The National Research Council (NRC) has published a report finding that US farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops “are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits – such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields – compared with conventional crops.” The report cautions, however, that farmers “need to adopt better management practices to ensure that beneficial environmental effects of GE crops continue,” according to an April 13, 2010, NRC press release.

Billed as the “first comprehensive assessment of the effects of the GE croprevolution on farm-level sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social impacts,” the report notes that GE crops constitute more than 80 percent of soybeans, corn and cotton grown in the United States. It ranks “improvements in water quality” as the top environmental benefit of GE crops, claiming that a reduction in insecticide and pesticide use has led to an uptick in conservation tillage, “which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.” In addition, “farmers who have adopted the use of GE crops have either lower production costs or higher yields, or sometimes both, due to more cost-effect weed and insect control and fewer losses from insect damage.”

Despite these advantages, NRC advises farmers “not to rely exclusively on glyphosate,” a common herbicide, and “to incorporate a range of weed management practices.” As the council observes, “at least nine species of weeds in the United States have evolved resistance to glyphosate..., largely because of repeated exposure.” The report urges federal and state agencies, industry and other stakeholders to collaborate in documenting “weed-resistance problems” and developing “costeffective resistance-management programs.”

It also backs further research to track and analyze the effects of GE crops on water quality and to determine the economic impact of cross-contamination on organic or convention crops marketed as free of GE traits. Maintaining that farmers “have not been adversely affected by the proprietary terms involved in patent-protected GE seeds,” NRC registers the concern of some farmers that “consolidation of the U.S. seed market will make it harder to purchase conventional seeds or those that have only specific GE traits.” As a result, the report recommends that public and private institutions be made eligible “for government support to develop GE crops that can deliver valuable public goods but have insufficient market potential to justify private investment.”

Meanwhile, an April 14 Reuters special report questions the ability of the U.S. regulatory regime to effectively monitor biotech agriculture. Titled “Are regulators dropping the ball on biocrops?,” the article cites independent and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers who have raised flags about the lack of a review process. “A common complaint is that the U.S. government conducts no independent testing of these biotech crops before they are approved, and does little to track their consequences after,” states the article, which faults U.S. regulators for attempting to retrofit the existing apparatus rather than create new rules for the unique challenges of biotechnology. The purported result is a system “that treats a genetically modified fish like a drug subject to Federal Drug Administration [sic] oversight, and a herbicide-tolerant corn seed as a potential ‘pest’” that falls under USDA purview.

Highlighting a string of recent court cases, the article concedes that this current approval process is “costly and time-consuming for biotech crop developers.” Nevertheless, USDA’s attempts to overhaul the system have reportedly stalled for more than six years “amid heavy lobbying from corporate interests and consumer and environmental groups.” In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are seeking to make oversight activities more transparent but have drawn criticism for putting the burden of proof on developers of technology. “There is no question that our rules and regulations have to be modernized,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters. “The more information you find out, the more you have to look at your regulations to make sure they are doing what they have to do. There are some issues we are still grappling with.”