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. In 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.Photo credit: public domain