Farmers confident with transgenics

Transgenic crops have lowered the cost of producing a crop for an estimated 3.5 million farmers worldwide, according to a recently released global review of genetically modified crops.

According to the new report, produced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the economic benefit of transgenic crops is expected to surpass $1 billion in 2001.

A total of 300 million acres of transgenic crops were reportedly planted by farmers in 15 countries in the five-year period since they became commercially available. “In 2001, the number of farmers planting genetically modified crops is expected to grow substantially to equal 5 million or more, and the global area planted to transgenic crops is expected to continue to grow by 10 percent or more,” the report states.

However, because biotechnology is a relatively young and sometimes controversial science, ISAAA Chairman Clive James says his institute embarked on a program to annually review the use and adoption of transgenic crops. The annual review, he says, provides the information needed by the global community to make rational decisions on genetically modified crops.

“Biotech should not be looked at as a panacea, but in conjunction with conventional technology it serves a great purpose,” James says. “The growth that we have seen in transgenic crops in the last five years in vote of confidence by the farmers using this technology. In the year 2000, we exceeded 100 million acres for the first time, that's more than twice the land area of the United Kingdom.”

The challenge farmers and transgenic crops face, he says, is feeding the growing world of tomorrow by globally doubling production on the same amount of cultivatable land that is farmed today. “There is no single thrust or approach that will provide the food security needed to feed the world's growing population, but surely technology has its place.”

In the current report, James says the ISAAA has collected several major studies assessing the benefits of transgenic crops in 1999. “From an economic point of view we estimate that the benefits to farmers alone are in the order of $700 million. Of the surplus income that is produced when you grow genetically modified crops, the farmer is the major beneficiary, taking up to half or more of the surplus income generated,” he says.

Of the $700 million estimated figure, James says, about 50 percent of the benefit goes to farmers in developing countries, principally China and Argentina.

In China, the rapid adoption of Bt cotton has allowed farmers to reduce their pesticide applications by 80 percent and their costs of production by 20 percent. From an economic point of view, these savings can increase the average farmer's net returns from $185 to $400 per hectare. (One hectare is equivalent to about two acres.)

“The question is often asked, whether genetically modified crops are appropriate for developing countries. If we take the China experience into account, the answer is certainly yes,” he says. “The United States, given its major participation in genetically modified crops, is also a major beneficiary of biotechnology.

“There is very clear evidence in the report that the distribution of benefits to various stakeholders, including farmers, consumers and technology companies, is substantial,” James says, “The perception that the developers of the technology take the major portion of the surplus benefit is incorrect.”

In addition to the economic benefit, the report finds both an increase in productivity and a decrease in pesticide applications as a result of the adoption of transgenic varieties. “This is a very important environmental contribution with significant health implications,” James says.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that genetically modified crops, in conjunction with conventional practices, offer a safe and effective technology that can contribute to a better environment and more sustainable and productive agriculture,” James says.

“It is now widely acknowledged in the scientific and development community that conventional technology alone cannot meet the future food needs of the developing countries. Thus biotechnology, in conjunction with conventional technology, is judged to be a prerequisite element in any strategy designed to provide food, feed and fiber security through increased crop productivity.”

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