(CN) - A new scientific study has shaken up the churning international debate on genetically engineered crops by finding that they produce higher yields and contain less harmful contaminants than their traditional counterparts.
The Institute of Life Sciences in Pisa, Italy, and the University of Pisa researched genetically engineered corn by reviewing more than 6,000 other studies published over 21 years.
The researchers published the results of their meta-analysis online at the journal Scientific Reports earlier this month, finding that genetically engineered, or GE, corn resulted in 5.6 percent to 24.5 percent higher yields than traditional crops. Lower concentrations of toxins produced by fungi in corn were also found in GE crops.
Since their emergence in the mid-1990s, GE crops have swept the agricultural industry. Environmental activists labeled them as “frankenfoods” that could cause irreversible damage to the planet's ecosystem. Others argue that the technology could help food shortages and is a natural consequence of thousands of years of advancements in agriculture.
Insect-resistant crops are given genetic traits to increase their resistance to pests and herbicides. Their acreage has grown from almost 8 percent of corn crops in 1997 to 81 percent in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Worldwide, GE crop cultivation has grown to 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185.1 million hectares in 2016, according to the new study, making up 12 percent of the world’s cropland.
“Despite the extensive cultivation of GE crops and a considerable number of scientific reports, the concerns about their safety has led 38 countries worldwide, including 19 in Europe, to officially prohibit their cultivation, though allowing the import of food and feed derived from or consisting of GE plants,” the study says.
The researchers relied on 76 of the thousands of studies they combed through to draw their conclusions. They compared GE corn, looking at both insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant variants, with traditional corn.
The study found that higher crop yields can be explained by crops being modified to protect against insects, reducing the impact of the western corn rootworm. Researchers observed a 90 percent reduction in the corn rootworm in GE corn compared to traditional crops.
Damage to crops by insects increases the presence of fungi that produce contaminants. The study found that GE crops had lower concentrations of toxins because they are more resistance to insects.
The study’s authors said there is “strong evidence” that mycotoxins, the toxic chemical derived from the fungi, are more prevalent in traditional crops.
“Since mycotoxin contamination in maize grain annually leads to high economic losses in all regions of the world, the protection of maize plants through the use of GE technology against the damage of insects, favoring the development of toxinogenic fungi, can be seen as an effective tool to reduce the contamination of grain. This can lead to increases in economic income and quality of the production and to reductions in the human exposure to mycotoxins, thus reducing health risks,” the study states.
Some studies suggest insects could become resistant to GE herbicide crops. While the Scientific Reports analysis found “no substantial effect on insect community diversity” in GE crops, it said that over time insects could develop resistance.
The paper’s authors – Elisa Pellegrino, Stefano Bedini, Marco Nuti and Laura Ercoli –declared no competing interests.