You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India
A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  “drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

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. [click to continue…]

Biotech crops: growing like weeds

Corntassel_7095The people who are designing, marketing and selling biotech crops must be doing something right.

Despite fierce opposition to so-called Frankenfoods in Europe, which in turn has discouraged farmers in Africa from planting genetically-modified seeds, biotech acreage under cultivation around the world grew to 134 million hectares last year, up 7% over 2008.

Roughly 14 million farmers planted biotech crops, up from about 13.3 million a year ago, and nearly 90% were small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries, according to a pro-biotech nonprofit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications or ISAAA.

Growth is especially robust in poor countries, as the chart below shows.


What this says is that farmers, when given a choice between biotech and conventional crops, are opting for biotech. And after listening to a presentation the other day from Clive James, the chairman and founder of ISAAA, it’s clear to me that the growth is going to continue.

In a landmark decision last fall, China issued biosafety certificates for biotech insect-resistant rice and phytase corn. Phytase is an additive, widely used in animal feed, that increases phosphorus absorption and helps animals grow faster. Origin Agritech (NASDAQ: SEED), a Beijing-based company that developed the phytase corn, says it will save farmers money and reduce phosphate pollution caused by animal waste and excessive fertiliser use. While commercial use of these biotech crops is several years away, these three facts–rice is the world’s most important food crop, corn is the most important feed crop and China is the biggest market–leave little doubt biotech crop acreage will continue to grow.

Few topics in the world of business and sustainability are more controversial than biotech foods. I’m reluctant to wade into the debate for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an expert on farming nor on the human health issues raised by biotech’s critics. Second, I’m conducting a series of interviews about sustainable agriculture for Monsanto’s website, Produce More Conserve More, for which I’m being paid. I agreed to do so only after talking about biotech with people I respect–among them, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Glenn Prickett of The Nature Conservancy and Stewart Brand–all of whom say that they think biotech foods are essential if we are going to feed the world’s growing population while limiting the environmental footprint of farming. In his book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart 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.

Strong words, no? In response, GM Watch, an anti-biotech website, called Stewart an “ageing hippie technophile” who “has never been short on hubris.” That’s name-calling, not argument. Others whose work I respect, including Andrew Kimbrell and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, argue that genetically-engineered foods should not be commercialized until “they have been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment.” Of course, it’s not easy to prove that something is safe. The Center for Food Safety also wants foods containing biotech ingredients to be labeled. Still another critic of biotech who has my ear is my  daughter Sarah, who funds grassroots organizations in Africa as a senior program officer for the American Jewish World Service. Maybe I’ll invite her to do a guest post.

This posting isn’t about the controversy. It’s about what’s happening on the ground, literally. Farmers are voting for biotech, and they are doing so with their livelihoods at stake. This suggests that, at the very least, biotech crops deliver meaningful benefits to farmers–they enable them to save money, or work less, or improve their productivity.

The U.S. remains by far the No. 1 producer of biotech crops, followed by Brazil and Argentina, with every other country lagging well behind. (The top 15 countries are listed below. Yes, I know the chart is hard to read but you can also find the list in this press release.) China was one of 16 developing countries that grew biotech crops in 2009, according to ISAAA, and nearly half the biotech acreage is in the developing world.

“This puts to rest the idea that biotech crops can only benefits larger farms in developed countries,” James said during a conference call with reporters.

South Africa and Burkina Faso, where cotton is a major export, led African countries in adoption of biotech. Burkina Fason’s biotech cotton now accounts for 29% of the country’s cotton-growing land. Of course, there’s less controversy surrounding biotech cotton since it is a fiber and not a food crop. Japan, meanwhile, is growing biotech roses and carnations. Who knew?

Now, without knowing the context in which farmers are turning to biotech, it would be a mistake to read too much into this data. Individual farmers are influenced by government policy, the inducements of NGOs (like the pro-biotech Gates Foundation) and the information they have (or don’t have) available.

I’m looking forward to learning more about biotech agriculture.  It’s possible that we may regret this global-scale experiment that we embarked upon less than 15 years ago. But the market seems to be telling us that biotech crops are a good idea. Then again, we’ve all learned lately that markets are not infallible.

Figure 4a in COLOR