Evidence Stacking Up Against Biotechnology Critics

Editors Note: republished with permission from www.technologyandpolicy.org.
By Calestous Juma
Critics of agricultural biotechnology have long maintained that the technology is unsuitable for small-scale farmers and harmful to the environment. But according to newly-released adoption rates, evidence is pointing in the opposite direction.
In its latest report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2011, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) shows that biotechnology crops now cover 160 million hectares worldwide. Of the 16.7 million people who grew transgenic crops in 2011, 15 million or 90% were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.
Early critics of biotechnology contended that biotechnology crops would only benefit large-scale farmers in industries countries. But emerging evidence shows that nearly half of biotechnology crops were grown in developing countries. The adoption rate of biotechnology crops was 11% in developing countries against 5% in industrialized countries.

Source: ISAAA.org. Click to see detail.

According to the report, over the 1996-2010 period, “cumulative economic benefits were the same for developing and developed countries (US$39 billion). For 2010 alone, economic benefits for developing countries were higher at US$7.7 billion compared with US$6.3 billion for developed countries.”
These adoption rates and societal impacts are reminiscent of the transformational impact of mobile phones. The rapid adoption of mobile phones in development is heralded as one of the most dramatic examples of the spread of new technology in developing countries.
The early days of the adoption of mobile phones were marked by concerns over their implications for the incumbent fixed phone industry. It was argued then that mobile phones would be beyond the reach of the poor. Indeed, in the early days mobile phones were available only to a small section of society.
Today mobile phone platforms are creating new industries and services across many sectors such as banking, education, health, and democracy. At the beginning it appeared that the benefits of mobile phones would be restricted to urban areas. Some of the most dramatic benefits of mobile technology are likely to be in agriculture.
ISAAA’s announcement that the adoption of transgenic crops continues to expand at 8% per year is a signal of the transformational impact that genomics have on agriculture. At this rate transgenic crops have recorded the fastest adoption rate of any technology in the history of modern agriculture. This adoption rate is faster than many other documented cases.
One of the most controversial aspects of agricultural biotechnology has been its potential environmental impact. The concerns have generated considered debates and spawned new international rules aimed at curtaining its diffusion. The global community was right to be concerned, especially in light of prior agricultural practices that were evidently harmful to the environment. But many of its champions were wrong to assume from the outset the risks of the technology were likely to outweigh its benefits.
Emerging evidence runs counter to those fears. Over the 1996-2010 period, biotechnology crops have reduced 443 million kg of (active ingredient) pesticide use. This did not only reduce the spraying of chemicals that destroyed biological diversity, but they also cut down harmful exposure by farmers.
Another major impact of the adoption of biotechnology crops has been reduction of carbon emissions. In 2010 alone the world released 19 billion kg less carbon dioxide due to the use of biotechnology crops. This is the equivalent to taking about nine million cars off the road. The world also reduced its use of land by 91 million hectares by adopting the crops.
Not all regions of the world are benefiting from the full potential of agricultural biotechnology. For example, only three African countries (South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt) grow biotechnology crops. Despite their late entry, field trials are underway in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda. Many others are reviewing their laws to enable them to carry out field trials.
What is heartening is that much of Africa’s biotechnology research is focusing on seeking local solutions such as pest control, disease management, drought tolerance and overall adaptation to climate change. It is part of a larger agenda of reviving agricultural research and involves investments in other sectors such as infrastructure.
These trends do not in any way suggest that agricultural biotechnology is a panacea. To the contrary, the world needs to use the full range of technologies available today to sustain agricultural production. Ideological arguments that focus on a single solution are likely to undermine global food security.
It appears from the available figures that evidence is stacking up against earlier claims that transgenic crops were likely to have dramatic negative environmental and societal impacts. This is not to say that the technology is risk-free.
The evidence shows that agricultural assessments that focus largely on potential risks of transgenic crops will not continue to benefit from the kind of rhetorical support they enjoyed 15 years ago. What world needs now now is a balanced review that looks at all the evidence available to date.
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011).


  1. So when will blight-resistant, Colorado potato beetle-resistant Kennebec potatoes be available to small Maine farmers?
    I’m the first in line….

  2. The ISAAA is funded by all the large GM biotech companies so nobody should be surprised that their report embraces and echos the GMO industrial paradigm.

  3. Right, but that doesn’t alter the fact that GE crops are being adopted at an increasing rate, and by small farmers in developing countries.
    I also note the irony that you are pointing out financial connections, when the anti-GE efforts in Boulder, Colorado have enjoyed support from competing business interests.

  4. This is a very positive report. Despite GMO critics, this ISAAA report echoes many independent university reports and peer-reviewed studies that continue to show that transgenic crops are a benefit to consumers as well as farmers. Even though it is very difficult pulling global areas such as Europe into the fold, sooner or later the naysayers will have to admit the logic of using GMO products.

  5. Thanks for the comment and additional input. I know for instance that the trait-acres over-reports the number of GE crops being grown, but this hardly seems to be a secret since as soon as the ISAAA report came out, all the anti-GE groups, such as yours, pointed it out. (There hasn’t been any effort on the part of these groups to find out the number of actual acres.) Like I said to GM Know (everyone’s representing their organizations instead of themselves I see), the issue of monetary contributions can be good to consider when you think about the overall point of view of the source of information, but it does not change the underlying data such as the number of small farmers in developing countries adopting GE crops.
    I read your organization’s piece, and it was remarkably light on details, or explanations. So I took a look at the report on the PG Economics 2011 report linked to on the top and read a few pages. When it started getting into the details of comparing their methodology to those of Gurian-Sherman and Benbrook, it started to unravel – and quickly. While accusing the PG Economics of using simulated data, you cite a criticism by Benbrook. But Benbrook’s paper used virtual data that he estimated himself. His report also considers herbicides and insecticides of different toxicities as being equal – a fact that I have confronted him about myself in-person. Finally, with regard to yield, the UCS report “Failure to Yield” by Gurian-Sherman only tried to estimate yield differences in the US for two crops, whereas the PG Economics report was covering the use of many different crops worldwide. And “marginal” yield improvement translates to about 1/5 the total yield gain over the time period. It also does not include recent data in the US about the suppression of European Corn Borers which provide yield and pest management benefits to non-GE corn. It is indeed important to consider other points of view with forming conclusions, but when you consider only one of them to be biased you run into the same kind of categorical error that you seem to want to avoid.
    Finally, coming back to the financial argument, you cite funding of the ISAAA and PG Economics reports is reason to suspect the veracity of their conclusions. I find it strange, then, that you consider The Organic Center as a reliable source, given that it has such a corporate backing from the organic food industry: http://www.organic-center.org/donors.cornerstone.html In fact, their About page states that one of their missions is to work “to restore our natural world by promoting greater awareness for organic products.” By your statement, it would seem that this organization’s facts are “bought and paid for” by the non-GE industry. Is everyone throwing stones from glass houses here?
    I’m not saying that their conclusions should be scrapped or criticized on that basis, nor am I saying their opinions are bought and paid for. I think that people in this debate spend way too much time trying to discredit others on the basis of money alone. It is a knee-jerk argument that people try to use as a substitute for getting into the scientific details. And it is incredibly ironic that it so frequently can be turned around to question one’s own agenda.
    So coming back to the science – do you have any data about adoption rates in developing vs developed countries and/or large versus small landholders to contradict the ISAAA report?

  6. Karl has all his ducks in a row. He explains the position perfectly. Whenever self-interest enters the equation, all sides of an argument come under suspicion as to who is pulling the money strings behind the curtains for these studies. Here, his slap against the Organic Center is viable. Karl was adept at reversing the suspicion back to the source making charges against conventional GMO production. Perhaps the author is a shill for the organic industry. So, someone answer his “science” question about adoption rates and lay aside the distracting question of whether the studies have been “bought and paid for.”

  7. “…biotechnology crops now cover 160 million hectares worldwide. Of the 16.7 million people who grew transgenic crops in 2011, 15 million or 90% were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.” That’s awesome! Did they happen to collect data on how many of those hectares were grown by small/resource-poor farmers?

  8. What would the GM industry gain by commissioning a report to look into how successful their products were if it didn’t show the true picture? It wouldn’t exactly help with planning next seasons sales volumes etc which must be why such reports are required.
    I’m not clear which facts in the report you are casting doubt on? Please let us know. Presumably you’ll have some counter evidence to show us if anythign is disputable.
    Looking forward to the discussion.

  9. indeed! bias is to be considered but it really comes down to the science, so let’s talk about that and leave bias/shill discussions for another day.

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