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GMO halo

3th March 2018

A recent study published by researchers from the University of Maryland has found the use of genetically-modified insect-resistant corn in the US has significantly curbed insecticide use and created a “halo” that also benefits farmers growing non-GMO and organic crops.

The research which has been published in peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the populations of two insect pests — the European corn borer and corn earworm —that attack vegetables such as green beans and peppers as well as field corn, before and after the widespread adoption of genetically modified Bt corn in 1996.

The study charts a steep decline in those insect population that corresponds with Bt Corn adoption that suggests an area-wide suppression of pest populations that was benefiting vegetable growers across three mid-Atlantic states in the US. This allowed vegetable growers to reduce their own insecticide use. The study found pest pressure declines in New Jersey resulted in farmers reporting reductions in insecticide usage of 79% in sweet corn and 85% in peppers between 19925 and 2016.

Ironically, the study suggests organic vegetable growers, who reject the use of synthetic pesticides and whose crops are therefore particularly vulnerable to insect damage, might have been particular beneficiaries of the adoption of genetically modified Bt crops. The protective benefit of GMO adoption for organic and conventional crops has been suggested before, but this is the first time the idea has been confirmed by extensive field research.

The findings are a stark counterpoint to a long-running GMO contamination case in Western Australia, which is still in the news. In late 2010, organic farmer Steve Marsh lost his organic certification, when GM canola swaths were detected on his farm. Marsh sued his neighbour Mick Baxter who farms GM crops, seeking compensation for his lost organic status. Steve Marsh lost his final appeal in 2015, clearing the GM farmer of any wrongdoing and providing extensive science-based evidence of genetically modified canola safety. At the heart of the legal battle was Marsh’s decertification, which the Supreme Court found to be incorrectly made. The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA), who revoked Marsh’s organic certification does not define contamination, and has still not defined it to this day.

Currently, a political inquiry is considering setting-up a compensation fund for GM contamination in Western Australia. But lawyer Brian Bradley, who represented Baxter during the case, says such a compensation fund is not only unnecessary but runs the risk of fuelling beliefs that GM crops are unsafe and “looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”.

The Maryland University study and it’s “halo effect” finding seems to reinforce that the outcome of the WA court case was just, and far from being detrimental some GM adoptions can have wider benefits. In fact, organic farms adjoining GM crops may want to drop around a box of Roses choccies to say thanks to their neighbour!

So while it is no doubt counterintuitive for the organic industry and its supporters to acknowledge, GMO adoption may actually have a wider benefit for farmers and their low-input farming system as it reduces not only the use of pesticides, but also insects that organic farmers can’t combat without risking decertification.

And as for the two neighbouring WA farmers, they are still not on speaking terms.