Genetically Engineered Crops—What, How and Why

Looking for straight answers regarding GMOs?

By the turn of the century, the number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 10 billion. How can we feed the growing population without further degrading the environment?

Because the amount of land and water is limited, it is no longer possible to simply expand farmland to produce more food. Instead, increased food production must largely take place on the same land area, while using less water. Compounding the challenges facing agricultural production are the predicted effects of climate change: flooding in some places, droughts in others and new pests and disease outbreaks.

Thus, an important goal for the US and other countries is to develop more effective land and water use policies, improved integrated pest management approaches, reduce harmful inputs, and create new crop varieties tolerant of diverse stresses.

These strategies must be evaluated in light of their environmental, economic, and social impacts—the three pillars of sustainable agriculture (Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability and National Research Council 2010).


Genetic engineering differs from conventional methods of genetic modification in two major ways: (1) genetic engineering introduces one or a few well-characterized genes into a plant species and (2) genetic engineering can introduce genes from any species into a plant. In contrast, most conventional methods of genetic modification used to create new varieties (e.g., artificial selection, forced interspecific transfer, random mutagenesis, marker-assisted selection, and grafting of two species, etc.) introduce many uncharacterized genes into the same species. Conventional modification can in some cases transfer genes between species, such as wheat and rye or barley and rye.

In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 30 genetically engineered crops were grown on almost 300 million acres in 25 countries (nearly the size of the state of Alaska), 15 of which were developing countries (James 2009). By 2015, 120 genetically engineered crops (including potato and rice) are expected to be cultivated worldwide (Stein and Rodriguez-Cerezo 2009). Half of the increase will be crops designed for domestic markets from national technology providers in Asia and Latin America.

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