since GMO traits have been commercially available in soy, corn and cotton, nearly 90% of all US acres have been planted to the seeds.

Obviously both farmers and the consumer market place saw the benefits of GMO seed use. It might be possible to fool a farmer one year about the value of a new idea-but you will not fool them a second year. The livelihood of farmers and their families are on the line. Farmers’ choice of crop production methods impacts the water they drink and the long term health of their fields and herds; their income is determined by the value of their crops and they live in the midst of what they plant. Farm families make choices about chemical use and production practices based on a combination of monetary, environmental and health impacts.