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A blue-ribbon committee finds that crops produced through genetic engineering are, on the whole, beneficial for farmers who plant them. The committee cautions that the technology could lose some of its power, though, if it's not carefully managed in the future.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Over the past 14 years, three of this nation's biggest cash crops have quietly become genetically engineered crops. These days, 80 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans are the products of biotech. Other studies have looked at public perceptions of this technology and the health and social issues that it raises. But the National Academy of Sciences noted that nobody had tried to take a broad look at how this technology affects farmers.

Professor DAVID ERVIN (Chairman, The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, National Research Council): We think the farmer's perspective is crucial in this respect because they're the ones using the technology, have the most to potentially gain, and perhaps some risks involved.

HARRIS: David Ervin, from Portland State University in Oregon, chaired the National Research Council's exploration of the subject, and from the viewpoint of the farmers, the results are largely quite positive.

Professor ERVIN: What we found is that the farmers who have adopted these genetically engineered crops have received both environmental and economic benefits.

HARRIS: Though genetically engineered seeds often cost more, the farmers more than make up for that because they use less labor and fewer chemicals to produce their crops. And the report finds the farm environment benefits because farmers can reduce the use of pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops. They can also reduce soil erosion caused by tilling, by instead using herbicides to control weeds.

Professor ERVIN: One of the herbicides that's very popular in the genetically engineered crops, glyphosate, is less toxic than many of the herbicides that it replaces.

HARRIS: Glyphosate, known by the brand name Roundup, is if anything, getting too popular, the report finds. And that gets us to a potential downside of the technology: herbicide resistance.

Professor ERVIN: That's a serious concern. In fact, one of the strong messages in our report and findings is that we have to take very seriously the high level of resistance of weeds to glyphosate. And there's an increasing number of weeds and an increasing extent of area where we see this.

HARRIS: If that trend continues, farmers may find themselves falling back on more environmentally damaging herbicides or going back to tilling their fields and sacrificing soil in the process. Ervin says there are measures to manage this problem but they're not being used effectively.

Ervin would also like to see biotech used for broader social benefits, such as crops that need less fertilizer.

Professor ERVIN: If we can get plants to be more efficient in how they use their fertilizer and have less fertilizer runoff, it not only benefits the farmer by reducing their fertilizer application bill, but it also benefits the downstream user of waters who will have less polluted runoff.

HARRIS: Ervin emphasized that the panel decided not to go back and look at the health and environmental concerns raised a decade ago, when the technology was taking off. The worst fears there have not come to pass.

But Margaret Mellon, at an advocacy group called the Union of Concerned Scientists, still isn't overly enthusiastic about biotech crops.

Dr. MARGARET MELLON (Director, Union of Concerned Scientists): I look at the technology in light of what it promised, and we all, including myself, really expected from it 20 years ago when it first came on the scene.

HARRIS: Hopes were high that it would all together transform agriculture with higher yielding crops and fields that required a lot less spray and less fertilizer.

Dr. MELLON: In light of what we expected the technology to do, its performance is really very disappointing.

HARRIS: It turns out that most of those highly desirable traits are complicated and more likely to arise from conventional plant breeding, Mellon says. So she's disappointed that that so much enthusiasm has shifted away from conventional breeding to new and high-tech genetic engineering.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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