GMO Labeling Initiative Raises Environmental Concerns

Oct 18, 2013

If you’ve turned on your TV in Washington over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard countless commercials for Initiative 522. The ballot measure proposes to label genetically modified foods sold in the state. But behind all the campaign rhetoric, researchers have raised environmental questions about genetically modified crops.

For years researchers have been studying genetically modified crops. And they’ve reached differing conclusions about the crops’ effect on the environment. On one side of the issue: researchers have found that genetically modified crops cause farmers to spray more herbicides. Many genetically modified crops – like corn, cotton, and soybeans – are engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. They’re known as Roundup Ready crops. That means farmers can spray glyphosate to kill weeds, and their crops won’t be affected. The problem, say some researchers: weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate. Charles Benbrook studies GM crops and herbicide resistance at Washington State University. He says glyphosate-resistant weeds are causing farmers to use older herbicides.

Benbrook: “They pose greater risks to people, and fish, and birds, and other non-target organisms by virtue of their physical and chemical properties, and their toxicity profile.”

Benbrook says these herbicides can drift onto other farms and gardens. That could kill plants and sicken people. He says these new, herbicide-resistant weeds could have been avoided. That’s if farmers didn’t rotate Roundup Ready corn with Roundup Ready soybeans year after year. Benbrook says that means fields are constantly sprayed with glyphosate.

Benbrook: “It’s a single weed management system that relies on one herbicide on half of the cultivated cropland in the United States, for god sake. If the Roundup Ready system had not been so excessively relied upon, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the problem that we do now.”

On the other side: genetically modified crop supporters say there isn’t a problem now. If anything, researchers say, genetically modified crops can help solve environmental problems. Margaret McCormick works with Targeted Growth, an agricultural biotechnology company.

McCormick: “The farmers don’t have to till their soil as much. There’s a lot of environmental benefits from less tilling – mainly conserving soil fertility, lessening runoff, basically lessening soil erosion.”

She says when farmers use tractors less often, they also use less energy. McCormick says researchers are also engineering crops to better deal with climate change. Crops that are more drought resistant or need less nitrogen in fertilizers.

McCormick: “We need to make sure we have the seeds that will actually grow and thrive in these environments. The pace of climate change is actually happening far faster than a traditional breeding program usually happens.”

The stakes on Initiative 522 are high. One measure: opponents to the GMO labeling bill have spent more than 17 million dollars fighting it. That’s more money than has ever been spent fighting an initiative in Washington state.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio