By Graham Brookes, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics
Crop biotechnology, often referred to as genetically modified (GM) crops, has now been widely used by farmers in 26 countries, for over 20 years. Despite it providing many global environmental and economic benefits over this period, many farmers, in many countries, continue to be denied access to this innovative agricultural tool. This needs to change.
The United Nations predicts that increasing pressure on world food supplies and natural resources arising from rapid world population growth will require global food production to increase 70 percent by 2050. For farmers to meet this challenge, they must be given greater opportunities to adopt all new and available technologies, like crop biotechnology.
Policymakers in countries where biotech crops are not currently grown need to take a hard look at the important contributions that the technology has already made to the development of a more sustainable food supply and a cleaner environment.
In the last 20 years, crop biotechnology has helped farmers grow more food using fewer resources by reducing the damage caused by pests. For example, from 1996 to 2015, across all users of insect resistant corn technology, yields increased by an average of 13.1 percent relative to conventional production systems. The highest corn yield increases have occurred in developing countries, such as the Philippines, South Africa, and Honduras. This has contributed to a more reliable and secure food supply base in these countries.
Herbicide tolerant (HT) technology has also helped farmers better control weeds, which can improve yields. In Bolivia, for example, HT soybeans increased yields by 15 percent. In Argentina, HT technology has helped farmers reduce tillage, shortening the time between planting and harvesting, allowing them the opportunity to grow an additional soybean crop after wheat in the same growing season. All told, over 20 years, crop biotechnology has added 180.3 million tonnes of soybeans, 357.7 million tonnes of corn and 10.6 million tonnes of canola to our food and feed supplies, and boosted non-food crops such as cotton lint by 25.2 million tons.
With higher yields and less time and money spent managing pests and weeds, farmers have earned higher incomes. This has proved to be especially valuable for farmers in developing countries where, research shows that in 2015, an average $5.15 was received for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds. This helped them not only invest in their farms and support their communities, but better feed, clothe, and provide good medical care, education, and housing for their families.
Crop biotechnology has also helped farmers be more efficient with their application of crop protection products, which not only reduces their environmental impact, but saves time and money. From 1996 to 2015, farmers who grow biotech crops have reduced the environmental impact associated with their crop protection practices by 18.6 percent—as measured by Cornell University’s Environmental Impact Quotient indicator.
The technology is changing agriculture’s carbon footprint, helping farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage, which has decreased the burning of fossil fuels and allowed more carbon to be retained in the soil. This has led to a decrease in carbon emissions. For example, had biotech crops not been grown in 2015, an additional 26.7 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide would have been emitted into the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of adding 11.9 million cars to the roads.
It is also changing agriculture’s land footprint by allowing farmers to grow more without needing to use additional land. To maintain global production at 2015 levels without biotech crops would have required farmers to plant an additional 8.4 million hectares of soybeans, 7.4 million hectares of corn, 3 million hectares of cotton, and 0.7 million hectares of canola, an area equivalent to the combined land area of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
In the 20 years of widespread crop biotechnology use, we have seen many positive environmental and socio-economic benefits. Countries that continue to shun the technology are losing out and will continue to see their global competitiveness decline due to higher production costs, lower output, and a less robust and sustainable food and feed supply system. It is time for more policymakers to recognise crop biotechnology’s role in addressing future food and environmental challenges and to move forward with science-based regulations that facilitate its approval and availability in more countries.
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. References to specific non-profit, private, or government entities are not an endorsement.