How Safe Are Genetically Modified Plants?

Modern genetic engineering makes it possible to modify different plant traits in such a way that they offer enormous benefits for human nutrition. Genetic engineering can make plants more resistant to diseases or pests, enable them to cope better with drought, moisture, wind or heat, and make them contain higher quantities of specific nutrients or vitamins or quite simply capable of delivering higher yields.

These traits are of significant importance to global agriculture, as climate and the weather are changing rapidly. As well, the biotic stress factors affecting plants are likewise changing all the time, as new competing plants, insects and diseases are spreading. As the development of a new variety can take between 10 and 15 years, breeders must plan quite far in advance.

Targeted optimization of plants has a long tradition. For roughly 100 years now, breeders have been using technical interventions such as mutation breeding with chemicals and radiation to more quickly produce varieties with the desired traits. Many kinds of organic seed have also been produced in this way.

Genetic engineering, which introduces new genes to plants, was added as a method more than 30 years ago. Using these methods, breeders can adapt plants more quickly and efficiently to difficult environmental conditions, such as drought, wet soil or salinity than in the past. In 2016, more than 100 Nobel laureats advocated the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

In the future, it may even be conceivable to make plant roots more absorptive to certain nutrients or to substantially improve the storability of food and animal feed. For example, researchers are already working on potatoes that produce less harmful acrylamide when they are roasted or deep-fried – a clear advantage for global consumer health.

Plants bred using genetic engineering methods must be extensively tested prior to their approval to determine their health and environmental impact. Greenhouse tests are required, as are animal feeding studies and field trials. Since the introduction of genetic engineering in farming however, so far every plant bred with the help of genetic engineering has proven to be at least as safe and compatible with health and the environment as plants bred with other modern or conventional methods.

A major study involving livestock has been under way for several years. In the United States, 95 percent of the more than 9 billion cattle, pigs and poultry bred each year consume feed produced from GMO plants. Researchers at the University of California, Davis examined publicly accessible data compiled between 1983 and 2011 to determine whether there have been any noteworthy trends with regard to livestock health. Their conclusion: since 2000, more than 100 billion livestock in the United States have been fed with feed plants produced by genetic engineering methods, while all animals throughout the country were examined by veterinarians prior to slaughter, as prescribed by law. Their findings: the milk yield of cows and the butchering weight of pigs, cattle and poultry steadily increased over the entire period, while the number of sick animals and certain symptoms continuously declined. Source

Does genetic engineering mean more crop protection products?

Environmental activists claim that the cultivation of genetically modified plants has led to significantly greater use of crop protection agents. A glance at the facts disproves this allegation. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

In the year 2017, plants that were bred using genetic engineering were planted worldwide on 190 million hectares Source. The most commonly grown crops are soybeans, cotton, corn and oilseed rape. Their advantage is that they are resistant to pest infestation and/or tolerate the crop protection product glyphosate, which allows farmers to remove unwanted weeds in a climate-friendly and soil-conserving fashion.

A 2014 study by agricultural scientists at the German University of Göttingen Source evaluated roughly 150 publications and reports from all over the world investigating the impact of the genetically modified soybean, corn and cotton field crops. Among these publications were also studies by non-governmental organizations. The researchers came to the conclusion that the farmers needed 37 percent fewer crop protection products on average, but harvested a 22 percent increase in yield. And, despite the higher costs for seed, the farmers’ profits increased by 68 percent on average.

A heavy reduction in the use of crop protection products was particularly noticeable in insect-resistant plants. The positive effects were greatest for farmers in developing countries, who were able to increase their earnings even more significantly than farmers in industrialized countries, such as the United States and Canada.

Back to Homepage