As an Australian farmer, I find myself wondering if the professional protest group Friends of the Earth should consider renaming itself. I suggest “Foes of the Farmer.”
Recently, that organization released its annual assault on biotechnology in a report called “Who Benefits from GM Crops?” They attempted to portray farmers who plant genetically enhanced seeds as a bunch of corporate hayseeds who don’t know much about agriculture in general or their own businesses in particular.
That would be a lot of hayseeds--more than 13 million, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which issued its 2008 report on the Global Status of GM crops last week.
The two new releases are a study in stark contrasts. Whereas “Foes of the Farmer” make thinly documented claims about the alleged failures of biotechnology, ISAAA focuses on the actual experiences of men and women who work the land. In 2008, we grew more biotech crops than ever before: more than 300 million acres (125 million hectares), an increase of more than 9 percent compared to a year earlier.
Why are so many farmers around the world taking up biotechnology so quickly? I believe it’s because the people who have the most direct stake in agricultural productivity think it’s a good idea. They have seen the difference crop biotechnology has made and understand that this is a wonderful technology for farmers and the environment.
Record-breaking years have become a routine for biotech crops. Since their commercialization in 1996, these plants have surged in popularity. Farmers now have grown an accumulated 2 billion acres of them, according to the ISAAA. That’s an incredible milestone. It took a decade for farmers to plant their first billion acres, but only three years to plant their second billion.
This remarkable development is possible because so many people benefit from GM crops. The benefits begin with farmers, who see their input costs decline and yields increase. That certainly has been my experience as a cotton grower in Australia. Since taking up biotechnology, we’ve reduced our pesticide applications by 85 percent. We also produce more fiber more reliably for every hectare of land and litre of water we devote to farming.
Consumers profit as well, even though they don’t always know it. At a time of financial turmoil around the world, these agricultural innovations are helping to keep food, feed and fiber bills in check. The ISAAA report says that in the United States, the economic gains associated with biotech crops since 1996 have been worth $44 billion. In 2007 alone, it was worth $10 billion. In the future, this figure will do nothing but increase.
Farmers appreciate all of these gains, which is why they’ve been so eager to take up GM crops. The vast majority--more than 90 percent or 12.3 million--are small, resource-poor farmers in places such as Burkina Faso, the Philippines, India and South Africa. They’re choosing to grow biotech cotton, and they’re making this choice because they’re witnessing the advantages of biotechnology firsthand.
India is home to about 5 million of these farmers. Because of biotechnology, their yields have gone up by 31 percent and insecticide applications have dropped by 39 percent. Many of these gains have led to an improved quality of life. “In contrast to the families of farmers planting conventional cotton,” says the ISAAA report, “families of Bt cotton farmers enjoyed emerging welfare benefits including more prenatal care and assistance with at-home births for women, plus a higher school enrollment of their children, a higher percentage of whom were vaccinated.”
One of the biggest early benefits that Australian farmers saw was being able to spend weekends and evenings with their families through the spraying season which was no more.
Biotech farmers now inhabit 25 nations, whose citizens make up more than half of the world’s population. The ISAAA labels 14 of these nations as “biotech mega-countries” because their farmers plant at least 50,000 hectares of GM crops (equivalent to more than 123,000 acres). The largest grower is the United States, which accounts for almost half of all biotech acreage. Next in order comes Argentina, followed by Brazil, India, and Canada. An additional 30 countries don’t grow GM crops but permit the importation of biotech products for human and animal consumption.
In addition to contributing to economic sustainability, GM crops also provide an environmental edge. Because they’re more productive, they reduce the pressure to convert wilderness into farmland. The ISAAA estimates that biotechnology already has conserved more than 106 million acres of land.
So let’s return to that opening question: “Who Benefits from GM Crops?” The answer, it turns out, is just about everyone.
Jeff Bidstrup and his family grow cotton, wheat, sorghum and chickpeas in Queensland, Australia. Jeff is the national convenor of the Producers Forum, an organization of farmers whose vision is to ensure timely access to agricultural biotechnologies for the economic, social and environmental benefits of all Australians. Mr. Bidstrup is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and the 2008 recipient of the Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement award.