GMOs & Biotechnology
Before genetic modification, the alkaloid levels in that tomato on your BLT could have killed you. And instead of corn on the cob, you’d be eating a handful of birdseed.
Genetic management and selective breeding have been used for centuries. Today, we’re just doing it better.
As farmers and ranchers work to meet the daunting challenge of feeding an exploding global population, they continue to grow more with less – less water, less land, less fertilizer and pesticides and less impact on the environment.
Currently, genetically modified (GM) crops – also referred to as “biotechnology” or “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) – are an important part of a farmer’s portfolio. But they are not an end-all solution, just another tool in an increasingly robust toolbox.
Genetic modification simply refers to human intervention to create a different genetic combination to create a desired outcome. Biotechnology allows researchers to create gene combinations that result in diversity and enhanced performance. The focus in agriculture is to help plants, including corn plants, overcome stresses and challenges that keep them from achieving their full genetic potential.
For example, there are plants resistant to insects and others that tolerate specific kinds of herbicide. Eliminating damage from pests keeps corn plants healthier and stronger and better able to withstand stresses like dry soil because roots are healthier and can absorb more available moisture.
Reducing pressure from weeds means nutrients and water are more available to the corn, and farmers have to till less (or not at all), which helps keep soil and nutrients in place, which is a plus for sustainability. Newer corn hybrids are drought tolerant, helping plants produce more corn during dry years.
Crops that are genetically modified go through significant approval processes, including reviews by the USDA, FDA and EPA – and to date there is not a single documented case of a food allergy or human health situation due to crop biotechnology.
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Genetics have long been part of agriculture, since the first plants were crossed or selected for their performance or taste. And, yes, even the original corn was much like birdseed – and the alkaloid levels in the original tomato would be fatal to humans. Thanks to humans using genetic selection and breeding, these crops and hundreds more are grown and used by people every day.
GM crops were first introduced in the mid-1990s, and since then the availability of different kinds of biotech crops has grown, along with with the adoption of those crops by farmers.
In fact, biotech crops are the fastest adopted crops in recent times – and for good reason. They help farmers be more productive and utilize more sustainable production practices, such as no-till.
For biotech corn, the adoption rate grew from 25% of all corn acres in 2000 to 52% in 2005 to 90% in 2013, according to USDA data. That means 90% of the 95.3 million acres planted to corn in 2013 were planted with biotech seeds. (USDA said 93% of soybean acres and 90% of cotton acres were also biotech in 2013.)
Globally in 2013, some 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted some type of biotech-based crop on more than 430 million acres, with the U.S. accounting for only about 40% of those acres (source). Crops grown include corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, rice, canola, sugarcane, sugar beet, papaya, poplar, tomato, sweet pepper and squash.
The top five countries planting biotech crops include the United States, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. Of the 27 countries planting biotech crops in 2013, 19 were in developing countries and 8 were in developed countries.
Have more questions about GMOs? Check out our GMO FAQs.