Biotech in developing countries

The AP story “Developing Countries Grew More Biotech Crops in ’07” appeared in various outlets, including the NY Times. The study was conducted by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit that is working to get biotech to the people who need it most. All farmers, especially the poor, can use biotech crops to decrease inputs and increase yields. According to the ISAAA executive summary, “for the twelfth consecutive year, the global area of biotech crops continued to soar.” There was an increase of 12% from 2006 to 2007, resulting in a total of 282.4 million acres of biotech crops. Most interestingly, the increase in biotech hasn’t been solely in developed countries by big agribusiness.

Biotech crops achieved a very important milestone in 2007 with humanitarian implications – the number of small and resource-poor farmers benefiting from biotech crops in developing countries exceeded 10 million for the first time. Of the global total of 12 million beneficiary biotech farmers in 2007…, over 90% or 11 million were small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries; the balance of 1 million were large farmers from both industrial countries such as Canada and developing countries such as Argentina.

ISAAA goes on to explain the benefits individual countries have received from biotech crops, eliminating many misconceptions (below the cut, all monetary values reported in US dollars). The report also discusses the future of biotech crops, which I will cover in another post.
In India, “more than 9 out of 10 farmers who grew Bt cotton in 2005 also grew it in 2006 and similarly for 2006 and 2007.” India’s Minister of Finance has said: “It is important to apply biotechnology in agriculture – what has been done with cotton must be done with food grains. The success achieved in cotton must be used to make the country self sufficient in rice, wheat, pulse and oilseed production.”

Bt cotton has increased yield by up to 50%, reduced insecticide sprays by half, with environmental and health implications, and increased income by up to US$250 or more per hectare, which has contributed to social benefits and the alleviation of their poverty. At the national level, increased farmer income from Bt cotton in 2006 was estimated at US$840 million to US$1.7 billion, production has almost doubled, and India, which used to have one of the lowest cotton yields in the world, is now an exporter rather than an importer of cotton… A study conducted in 2006 of 9,300 Bt cotton and non-Bt cotton households in 456 villages in India reports that women and children in Bt cotton households already have slightly more access to social benefits than non-Bt cotton households.

China’s story is even more remarkable. “In 2007, Bt cotton was planted in China by 7.1 million small and resource-poor farmers.” Repeat planting of Bt cotton is 100%. “Based on studies conducted by CCAP, on average at the farm level Bt cotton in China increases yield by 9.6%, reduces insecticide use by 60%…, and generates a substantial US$220 per hectare increase in income, which makes a significant contribution to their lives as income of many cotton farmers is less than US$1 per day.”

China has also planted about one quarter of a million Bt poplars and in 2006 started to commercialize an approved virus resistant biotech papaya (a fruit/food crop) which has been developed by a Chinese university and grown on approximately 3,500 hectares – a virus resistant sweet pepper and delayed ripening tomato have also been approved for commercialization. With the exception of some varieties of Bt cotton, all the biotech crops commercialized in China have been developed by Chinese state institutions with public sector funding.
China has the largest biotech rice program in the world. China’s biotech rice is resistant to specific pests (insect borers) and diseases (bacterial blight) and is waiting approval after extensive field tests. Dr. Jikun Huang from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP) estimates that on the average, biotech rice increased yield by 2 to 6%, and reduced insecticide application by nearly 80% or 17 kg per hectare. At a national level, it is projected that biotech rice could deliver benefits of $4 billion per year for China, plus environmental benefits that will contribute to a more sustainable agriculture and the alleviation of poverty for small and resource-poor farmers.

Farms in Argentina are large, much closer to US-style farming than India and China. RoundUp Ready soy is their most common biotech crop, which “generated a significant increase in farmer income, worth approximately $20 billion in the decade 1996 to 2005, created a million new jobs, more affordable soybean for consumers, and significant environmental benefits, particularly the practice of no till for conserving soil and moisture which importantly allows double cropping of biotech soybean.”
Small and large farms in Brazil grow bioech crops, but widespread use has been delayed “due to a cumbersome approval process, particularly the legal challenges from various interest groups, including Ministries within the Government.” A 2007 study used Argentina as an example to estimate the monetary loss to farmers due to the delays. The delay from 1998 to 2006 cost a total of $4.51 billion in lost benefits. The Brazillian government has recently committed $700 million per year for the next ten years to support biotechnology.
South Africa, ranked 8th in biotech acreage, is the only African country to commercialize biotech crops. Biotech maize, soy, and cotton plantings have increased every year since they were first introduced in 1998. South Africia has some larger farms, but the primary beneficiaries are subsistence farmers. Increased yields have lead some farmers to call Bt maize “iyasihluthisa”, the Xhosa word for “It fills our stomachs.” Along with improved yields, decreased inputs have increased farmers’ income, “boosting small shopkeepers, dressmakers and vegetable producers.” South Africa has the responsibility and privilege of sharing its expertise with biotech crops with the rest of Africa. “South Africa is estimated to have enhanced farm income from biotech maize, soybean and cotton by $156 million in the period 1998 to 2006, with benefits for 2006 alone estimated at $67 million.”
European acceptance of biotech crops has been slow, but increasd to 8 countries in 2007 from 6 in 2006. “Spain continued to be the lead country in Europe planting over 70,000 hectares in 2007, equivalent to a 21% adoption rate and a 40% increase over 2006.” The collective acreage of Bt maize in France, Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania, and Poland increased over 4-fold from 2006 to 2007. Repeat planting rates are 77%.
I’d like to leave you with the most striking quote of the report. The quote is from Richard Sitole, the chairperson of the Hlabisa District Farmers’ Union in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has seen biotech deliver 25% to 40% higher yields, leading to an increase of income and quality of life. “I challenge those who oppose GM crops for emergent farmers to stand up and deny my fellow farmers and me the benefit of earning this extra income and more than sufficient food for our families.”

The report is entirely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a U.S.-based philanthropic organization associated with the Green Revolution; Ibercaja, one of the largest Spanish banks headquartered in the maize growing region of Spain; and the Bussolera-Branca Foundation from Italy, which supports the open-sharing of  knowledge on biotech crops to aid decision-making  by global society.



  1. It may that you are affecting my bias by being such an effective writer, but I am strongly inclined to believe that those opposed to GMO are not seeing the true ethics of the research.

    I have just read a press release about a survey which indicates that people have religious reasons for being opposed to nano-technology, biotechnology and other tools which will greatly enhance our world.

  2. Hello All.

    Can someone direct me to a current list — or the elements of such a list — of transgenic plants grown around the world? Not just sorted by vague categories (such as Bt crop, resistant to viruses, et cetera) but precise reasons each transgenic plant is being grown?

    I’m working on composing such a list, but I’m encountering a bit of difficulty finding the very specific information I’m interested in. I’m hoping it has already been done so I can move on to the next step of my project.

    Thank you!

  3. John, I don’t know of a list. It would be nice to have one! There is a lot of information on the ISAAA website, so much that I don’t have time to look through it right now. They seem like an organization that would make such a list. It might be useful to contact them personally. They also have a at huge list of links to biotech websites
    I hope that helps.

  4. FOUND IT!

    Set all the values “any”, click on “submit”, and you will see a list of all 127 approved GM plants (Canada, U.S., and elsewhere). I’m surprise the number is that low, but the website claims the list is complete. I’d like to hear from others regarding this.

    Anyway, once you reach the list of GM plants, click on an “event” and you will learn more than you ever imagined possible regarding currently grown GMOs. I haven’t looked close enough to determine whether there is additional information available from the GMO Compass database, which covers only the European Union.

    I realize you are busy, Anastasia, but would you consider writing a review of the above database. In my opinion, it demonstrates a high degree of transparency regarding GM plants.

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