Sustainability of current GM crop cultivation

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Abstract or Summary

This report addresses the question whether the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops abroad for import in the Netherlands, as compared to the cultivation of their conventional (non-GM) counterparts, is in line with Dutch policy and societal aims striving after more sustainable forms of agriculture worldwide and the utilization of the benefits offered by biotechnology in a responsible manner. Three crops were selected as case study objects: soybean, maize and cotton. The sustainability of GM and non-GM crop production was compared with each other based on a review of scientific and other literature. This comparison followed characteristics and criteria associated with the sustainability concept of ‘People, Planet, Profit’.
For each crop, an overview of GM events widely used in cultivation and those in the pipeline is given. The GM events common in commercial cultivation and therefore discussed in detail in this review are herbicide tolerance (HT in soybean, maize and, to a lesser extent, cotton) and insect resistance (IR) conferred by Bt (in maize and cotton). First, ‘Planet’ impacts of these two types of traits are discussed under the subjects: production efficiency (including yields, fertilizers, biocides and energy), soil and water conservation, biodiversity and climate change. Then follows ‘Profit’ with the subjects: farm income, national income, economic welfare distribution, and financial and other risks (including institutional risks). Finally, ‘People’ is treated with the subjects: labour conditions (including wage levels, occupational health, employment opportunities, and child and forced labour), land rights, community rights and rights of indigenous people, freedom of choice, competition with food production, and contribution to livelihood of producers and local communities. In the final discussion, a more extensive summary of findings per crop is given, together with a discussion of some general issues with particular relevance to sustainability of GM crops.
Our study clearly showed that no single value of sustainability can be given that is valid for all GM crops under all conditions. The term ‘GM crops’ encompasses a broad diversity of traits and crops with various goals and accompanying effects, and therefore, sustainability effects cannot be simply summarized for all traits and crops together. Apart from the technology by which they were made (which was not the subject of this review), GM traits in many respects do not represent changes largely or essentially different from other agricultural innovations. Overall, the performance of agriculture varies tremendously between regions and time periods irrespective of the presence of GM crops. Effects of a GM crop on one or more of the sustainability components thus depend on time and place as well, and effects found for a particular crop, region, and year cannot be simply extrapolated to generic conclusions. Moreover, the specific role of GM is often difficult to disentangle from other drivers of change in agriculture. Despite this, our study provides a systematic framework of sustainability aspects and their interrelationships that can be used for future case-by-case assessments of second and subsequent generations of GM crops. In addition, some general trends can be mentioned with regard to sustainability of GM crops.
The first generation GM crops have been developed for various purposes. Insect-resistant GM crops have been developed specifically to produce varieties that are resistant to certain insect pests, thus reducing the use of pesticides, whilst herbicide-tolerant GM crops aim to provide the farmer with more flexibility in weed management. Until now, successful GM traits are those that fulfill a niche or a need for the farmer. The reason that a farmer chooses for GM crops is not necessarily an increase in production but may also be a reduction of risks and/or an increased flexibility of operations.
In general, sustainability of the two types of GM crops discussed in this study (herbicide tolerance (HT) and Bt insect resistance) depends on diligent use. Bt maize and Bt cotton generally contribute to sustainability in the ‘Planet’ sense. When they are cultivated according to Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) on the basis of recent agronomic and agro-ecological knowledge, also GM HT varieties could contribute to improvement of the sustainability of agricultural production. With regard to ‘Profit’ and ‘People’ themes, the contribution of GM crop production to sustainability is highly dependent on local legal and institutional systems. The legal and institutional system should provide an optimal extension infrastructure to farmers, should diminish uncertainties in logistics and trading,

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