Evidence Stacking Up Against Biotechnology Critics

Calestous Juma

Calestous Juma

By Calestous Juma

Critics of agricultural biotechnology have long maintained that the technology is unsuitable for small-scale farmers and harmful to the environment. But according to newly-released adoption rates, evidence is pointing in the opposite direction.

In its latest report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) shows that biotechnology crops now cover 160 million hectares worldwide. Of the 16.7 million people who grew transgenic crops in 2011, 15 million or 90% were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Early critics of biotechnology contended that biotechnology crops would only benefit large-scale farmers in industries countries. But emerging evidence shows that nearly half of biotechnology crops were grown in developing countries. The adoption rate of biotechnology crops was 11% in developing countries against 5% in industrialized countries.

According to the report, over the 1996-2010 period, “cumulative economic benefits were the same for developing and developed countries (US$39 billion). For 2010 alone, economic benefits for developing countries were higher at US$7.7 billion compared with US$6.3 billion for developed countries.”

These adoption rates and societal impacts are reminiscent of the transformational impact of mobile phones. The rapid adoption of mobile phones in development is heralded as one of the most dramatic examples of the spread of new technology in developing countries.

The early days of the adoption of mobile phones were marked by concerns over their implications for the incumbent fixed phone industry. It was argued then that mobile phones would be beyond the reach of the poor. Indeed, in the early days mobile phones were available only to a small section of society.

Today mobile phone platforms are creating new industries and services across many sectors such as banking, education, health, and democracy. At the beginning it appeared that the benefits of mobile phones would be restricted to urban areas. Some of the most dramatic benefits of mobile technology are likely to be in agriculture.

ISAAA’s announcement that the adoption of transgenic crops continues to expand at 8% per year is a signal of the transformational impact that genomics have on agriculture. At this rate transgenic crops have recorded the fastest adoption rate of any technology in the history of modern agriculture. This adoption rate is faster than many other documented cases.

One of the most controversial aspects of agricultural biotechnology has been its potential environmental impact. The concerns have generated considered debates and spawned new international rules aimed at curtaining its diffusion. The global community was right to be concerned, especially in light of prior agricultural practices that were evidently harmful to the environment. But many of its champions were wrong to assume from the outset the risks of the technology were likely to outweigh its benefits.

Emerging evidence runs counter to those fears. Over the 1996-2010 period, biotechnology crops have reduced 443 million kg of (active ingredient) pesticide use. This did not only reduce the spraying of chemicals that destroyed biological diversity, but they also cut down harmful exposure by farmers.

Another major impact of the adoption of biotechnology crops has been reduction of carbon emissions. In 2010 alone the world reduced 19 billion kg or carbon dioxide due to the use of biotechnology crops. This is the equivalent to taking about nine million cars off the road. The world also reduced its use of land by 91 million hectares by adopting the crops.

Not all regions of the world are benefiting from the full potential of agricultural biotechnology. For example, only three African countries (South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt) grow biotechnology crops. Despite their late entry, field trials are underway in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda. Many others are reviewing their laws to enable them to carry out field trials.

What is heartening is that much of Africa’s biotechnology research is focusing on seeking local solutions such as pest control, disease management, drought tolerance and overall adaptation to climate change. It is part of a larger agenda of reviving agricultural research and involves investments in other sectors such as infrastructure.

These trends do not in any way suggest that agricultural biotechnology is a panacea. To the contrary, the world needs to use the full range of technologies available today to sustain agricultural production. Ideological arguments that focus on a single solution are likely to undermine global food security.

It appears from the available figures that evidence is stacking up against earlier claims that transgenic crops were likely to have dramatic negative environmental and societal impacts. This is not to say that the technology is risk-free.

The evidence shows that agricultural assessments that focus largely on potential risks of transgenic crops will not continue to benefit from the kind of rhetorical support they enjoyed 15 years ago. What world needs now now is a balanced review that looks at all the evidence available to date.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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13 Responses to Evidence Stacking Up Against Biotechnology Critics

  1. Norm Benson says:

    …”biotechnology crops have reduced 443 million kg of (active ingredient) pesticide use.”

    I’m looking for the source of this statistic. Is there a link or study that you could point me to?

    • The information is from the same report on which this blog is based.

    • Christine Irvine says:

      While I don’t reject the application of GM crops out of hand, I would also however, be very interested to know where Professor Juma got this figure and how this information stacks up with my understanding that one of the ‘advantages’ of GM crops was that they were resistant to pesticides which allowed the farmer to spray his crop with impunity in the knowledge that the pesticide would only kill non-resistant plants. Is Professor Juma now suggesting that the crop is actively preventing weed-crops from growing, without the need for pesticides?? Now that would be scary.

  2. Marci Drolett says:

    Hmmm…interesting how the bioengineering food industry is using a comparison to the cellular phone industry. I have yet to meet a person who has the urge to ingest a cell phone!! I do agree that technology has come a long way…some for good and some for not good…but when technology decides to patent seeds and engineer them by injecting them with chemicals like Round-Up resistant genes, animal genes, viruses and chemicals, I feel that we as Americans have the right to know what we are really eating. Ever wonder why a tomato from the grocey store doesn’t taste like a homegrown tomato? GMO is the answer.

    • @Marci Drolett It is true that we do not ingest mobile phones in the same way we do not consume cotton fiber derived from biotechnology. However, there are parallels between GM crops and mobile phones. Both technology have been under extensive safety scrutiny. Mobile phones have been the subject of extensive review regarding their health impacts. There have been attempts to link them to honeybee colony collapse disorder. I am curious to learn more about where the GM tomatoes that you refer to are grown.

    • Dave Kepner says:

      @Marci- There are no ‘injection of chemicals’ into seeds in reference to genetic engineering. Glyphosate (Roundup) resistance is enabled by the use of Agrobacterium strain CP4, one of the most prevalent soil bacteriums on this planet. This particular strain of Agrobacterium is also used for genetic insertion into specific gene locations, mainly because of it’s ability to convert host tissue to it’s own, this is indeed the pathogen that can cause Crown Gall in many plants. Scientists have learned of a way to ‘turn off’ the tissue growth characteristics of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, and still utilize the infection capability for gene insertion of any gene you desire.
      The truth is, Triticale, a hearty, lodging resistant crop bred from wheat and rye, utilized a different way of ‘Genetic Engineering’, colchicine (yes, common medication used for gout treatment) is used to depress tubulin formulation during mitosis, thus paving the way for two different types of gametes to converge during anaphase. Although physiologically, morphologically, and agronomically strikingly similar, the plants cannot cross-breed. Think of it similar to a human and monkey cross-breeding, the offspring may be viable, certainly not stable enough to become a sustained species.
      Triticale is a unique example because of it’s capability to sexually reproduce, once the crop was developed.
      Good ahead, google it.
      Triticale literally has chemicals ‘injected’ into it, Colchicine. Colchicine has the capability to stop mitosis (how our cells divide and multiply).
      Do you really want to eat this?
      Glyphostate (Roundup) stops aromatic amino acid production in plants, slowly but surely eliminating them. This is great news for all humans (and mammals for that matter) because, ANIMALS CANNOT PRODUCE THEIR OWN AMINO ACIDS, THAT IS WHY WE ARE PRIMARY, SECONDARY OR TERCIARY CONSUMERS IN THE FOOD CHAIN.
      Long story short, animal toxicity to Roundup is very, very small because we simply do not utilize the same EPSP synthase to produce our own food (think photosynthesis) that Roundup uses to kill weeds. No EPSP (enol-pyruvate shikimate synthase) = no human/animal toxicity.

      Doesn’t this sound better than using colchicine?

      I encourage you to study biology, microbiology, ecology, chemistry, and agronomy, to understand what I have described to you and to form your own opinion. I feel confident after you understand the material, you will recognize the benefit genetically modified crops have had on this world’s supply of safe, affordable food.

      If you disagree, that is fine. But please, all that I ask is that you make an opinion known because of knowledge, and cold hard facts. Emotionally-based arguments are rarely held in high regard, and tend to lose credibility quickly.

      I am a Research Agronomist by profession, and have years of experience and formal education from the University of Illinois in Crop Sciences.

      P.S. There are no genetically modified tomatoes in any grocery store, in any part of this country, or any other in the world.

  3. Christine Irvine: On a more general note, no agricultural technology is risk-free. The challenge as I point out in the article is to balance between benefits and risks and create rules that reflect the need for proportionality. The original views that informed the early rules were heavily weighted against the technology. In regard to your specific comment, you are confusing pesticides with herbicides. This is a common mistake that can be cleared by referring to sources that explain the actual techniques in use.

  4. Comments are now closed – editor.

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  9. David says:

    Without being qualified to judge the statistics mentioned here, it seems to me that the conventions of transparency demand that it should be mentioned that the report Juma is citing is part-funded by Monsanto and Bayer.

    Common sense also dictates that the fact that millions of small farmers are using GM crops does not necessarily mean that those crops are their first choice. They may be the only seeds sold to those farmers in particular markets.

    The IAASTD, a huge study of agriculture for development that was NOT funded by big corporations, concluded that GM has little or no role to play in securing agricultural sustainability.

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