Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions about Biotech Soybeans
- What are herbicide tolerant soybeans?
- Do you have any statistics to back up the effectiveness of biotech soybeans?
- How many people are growing biotech soybeans?
- Are approved biotech soybeans safe for my family and me?
- Has anyone ever become ill from eating biotech foods?
- Who oversees the safety of plant biotechnology in the United States?
- If biotech soybeans are so safe, why all the controversy?
Herbicide tolerant soybeans are specially designed to resist a type of herbicide that kills a variety of harmful weeds but has no adverse effect on soybean plants. Up until the development of herbicide tolerant soybeans, no one herbicide would kill the many different kinds of weeds that rob soybeans of water, nutrients and sunlight.1 Farmers had to use several different kinds of herbicides to control weeds. Biotech soybeans allow farmers to spray less often with a single herbicide, which saves time, money and helps steward the environment.
There are two answers to that question: one economic, the other environmental. From an economic perspective, a study conducted by Leonard Gianessi, a senior research associate at the National Center on Food and Agricultural Policy, showed that herbicide tolerant soybeans have decreased growers' annual costs by $15 per acre, which totals $735 million across 49 million acres.2 From an environmental perspective, a study by the American Soybean Association (ASA), showed that 73 percent of soybean growers are now leaving more crop residue on the soil than they did in 1996, the year that biotech soybeans were first commercially available. That's very important because improved conservation tillage practices have been shown to preserve topsoil, improve water quality, create additional wildlife habitat and save millions of gallons of fuel. About two-thirds of the growers (63 percent) in the ASA study said biotechnology was the "key factor" in their increased use of conservation tillage methods.3 Dan Towery, a natural resources specialist at the Conservation Technology Information Center, credited biotechnology with saving nearly 1 billion short tons of soil that would have ended up in the nation's waterways or blown away.
Between 1996 and 2001, the adoption of biotech soybeans has grown from next to nothing to 68 percent of all U.S. soybean acres. In the 2002 planting season, it's expected that 74 percent of U.S. soybean acres will be planted with biotech soybeans, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Globally, in 2001, biotech soybeans accounted for 46 percent of the world's soybean crop, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. 4
Yes. Before they ever reach a farmer's field, genetically modified crops undergo rigorous scrutiny over several years to examine their nutritional content, possible environmental impact and other concerns. In fact, biotech varieties in North America are tested more thoroughly than conventional crops.5 One type of biotech soybean alone was subjected to 1,800 separate analyses.6 This process can involve several years and at least 10 stages of intermediate review. Academics, third-party scientists, consumers, growers and the public at large all have multiple opportunities to participate.
No. In the seven years since the first food biotech product came on the market (the FlavrSavr® tomato in 1994), there hasn't been a single documented case of an illness caused by biotech foods.7 Hundreds of studies have confirmed the safety of biotech crops and food, including a 15-year, $64 million study by the European Commission that involved more than 400 research teams on 81 projects. In October 2001, the EPA also renewed registration for Bt cotton and Bt corn, saying they pose no risks to health or the environment. Scientific organizations and regulatory agencies around the world have declared their confidence in the safety of biotech foods, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, as well as national academies in China, Brazil, India and Mexico, and international scientific groups. Additionally, more than 3,300 scientists, including three Nobel Prize winners, have signed a statement in support of biotechnology.
Three separate agencies oversee biotech foods and crops:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses the safety of all foods and animal feeds, including those produced through plant biotechnology.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, oversees field testing of biotech seeds and plants to make sure their release causes no harm to the environment, especially native plants.8
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluates biotech plants - environmental safety such as their pesticide properties, possible effect on wildlife and how these plants break down in the environment. The agency also must approve any herbicide use with herbicide tolerant crops.9
Many products come under review by more than one agency. A virus resistant sweet potato, for example, would be tested by the USDA to ensure it's safe to grow, by the EPA to confirm it's safe for the environment, and by the FDA to make sure it's safe to eat.10
Most of the concern about the safety of biotech food has come from Europe, which has undergone a series of food scares in recent years, including mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease. Consequently, there isn't as much trust in the food regulatory system in Europe as there is in other parts of the world. So people are more wary than usual of what they're eating.
1 Gianessi, Leonard. "Environmental Benefits of Food Biotechnology," National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, p. 3..
2 "The Potential for Biotechnology to Improve Crop Pest Management in the United States," preliminary findings by Leonard Gianessi in a media presentation sponsored by the AMA, October 4, 2001. Gianessi is senior research associate at the national Center on Food and Agricultural Policy. See <www.ncfap.org> and <www.ama-assn.org> media briefings.
3 "Trends Link Biotech, Conservation Tillage," Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), West Lafayette, Ind., p. 1.
4 "Global GM Crop Area Continues to Grow and Exceeds 50 Million Hectares for First Time in 2001," International Service for the Acquistion of Agri-biotech Applications.
5 "Foods from Genetically Improved Crops in Africa," a brochure produced by the San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture and AfricaBio.
6 Trewavas, Anthony, University of Edinburgh Biologist, December 20, 1999.
7 The Alliance for Better Foods, "In Support of Biotechnology (Expert Views)" <www.betterfoods.org/Expert/Expert.htm>.
8 "Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology," United States Department of Agriculture.
9 "Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology," United States Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of State, "Food Safety — Regulating Plant Agricultural Biotechnology in the U.S.," August 9, 2000 - Fact Sheet, <usinfo.state.gov/topical/global/biotech/00080901.htm>.
10 "Regulatory Oversight in Biotechnology," United States Department of Agriculture.