by Stan Hirst
Genetically-engineered crops and foods derived from them have been in commercial production for just under 20 years. That’s a surprisingly brief period considering the intensity of the debates and the assessments that have raged around their development and commercial deployment.
Here in Canada the use of terms like ‘genetically modified’, ‘genetically engineered’, ‘GM’, ‘GE’ and such-like when applied to products on supermarket shelves or to fruits and veg in the bins usually produces a knee-jerk negative reaction. The pages of our journals, newspapers and blogs (this one included) still routinely contain a variety of concerns raised around safety, linkages to ecosystem effects, links between GE crops to herbicide misuse, and the corporate behaviour of the agrochemical companies who develop, sell and promote GE crop seeds.
Perspective is important in the world. Nobody knows that better than Elders. So its often instructive to step back once in a while and take a broader look. That’s the underlying motivation for this particular post. Where have GE crops and foods gone since their introduction? Where might they be going in the future?
When they were first planted commercially back in 1996, GE crops covered an estimated total of 1.7 million hectares, most of that in the U.S. By 2014 GE crops (or ‘biotech’ crops as the agricultural industry prefers to call them) covered 181.5 million hectares in 28 countries. That’s an average rate of increase of 30% per year.
The USA has always led the surge to use GE crops . Currently they have about 73 million hectares planted (40% of the global total). About 93% of all corn crops in the U.S. are now GE, soybeans are 94% and cotton is 96%. Brazil ranks second in the GE list and Argentina third. Canada is ranked fifth internationally with 11.6 million hectares under canola, maize, soybean and/or sugar beets.
Developing countries, by comparison, still rank fairly low in the GE-adoption scales. India leads with nearly 12 million hectares of GE cotton under cultivation. China follows with about 4 million hectares of GE cotton, papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet peppers.
Why, when there is so much negativity on the part of many western urban consumers towards GE products, do increasing numbers of farmers around the world plant GE crops? A simple two-word response dominates the conversation. Production and profit. Jennifer Schmidt, a farmer in Maryland in the US cultivates both GE and non-GE corn on her property. In response to recently blogged questions on the comparative costs and efficiency she produced a summary balance sheet for her farm which indicated that in the 2014 season she spent (per acre) 75% more on GE seed than regular seed, but 90% less on herbicides. Production from the GE corn was 19% higher than from non-GE corn, and her net income per acre was 68% higher for the GE crop. Such data would seal the argument for the majority of commercial corn farmers.
The economics and perspectives on GE crops are different for the developing world with much denser and generally poorer rural farmers than in the highly mechanized west with its relatively low farmer-to-land ratios. The costs of GE seeds will always pose a significant problem for Asian and African farmers, but the increasing human populations and loss of productive land on those continents are factors underpinning a move to increased deployment of GE crops.
In 2014 more than 7 million small farmers in China and 8 million in India chose to plant over 15 million hectares of GE Bt cotton because of the significant financial incentives. GE maize is now cultivated in the Philippines and Vietnam. Bangladesh has introduced GE brinjals and is examining the feasibility of introducing biotech potatoes, cotton and rice. Indonesia has plans to introduce drought-tolerant sugarcane, Brazil has an HT soybean and a home-grown GE virus-resistant bean ready for planting in 2016. Biotech drought-tolerant maize was first planted in the US in 2013 and has been offered to selected countries in Africa faced with increasing periods of severe droughts.
Ironically, the most promising GE crop in Asia remains commercially unviable because of massive local and international resistance. Golden rice is produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, and is intended to be grown and consumed in areas where a shortage of dietary vitamin A kills 670,000 children each year.
In 2014 the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) commissioned a global meta-analysis of 147 studies of GE crop production undertaken over the last 20 years. Their findings included the conclusion that GE technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Biotech crops were credited with increasing crop production to the value of US$133 billion, saving ~500 million kg of pesticides over a 16-year period, reducing CO2 emissions by 28 billion kg (equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year), saving 132 million hectares of land, and alleviating poverty for ~16.5 million small farmers and their families totalling >65 million people, including some of the poorest people in the world.
People in Canada, Europe and other parts of the western world will almost certainly continue to come out against the production and marketing of GE crops and GE-constituent foods. But, for very obvious reasons, they’re here to stay.
We’d better learn to accommodate them.