Biotech crops are winning over farmers

Bill Gates with farmers in India

The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.

In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.

Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.

The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through. Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in  the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?

The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. (They’re probably working too hard.) But data released this week indicates  farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.

Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).

Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and  India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

“Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, the report’s author, in a statement. It must be said that James is an unabashed supporter of biotech crops but as best I can tell, his numbers haven’t been challenged.

Why do more farmers every year plant biotech crops? Critics of genetically-modified crops will say they are tricked into it by marketing or lack of knowledge or short-termism, and it’s certainly true that the popularity of a product is not a reliable indicator of its value. (ABBA sold more records than the Rolling Stones. People smoke cigarettes.) But if biotech crops didn’t make farmers more productive, or save them time or money, would they spread around the world as consistently as they have?

James writes: “There is one principal and overwhelming reason that underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in biotechnology – biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socio-economic and environmental benefits.”

The top five countries that have embraced biotech crops–the US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada–each planted more than 10 million hectares of the crops. Of the 16.7 million farmers who grew biotech crops, about 14 million were small, resource-poor farmers in China and India, most of them planting pest-resistant Bt cotton. In Africa, three countries–South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt–have commercialized biotech crops, and others, including drought-tolerant maize, are being tested.

In his letter, Gates argues that not nearly enough agricultural research is being done:

Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, it is shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous—how little money is spent on agricultural research. In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops…Very little of the country and private spending goes toward the priorities of small farmers in Africa or South Asia.

Andrew Kimbrell

But critics like Andrew Kimbrell says the biotech industry has failed to deliver on its promise to feed the world:

The biotech industry has exploited the image of the world’s poor and hungry to advance a form of agriculture that is expensive, input-intensive, and of little or no relevance to developing country farmers.

The debate will rage on. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to require the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. Supporters of labeling, most prominently Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms, say we have a right to know what’s in our food: “Without a requirement to label foods containing these ingredients, we are forced to be guinea pigs in a giant experiment involving our health and the environment.”

By contrast, in his book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, the veteran environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

Your thoughts?

[Disclosure: I’m paid to moderate the annual policy conference of Croplife America, a trade association of big agricultural firms, which sell biotech seeds.]

Comments

  1. Miki Wright says:

    Eight Ways #Monsanto Fails at Sustainable #Agriculture (UCS) http://bit.ly/ziFXXZ #GMO

    Until biotech learns to label and keep its genes to itself, it has no place in agriculture or on our tables. We have a right to know what we are eating and how it was produced, if we want to. Cross pollination is not acceptable. Nor is adding tons of herbicide and pesticide to the ecosystem, creating super weeds, super bugs, and killing valuable insects in the process. And patenting food is frightening and somewhat scifi.

  2. Lewis E. Ward says:

    Mark,
    I’m sharing with an organic farmer friend Jim Gerritsen (and other farmers) who are plaintiffs in the Monsanto lawsuit.
    How industrial agriculture changes the culture, economic and land tenure systems in poor countries is well documented and ignored by the graphs of progress. The change ties farmers to the much larger market economy and I’m not so sure that it brings sustainability.

  3. Our FDA (certain people in the FDA) is corrupt anyway, if they enact labeling that’s great but it’s a drop in the bucket of what really needs to happen.

    Why wasn’t Monsanto mentioned in this article? If bio-crops exsisted in a perfect world, Bill Gates would be right. As long as Monsanto exsists, greedy evil exsists, and bio-crops will be a corrupt business. Monsanto directs employees to take direct action which hurt and kill people, from what I understand and have seen, farmers have been shot dead in other countries for getting in Monsanto’s way.

    The fact that humans survived this long on this globe due to our ability to grow our own food, makes the reality of Monsanto throwing its grotesquely overweight, corrupt entity-self everywhere on our globe pretty scary.

  4. I was trying here to focus on benefits (or lack of benefits) of genetically-engineered crops and not get into the question of Monsanto’s business conduct and how patents are used or misused. Both the industry-backed ISAAA and Bill Gates have pointed to models under which intellectual property is shared a low or no cost with poor farmers.

    Kat, I’d like to know what evidence there is for the charge that “Monsanto directs employees to take direct action which hurt and kill people.” I’m not here to defend Monsanto but that is a very strong charge.

    • Yes, it is strong…I’ll dig up my past findings. Last story I saw reported was….around 6 months ago, it made me so angry I stopped paying attention.

  5. I still have not decided which side of this debate I’m on. Clearly, some of Monsanto’s tactics when suing farmers for the use of genes they did not voluntarily use seems over the top- but that’s more about abusive corporate practices, not genetically modified crops in and of themselves.

    When looking at GMOs in and of themselves, we should be asking, “is the increased agricultural productivity (if any) worth the reduction in the resilience of our food system due to the greater use of plants which no longer breed true?” The fact that farmers are shifting rapidly to GMOs shows that there is significantly increased agricultural activity, but that does not mean that there is not also increased risk. Farmers who adopt GMOs do not typicaly bear the risks of loss of diveristy and cross pollination to other farmers. These are typical unpriced externalities, and until we pu a price on them, the adoption of GMOs will probably be faster than it should be for the health of our planet and economy.

    Which does not mean that GMOs are evil any more than cars are evil… it’s just that we have too many of them because GMO farmers are like drivers in that they do not pay for the full costs of their actions.

  6. Jeff Bidstrup says:

    As a practicising commercial cotton farmer in Australia, I have for the last 16 years had the choice of GM or conventional cotton, and along with >95% of my compatriots, I now grow all GM. I make a decision based on value to my operation, ease of use, and the massively lower impact on the environment and natural resources with GM technology.
    As a practicing farmer and environmentalist, I resent the accusation that I have been deluded by sharp advertrising for 16 years.
    For 16 years I have been told by those opposing that we need to just wait and we will see all the problems, but I just see benefits to farmers, the environment, and farm employees. not to mention more economical, more plentiful food with less pesticide residues (cotton seed makes oil for cooking, and feed for livestock).
    We used to continually spray our cotton, but now we spray it less than any other crop.
    Monsanto is a large corporation and is no doubt focused on returns to its shareholders (just like fuel, chemical and fertiliser companies) but some of the comments posted show a certain ignorance of how the world operates.
    I, like farmers everywhere, will always have the right to keep my own conventional seed. No one can take that away from me. I will choose, and my margins, like the margins of farmers in developing countries, are not strong enough to allow me to make the wrong decisions- at least not for 16 years in a row!

    • Jeff,

      I assume we would probably know a few of the same folks as I worked with the Deltapine business for a number of years and have friends in Narrabri and Goondiwindi among other places.

      I now work for Monsanto and will say shareholders are a focus group for us but farmers have to remain at the forefront as well as its a balancing act. Besides, many of us spend a lot of time on the family farms of our relatives and friends.

      You said you know you can go back to conventional seed from any of several competitors anytime, we realize that as well. Our business has to make good returns on your farm for us to earn your business year after year. I appreciate your business when we earn it and want to say thank you for your speaking up for what you’ve experienced.

      jp

  7. There is another side to the agricultural biotechnology issue. It includes increased herbicide usage and resultant herbicide resistance, “super weeds,” residues on and in food crops, genetic contamination of non-GM crops which hurt organic and conventional farmers, etc

  8. I’m with Stewart Brand on this one.

    Let’s be clear: the planting or eating of GM food is not a safety issue. GM food falls into the same category as Jewish Kosher or Moslem Sharia law food: that is, that labeling is important to the followers of that ethic. Producers of non-GM, just as producers of Kosher or Sharia food, are free to label their food as such. But, if you really feel that you want to avoid GM, you can eat organic food exclusively.

    The call for labeling implies that GM food should be avoided because the food is “unnatural.” This is the “ick” factor that happens with new technology; a 1969 Harris poll found a majority of Americans believed in vitro fertilization (“test tube babies”) was “against God’s will.”

    Beliefs evolve. In less than a decade, those against had dropped to 28 percent with 60 percent pro-IVF.[http://www.gallup.com/poll/8983/gallup-brain-birth-vitro-fertilization.aspx]

    The FDA requires labels on food to safeguard our health, not our beliefs.

  9. david hill says:

    as a farmer in the UK it may be surprising for people to know that a great many of us would love to have the opportunity to use GM. We grew sugar beet trials in the late nineties. The green benefits where huge– less sprays and spraying, more food for birds and mammals, better soil structure through less traffic,less pollution in manufacture and disposal of containers ,a reduction in chemical in other parts of the rotation,the ability to be more flexible in spray timing often in safer conditions ,safer in terms of wild life,safer for the operators. Sugar yields increased as the is no phytotoxic effect in spraying roundup. This technology gets rid of wild beet for which there is no other method of control-this is abig deal.

  10. VKV.RAVICHANDRAN says:

    I am a farmer from India.Prior to the introduction of Bt Cotton I was growing the conventional, Non Bt Cotton during which time I used to spend Rs 2000 per acre on pesticide to control bollworms alone .Ever since I started cultivating Bt Cotton my pesticide usage has dropped significantly i.e around Rs500 per acre, that too to control sucking pest. When a small farmer is able to make so much of savings by growing Bt Cotton, by extrapolating one can easily work out the volume of business the entire pesticides industry would be loosing to Bt Cotton. Besides the savings for the farmer, we can maintain pollution free environment and preserve the predators like lady bird beetle.
    We, the farmers constitute more than 65% of the population in India. Our nation’s economy depends on the economy of our farming community. To improve our economic conditions we need new technologies. We need crops that are are resistant to pest and disease and crops that are not affected by weeds. We need crops that can withstand flood,drought and salinity. We need more nutritious food grains. Agricultural Bio Technology has the potential to offer viable solutions to these problems and more. Why deprive us of the opportunity to enjoy the beniefits of science and technology. During the recent monsoon floods many of the rice fields surrounding my field were inundated and perished. The Submergence Tolerant Rice grown by me, with stood the flood and yielded well. If we have more number of crops with more number of desiarable traits, all the farmers would prosper and farming would turnout to be an enviable profession.

  11. Brian Corkill says:

    I have been invoved in farming for close to 30 years, and my experience has been that herbicide usage is much less now than it was prior to the introduction of GM crops. Sure, the usage of one particular herbicide has increased in that time, but what most people fail to recognize and opponents fail to state, that herbicide is a general use pesticide, meaning it is about as safe as a herbicide can be. As a person who directly handles pesticides, I would much rather handle a general use pesticide than a restricted use pesticide because I know it is much safer for me, my neighbors and the environment. As long as the public demands cheap food, like it or not, pesticides and commercial fertilizers are going to be used to allow farmers to produce high yielding crops. GM crops allow farmers to use less of these products per unit of production, making it safer for the environment as compared to conventional agriculture as it was practiced prior to the introduction of GM crops.

    When it comes to “super weeds”, what many opponents to GM crops fail to acknowledge is that many of these weeds existed prior to the adoption of GM crops and would still be a problem today without the adoption of GM crops. The reason we have weed resistance isn’t because of GM crops, it’s due to the mismanagement of herbicides by a small number of farmers, which was happening prior to the adoption of GM crops.

    Genetic contamination is also a problem that can easily be avoided. Common sense and communication with neighbors who want to grow conventional or organic crops are all that are needed. I know of operations who are organic or conventional who have great working relationships with neighbors who grow GM crops and contamination problems are never an issue. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but know it can be avoided.

    To me, what it boils down to isn’t GM vs. non-GM, it is more about how we as human beings choose to use the tools given to us. If we choose to use them wisely, which I believe 99% of those who use GM crops do, they can provide great benefits such as higher rates of food production with a smaller environmental impact.

  12. Aiming to be an Agricultural Scientist, I had left my home country Nepal and at present I am under graduate at Southern Arkansas University with Agricultural Science major with the vision to be a responsible member of world.

    As I was watching news of back home, one of the highlight news was regarding the scarce of Agricultural Scientists and the lab equipment in Nepal. As far as my concerned, none of the revolution reaches the summit without agricultural revolution. However, the political leaders back home are ignoring this fact and the helpless citizens are bound to suffer famine. Relying upon the traditional methods of farming, uncertified low viable seeds and most important the crops and foods from donor organizations like WFO have paralyzed the development process of developing countries like Nepal. Providing foods to prevent famine is a great help from WFO which is appreciated by every Nepali; however, this kind of help is not the sustainable solution. Nepal and Nepali people need intellectual and technical support to overcome the habit of spreading hands for help, from WFO or any other organizations that work for humanitarian service.

  13. “…Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith…”

    I would correct that to “has a religious faith” because that’s the best way to describe his faith in GMO’s. Like religious devotees, he ignores evidence that runs contrary to his belief system.

  14. Marc,
    You are right to focus on the farmers here. These are people who take risks every season to a degree that few of us can imagine. They are at the mercy of the weather, volatile input prices, and unpredictable markets for what they will produce. Those that stay in business make very sound financial decisions. Anyone who implies that farmers can be tricked by marketing gimmicks don’t know farmers. Also, anyone who says that biotech has not helped without our ability to keep up with growing world food demand has not taken the time to look at the great body of public data showing the opposite.

    GMO crops are not “the answer.” They are just one of many important tools including increasingly rapid crop breeding, increasingly sophisticated farming equipment, storage technologies, crop protection chemicals and biological controls. The farmers are the ones who integrate all of this to continue making the sort of gains we have seen for decades. For third-world subsistence farmers, there are clearly cases where free GMO crops like virus resistant cassava would help a great deal, but they also need far more basic things like a functional farm-credit system, crop insurance, a bit of fertilizer and infrastructure for storage and transport to market.

    So it isn’t about whether any one technology will “feed the world.” Farmers will feed the world and always have. We would do well to respect the choices they want to make

  15. I’m glad I came over your post. It made me think of some of the farmers in countries that are not as well-developed as the US. Since the technology is becoming increasingly popular nowadays, are the farmers in these countries introduced to biotech crops already? I think it would be great help for their crop production.

  16. Monsanto, a chemical company, has been poisoning the world for over 100 years. Why would they stop now?

  17. challenge nonsense says:

    There is no scientific consensus on safety of GM / agrochemical products. In fact, when studies are not paid for by the industry (e.g. Mr Gunther’s friends who obviously pay for his ‘opinion’) they demonstrate contrary results.

    Farming is very difficult and because of pressure and changing weather patterns, farmers often resort to using these inputs (which are also very costly for them). There are also perverse subsidies in agriculture thanks to the industry that lobbies the government like mad. The problem with using these agricultural inputs is that they result in a decline of nitrogen fixing bacteria and other micro-organisms essential for soil health. This creates a cycle of using more (and stronger) chemicals and further destroying the soil ecology. Herbicides are now made even more potent with ingredients similar to what was used in the war to poison people (agent orange).

    The rate of non-communicable diseases is skyrocketing and scientists around the world believe that much of this is largely attributed to the chemicals in our food system. There are a lot of studies mainly out of Europe that show we need more regulation before issuing approvals in haste. Recently, there is news in Argentina about the rate of cancers increasing 4 fold since the introduction of GM products. This is just a coincidence according to industry, right? Lets don’t forget when Syngenta polluted water systems with atrazine.

    As consumers, we have the right to know what is in our food. Unfortunately, these inputs are ubiquitous as the seed business is dominated by a few players. This makes it ever more difficult for consumers to choose safe products. Also, the government and the industry are keeping people in oblivion by telling us that it is safe. There is either very little regulation of these products, or they are tested on mice for 3 months which only equals to about 12% of their life span. There is massive problem that the funding for research mainly comes from the industry, therefore, we have very little objective science based evidence on these products. We do not understand long term effects and how these inputs interact with one another. When these companies lobby labelling laws, they are infringing on the rights of consumers who are entitled to knowing what is in our food (just like salt, sugar, fat).

    For those looking for facts have a look at this paper — GMO MYTHS AND TRUTHS An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops, June 2012.

    For refreshing alternative views to this article:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-bronner/five-reasons-to-get-on-the-soapbox_b_4183815.html

  18. Sick because of agrochemicals in my food says:

    Its unfortunate that these days education, media, science are paid for by the industry which doesn’t always have good intentions. We don’t have balanced views and adequate science anymore. I just hope that people are smart enough to seek other perspectives and make choices that are right for them, and not what “science” paid for by companies producing poisons tells us.

    Stop infringing on human rights with respect to food and ingredient information.

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