Genetically Engineered Corn, Soybeans, Cotton Get Thumbs Up in Scientific Report

    Blooming cotton field next to to corn with maturing ears. ©Debra L Ferguson Stock Photography

    Genetically engineered crop technology received a huge vote of approval from the National Academy of Sciences journal’s recently published Genetically Engineered Crops, Experiences and Prospect report.

    The report looked at over 20-plus years of genetically engineered crops, primarily herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant varieties of corn, soybeans and cotton. In addition, the scientists. Statistics show genetically engineered crops can already be found in more than 25 countries and on 12% of the world’s cropland. Produce includes those major crops of corn, soybeans and cotton, as well as papaya, squash, potatoes, apples and eggplant.

    The study involved one of the largest National Academy of Sciences review committees ever assembled. Members heard from 80 topical speakers representing diverse and occasionally polarized perspectives, as well as extensive input by the public. Areas of study represented on the team were entomology, molecular biology and genomics, crop biotechnology, risk communication, economics, toxicology, food science, ecology, weed science, plant breeding, sociology, law, food safety and agronomy.

    David Stelly, Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant breeder in the Texas A&M University soil and crop science department in College Station, was on the team of 20 scientists from universities and organizations across the U.S. and beyond.

    “Interestingly, in the right circumstances, small producers can benefit the most, but not in all circumstances,” Stelly said. “Corn, cotton and soybean are largely GE in the U.S., where the GE traits are valued by many producers for increased proficiency, flexibility, greater safety of crop production and a reduced ecological footprint.”

    “The study needed to look at the evidence in multiple contexts, because everyone’s viewpoint is very much contextually influenced, and those viewpoints affect how one assesses new information, or whether one even bothers to look at or assess it,” Stelly explained. “Pre-existing highly polarized viewpoints tend to be further polarized by additional scientific data, even if incontrovertible.”

    A key message from the report is there is no longer a clear distinction between crop-improvement approaches. The scientists determined:

    – New technologies in genetic engineering and conventional breeding are blurring the distinction between the two approaches. Each encompasses diverse methods and leads to diverse products.

    – All technologies for improving plant genetics have the potential to change foods in ways that raise safety issues.

    Based on current crops and modifications, reviewers determined genetic modifications for insect resistance have resulted in reduced yield loss, less insecticide application, greater insect biodiversity and some levels of resistance in target insects if management strategies were not followed. Herbicide-resistant crops have resulted in higher yields or flexibility in cropping, but some weed resistance has also evolved.

    “New genetic-engineering technologies, especially ‘gene-editing’ technologies, have already increased the precision of genetic engineering and prospective throughput, complexity and diversity, and this trend will undoubtedly continue,” he said. “Targets will most likely include resistance traits for a broader array of insect pests and diseases in more crops.”

    Stelly said new traits and novel trait augmentations could have a big impact, such as increased efficiency in nutrient use, like nitrogen-use efficiency, improved composition and digestibility, reductions in natural toxins and carcinogens, and improved photosynthesis.

    Improved drought stress resistance, for example, would allow for reduced water usage and improve yield stability across years – a major concern for producers worldwide, large or small, he said, adding many if not all of these would be relevant to Texas.

    “In the end, we must balance public investment in diverse genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered approaches to address food security,” Stelly said.

    The study was supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Academies of Sciences.

    The complete 420-page report can be downloaded or purchased by going to

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