The widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops by U.S. farmers has brought “substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops,” according to a new report from the National Academies.

“Studies show that when best management practices are implemented, GE crops have been effective at reducing pest problems, with economic and environmental benefits to farmers,” the Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability” concluded.

The National Academies, advisors to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine, includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

Further, the study, the first comprehensive assessment of the effects of the GE crops revolution on farmland sustainability in terms of environmental, economic, and social impacts on both farms that adopt the crops and those that do not, says, “Genetic engineering could potentially be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, for a greater diversity of purposes. For example, GE crops could help address global food insecurity through the development of plants with improved nutritional qualities or resilience to a changing climate.”

It details the challenges and opportunities for future GE crops and offers recommendations on how crop management practices and future research and development efforts can help to realize the full potential of genetic engineering.

Since their introduction in 1996, GE crops have been rapidly adopted by farmers in the U.S. and in 2009 accounted for more than 80 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acres.

Despite persistent and noisy opposition to the new technology by various activist groups, evidence — scientific evidence — has continued to show the environmental benefits of GE crops over previous herbicide-dominant farming regimes.

The new report notes, “Given that runoff from agriculture is the largest source of water pollution in the U.S., this could represent the largest single environmental benefit.”

Targeting specific pests with Bt toxins in corn and cotton “has been successful and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect resistant crops,” the report says. “More effective management of weeds and insects also means farmers may not have to apply insecticides or till for weeds as often, translating into lower expenditures for pesticides and less labor and fuel for equipment operations.”

And, farmers and their employees not only face reduced exposure to the harsh chemicals found in earlier herbicides and insecticides, but “also spend less time in the field applying” the materials.

The chief concern raised in the report is that of increasing resistance of several weeds to glyphosate, the herbicide widely used in GE crop production.

These crops could lose much of their effectiveness unless farmers also use other proven weed and insect management practices, the report says.

Public and private research institutions “should allocate sufficient resources” to monitor and assess the environmental, economic, and social effects of biotechnology on U.S. agriculture to facilitate informed decisions, the report says.

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com