GMOs have a bad reputation, but 20 years after they were first planted in farm fields, they are having an unintended side effect: helping non-GMO crops.
Many genetically modified organisms were engineered with insect-killing proteins to eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides. The most widely used insect-killing protein comes from a microbe called Bacillus thuringiensis (often abbreviated “Bt”), and the hazards associated with seem largely limited to insects. Since the first Bt crop was planted in 1996, GMOs have been immune to the corn borer and earworm pests-nicknamed the “scourges of corn.”
To prevent Bt-resistance in these pests and to confine GMO genes to their intended crops, the EPA mandates farmers plant non-GMO plants around the periphery of GMO fields- a moat of sorts.
But the corn in those moats are also receiving the benefit of genetic modification, even if the plants themselves aren’t altered. A new study which examined the landscapes of pests radiating from GMO crops. Researchers found that GMO crops are enabling non-GMOs to flourish with fewer pesticides. New Jersey’s non-GMO green beans and peppers crops, for example, reduced pesticide use by 85% since GMOs were introduced.
Similar to herd-immunity for vaccinations, scientists propose that GMO crops act as a pest-absorbing sink. With the number of pests dialed down, farmers can spray fewer pesticides onto non-GMO foods. This unprecedented finding translates into fewer pesticides in the environment-and unlike GMOs, pesticides have well-known health and environmental hazards.
Farmers can apply this knowledge to maximize the benefits. For example, farmers could plant other vegetables in close proximity to Bt corn, reducing the need for pesticide applications. Other pest-prone produce, such as potatoes, could also be spared spoilage by being planted in close proximity to GMOs.