Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Ecology and Society


Department of Biological Sciences


Worldwide, the area planted in genetically modified (GM) crops has increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1996 and 1999, it rose from 1.6 X 106 ha to more than 35 X 106 ha (James 1998, May 1999). This rapid increase has provoked an explosion of concern, particularly in Europe, over the health and environmental impacts of these crops. Despite claims of safety and warnings against popular panic, public concern over GM crops has resulted in changes in their marketing, labeling, planting, and trade. These changes have fueled an increasingly heated debate among environmental advocates, critics of industrial agriculture, seed companies, governments, and scientists. This debate has been characterized by exaggerations of both the safety and danger of GM crops, and by attempts to suppress and avoid public discussion.

This paper is the product of a discussion among an international, interdisciplinary group of scientists. Our discussion was based on the Forum articles in this issue of Conservation Ecology. These articles summarize the nature of the debate over biotechnology, describe ways to cope with potential ecological impacts of GM crops, provide insights into the cause and validity of public concern, and make suggestions on where to go from here. Our own dialogue, which was informed by these and other articles, attempts to broaden the debate and develop strategies for coping with and directing the development of biotechnology. As an interdisciplinary group, we do not try to assess the details of particular GM crops, but rather to connect the ecological, economic, and political issues that surround them.

As noted by Conway (2000), Pimentel (2000), and others, the balance of evidence suggests that GM organisms have the potential to both degrade and improve the functioning of agroecosystems. Depending on which GM crops are developed and how they are used, GM crops could lead to either increases or decreases in pesticide use, the enhancement or degradation of the ecological services provided by agroecosystems, or the loss or conservation of biodiversity. However, as Conway argues, the current character of GM crop development provides cause for concern.



Original Citation

Peterson, G., S. Cunningham, L. Deutsch, J. Erickson, A. Quinlan, E. Raez-Luna, R. Tinch, M. Troell, P. Woodbury, and S. Zens. 2000. The risks and benefits of genetically modified crops: a multidisciplinary perspective. Conservation Ecology 4(1): 13. [online] URL: