Despite the rapid adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops, there is still much controversy about this technology. Uncertainty about GM crop impacts is one reason for widespread public suspicion; a new study conducted a meta-analysis of the impacts (both economical and agricultural) caused by GM crops.

Image credits: Judy Carman.

The first genetically modified plant was produced in 1982, using an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. Since then, things have changed significantly. Between 1996 and 2011, the total surface area of land cultivated with GM crops had increased by a factor of 94, from 17,000 square kilometers (4,200,000 acres) to 1,600,000  (395 million acres). 10% of the world’s crop lands were planted with GM crops in 2010, and the number continues to grow.

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But not all GMOs are made equal. There are three main types of genetic engineering: Transgenic, Cisgenic and Subgenic. Transgenic plants have genes inserted into them that are derived from another species. The genes could come from plants, but they could also come from bacteria or animals. Cisgenic plants are made using genes found within the same species or a closely related one, where conventional plant breeding can occur. Lastly, Subgenic modification was described for the first time this year, in 2014.

This new study wanted to conduct a big analysis and see what the effects of GM crops are at the global scale. Their results were pretty clear: they found that yields went up 22%, pesticide use went down by 37%, and profits for the farmers grew by 68%. This shows that there is a clear, huge advantage to use GMOs; so does this mean that there is no reason to mistrust the technology? The answer is still not clear.

GMOs are not inherently good or bad. Impacts vary especially by modified crop trait and geographic region, but also by the used technique. Yield and farmer profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries. There are environmental concerns regarding GM crops, but generally speaking, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that they pose greater risk than conventional foods. It makes sense that they should be labeled, everywhere in the world. It also makes sense that they should be monitored more closely than conventional crops. But for all the bad rep they get, GM crops feed the world. I mean, if yields would be 22% lower, we would be dealing with widespread famine in many areas of the world right now.

“Our findings reveal that there is robust evidence of GM crop benefits. Such evidence may help to gradually increase public trust in this promising technology”, researchers conclude in their study.