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GMO Answers Addresses Biodiversity and GM Crops

December 18, 2014
With an increasing global population, heightened consumer demand, and a changing climate, agriculture’s current and future impact on the environment and ecosystems is a cause for concern for many. Visitors to GMO Answers have asked many questions about the environmental impacts of GMOs, including how biodiversity is effected by the introduction of GM crops. GMO Answers independent expert Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Director, International Biotechnology Program at the University of California, Davis, answered this four-part question: Are the current set of crops being replace with a smaller, less biologically diverse set of GM crops?; If so, is there an increased risk of a much larger-scale impact from the adaptation of infectious diseases or pests?; and If there are increased risks, how are scientists, businesses, farmers and regulatory agencies managing this risk? An except is below:

First, how is biodiversity impacted by the introduction of GM crops? 
Biodiversity is actually enhanced by the adoption of GM crops. Those crops commercialized to date have reduced the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, through reduction of pesticide use and use of more environmentally benign herbicides and through increasing yields to alleviate pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use.

Is the current set of crops being replaced with a smaller, less biologically diverse set of GM crops? 
With the introduction of GM crops, concern has been raised that crop genetic diversity will decrease because breeding programs will concentrate on a smaller number of high-value cultivars. Studies that have been done to date (cotton in the United States and India; soybeans in the U.S.) find that the introduction of GM crops has not decreased crop diversity. From a broader perspective, GM technology has the potential to actually increase crop diversity by enhancing underutilized alternative crops, and to facilitate more widespread production of heirloom varieties that have fallen out of favor because of their poor agronomic performance, pest/disease susceptibility, lesser adaptability and other undesirable characteristics…

If so, is there an increased risk of a much larger-scale impact from the adaptation of infectious diseases or pests? 
Integrated pest management is an important cornerstone of any cropping system. Biotech provides a much broader, more effective set of tools that can be used with existing systems and has the potential to be rapidly deployed in anticipation of emerging diseases and altered pest pressure. In addition, gene stacking and gene rotation means that there is potential for multiple layers of protection, which should reduce pressure and ensure greater robustness and longevity in pest- and disease-resistance management. There are also fewer negative effects, such as diminished impact on non-target insects, with the non-target effects of insecticides being much greater than for Bt crops...

GM crops can continue to decrease the pressure on biodiversity as global agricultural systems expand to feed a world population that is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050 and will require a 70 percent increase in food production. So increased productivity with reduced impact on diversity is imperative for sustainability.

If there are increased risks, how are scientists, businesses, farmers and regulatory agencies managing this risk? 

As noted, the risk is decreased, not increased, and subject to parameters similar to those of any other production system. So the same risk-focused management systems should be deployed to ensure proper stewardship of the earth’s resources.

You can read Dr. Newell-McGloughlin’s full answer here.

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