Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?

By Lucy Stitzer October 14, 2019 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

On the contrary. In fact, here's a different way to spell the word green: GE – Genetic Engineering. GE technology includes genetically modified organisms, which some critics claim harm the environment. But in reality, GMOs help farmers use pesticides responsibly, conserve water and increase soil health while increasing their crop yield.

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Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?

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Soil and Crop Management

By Lucy Stitzer October 14, 2019 | 7 MIN READ

The Dirt

On the contrary. In fact, here's a different way to spell the word green: GE – Genetic Engineering. GE technology includes genetically modified organisms, which some critics claim harm the environment. But in reality, GMOs help farmers use pesticides responsibly, conserve water and increase soil health while increasing their crop yield.

I have a lovely, peaceful vegetable garden in our backyard. Though I spend a lot of time weeding and watering, my very small garden is only for our friends and family to enjoy. If my tomatoes or peppers fail, then my back-up plan is to run to the grocery store or the farmers’ market. The entire vegetable garden experience is for fun, and also a lesson in patience for my children. I don’t depend on the food in my backyard to feed my family of five.

However, for those farmers whom we depend on to feed all 7.9 billion of us, there is no back-up plan when weeds and pests destroy their crop. Weeds strangle plant growth by stealing water, sunlight, and soil nutrients that crops need. Insects defoliate young shoots and leaves faster than you can say “pesticide.”

As a result, farmers must constantly manage the economic and environmental balance between overspending and over-spraying pesticides on crops. Fewer passes through the fields with sprayer equipment means burning less fuel, fewer carbon emissions, and less compaction of the soil. A win-win-win!

So, how does genetic engineering play a role on the farm? These technologies help farmers use less pesticide, less water and less landMatin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper at the University of Goettingen, Germany completed a 2014 meta-analysis on the global impacts of GMOs.

  • They discovered that GMOs have made incredible changes to our agricultural performance:
    • Reduced agricultural chemical use by 37%
    • Increased crop yields by 22%
    • Increased farmer profits by 68%

Additionally, a 2017 report, Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2016, focused on the pesticide and greenhouse gas emission reduction from genetic engineering, primarily with canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Using these GM crops reduced the Environmental Impact Quotient by 18.4%. It also cut down on farm equipment fuel usage via fewer pesticide sprays and no-till farming practices. In 2016, this decrease was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the road. To put this in perspective, this is more than all the cars registered in California!

gmo, Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?

Less Pesticides

In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply is produced by small-holder farmers – farms with 25 acres or less. Plant biotechnology is finally making it possible for them to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use.

In India, farmers depend on brinjal, or eggplant, as a significant source of food and income, but it comes with a cost. A small-holder farmer growing brinjal needs 85-120 insecticide sprays during a growing season, harming both the farmer and the environment. Despite all this effort, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer insect can still destroy up to 80% of the crop.

Feed the Future, a global partnership of research and educational institutions, introduced the Bt eggplant by genetically-engineering four different eggplant varieties to produce a protein from an organic pesticide that targets the pests.

According to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt Brinjal Project, these new varieties of GMO eggplant now only need about seven sprays a season to control the insects, resulting in pesticide reduction of 92%!

The engineered eggplant is no longer desirable to the pest, thus stopping crop loss. Even more important, the protein does not damage or kill the beneficial insects in the farmer’s field.

In Uganda, 300 small-holder farmers recently grew GMO blight-resistant potatoes for the first time in 2017. Without this technology, they would spend about 15% of their income to spray their crops up to 15 times a season with insecticides, while still losing close to 60% of their crop. Now these potato farmers can increase their income and put less insecticide in the air, soil and their clothing and skin – an environmental triumph.

gmo, Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?

Nigeria. After almost 10 years of study, Nigeria has approved its first genetically-engineered crop. Black-eyed peas, otherwise known as cowpeas, are an important source of energy, protein and fiber. Nigeria’s small-holder farmers grow about 58% of the world’s supply. Growing cowpea is not easy, as it is susceptible to multiple insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can cause as much as 90% crop loss. The Institute for Agricultural Research in Zaria, in collaboration with a world-renowned institute in Australia, found that a protein from the soil bacterium can control the pest. This genetically-engineered crop reduced pesticide use and increased yields by about 20%.

Less Pesticides and Healthier Soil

What is often overlooked in the GMO debate is that genetic engineering can create healthier soil and a cleaner watershed next to the farms. How? Let’s go back to my home garden. When I have weeds surrounding my tomatoes, I can just pull them up or hoe them back into the soil. In a small garden, this works perfectly. On acres of land, when farmers till the soil, the water evaporates more quickly, and the soil can blow away.

When a farmer uses Roundup Ready crops, i.e., crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, they can practice no-till farming. No-till farming means farmers do not have to turn over soil to rid it of weeds. This prevents the soil from water evaporation, puts nutrients back into the soil, and keeps the soil dense with organic matter to avoid the soil blowing away. Finally, fewer emissions are released since a tractor doesn’t need to drive back and forth to turn over the soil.

gmo, Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?


Despite recent controversies regarding Roundup or glyphosate, it has been proven effective to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Read here for more information on glyphosate safety.

Less Water

Globally, food and agriculture use about 70% of our fresh water supply. While there is the same amount of water today as there was millions of years ago, clean and usable water is not always available to grow crops. According to the FAO, droughts have affected more people worldwide in the last 40 years than any other natural hazard.

Certain GMO seeds can help agriculture use less water and grow more drought-tolerant crops. Scientists believe wheat, corn and soybeans can be genetically modified to require less water. For instance, by altering a plant’s stoma – the microscopic pores in leaves and stems – to save water, these food crops could be extremely resourceful as we attempt to feed our rapidly growing population.

Let’s illustrate this using rice, a vital crop for much of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Scientists have taken a gene related to cabbage and mustard and inserted it into rice as a strategy for plant improvement. Why? Inserting this gene allows for drought resistance, salt tolerance and thicker leaf production, which then increases photosynthesis.

For corn, Monsanto has created a DroughtGard variety to help the plant resist drought stress. This allows the corn to maintain some water without needing to draw as much up from the root system. Drought-resistant corn could increase harvests in Africa by an average of 20%.

Just like my own garden, whether it is vegetables or flowers, it is much more cost-effective and less toxic to my watershed when I grow tomatoes or roses without chemicals. Genetic engineering helps large and small holder farmers around the world do just that.

The Bottom Line

If we want to preserve our environment, evidence shows that supporting the use of GE technologies help give us a cleaner and healthier Earth.