Whenever crops produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) make the scene, controversy seems to follow. Critics fear a long-term health risk from ingesting GMO-based foods as well as the impact these plants and accompanying farming methods have on the environment. Their clarion call has heightened concern among 57 percent of Americans who fear a health hazard, according to a 2014 survey by the NPD Group.
GMO plant materials are scientifically engineered to provide increased resistance to pests and herbicides. The latter enables farmers to spray their cropland for weed control without risk of damage to their crops. Some GMOs also increase drought tolerance.
A comprehensive study released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in May 2016 attempts to quell the controversy. Entitled “Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects,” this 388-page report was prepared by a panel of 50 scientists, researchers, and industry experts after two years of collective effort. Having reviewed over 900 studies conducted since the introduction of GMOs 20 years ago, they concluded that these crops are safe for human and animal consumption. Such crops were not found to be associated with increased incidents of cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism, or allergies.
Globally, roughly 12 percent of all cropland leverages GMO plants. Farmers in the U.S. use this material to produce cotton, soybeans, corn, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, and papaya, with small concentrations of squash, apples, and potatoes. Four U.S. crops were GMO standouts in 2015 with penetrations of 99 percent in sugar beets, 94 percent in soybeans, 94 percent in cotton, and 92 percent in feed corn.
The report cited economic benefits for farmers who use GMOs – specifically time saved tilling the land and reduced losses to pests and weeds. However, the report noted that in some areas, the use of herbicides on GMO-based crops has given rise to strains of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Despite its bold assertions of fact-based evidence, the report has failed to sway GMO critics. Food & Water Watch, a consumer group based in Washington, D.C., expressed concern over the relationship between the report’s panel of experts and the biotech industry. An underlying financial interest may have engendered “watered down” science. Others simply deem a mere 20-year history to be too short for assessing impact. They fear that by the time all of the facts are in, the prevalence of the technology may be such that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse course.
Farmers in Eastern Oregon provide a case in point. A GMO-based bentgrass developed for golf courses “escaped” from its intended terrain and started appearing in nearby farms. Because it successfully resists applications of the herbicide glyphosate, farmers are fighting a seemingly uphill battle to prevent its growth among their crops and throughout their irrigation ditches. Clogged irrigation ditches prevent water from getting to the crops. If any trace of GMO is detected in their finished products, it could jeopardize European trade, where bans on GMO crops are strictly enforced. The bentgrass manufacturer is currently working with Oregon State University to develop a solution to this unforeseen problem.
Despite this recent flurry of activity surrounding GMOs, self-described supermarket guru Phil Lempert does not anticipate a significant shift in consumer behavior. A “Non-GMO” label will remain a powerful marketing tool for attracting health-conscious and/or environmental-aware consumers. Progressive Grocer tallied U.S. sales of “Non-GMO” foods and beverages at $10 billion in 2014. Packaged Facts projects a global market of $1 trillion by 2019 for such offerings. So in the end, whether fact or fiction (much like the organic market we have seen over the past decade), the non-GMO market may already be established and here to stay.
Meet the Author
Erik Gillam, CPA
Aldrich CPAs + Advisors
Erik joined Aldrich in 2004 and has spent his entire career focused on providing assurance audits, reviews and compilations to agricultural and farming. Erik leads the agribusiness niche at Aldrich. As a leading agribusiness consultant, Erik has experience working with a range of agricultural-related clients from small family operated farms to large cooperative organizations that…
- Agriculture and farming
- Closely-held businesses
- Audit and assurance
- Certified Public Accountant