Agricultural Biotechnology's Contribution to Improving the Standard of Living of Farmers Around the Globe
Guest Column by Ross Korves
Ross Korves is an Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology and the former Chief Economist for the American Farm Bureau.
As the World Economic Forum prepares to convene in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the global economic crisis, an advanced report1 outlines the grim challenges ahead for the world, including warnings of weather-related disasters disproportionately affecting subsistence farming and the threat of drought to food security.
But the report also holds out the hope that the economic crisis will motivate nations to increase cooperation and adopt policies that better address the current threats.
It is my hope that the discussions at Davos and beyond will lead to greater adoption of agricultural biotechnology to boost productivity and increase the economic security and standard of living for farmers.
For struggling farmers — especially in developing countries — the benefits of biotechnology crops are apparent. Buying or renting more land or taking an off-farm job to increase family income is usually not an option. Their only hope is to increase yields per acre, increase efficiency and lower input costs.
Biotech seeds or plant cuttings are a scale-neutral technology allowing farmers of all resource levels and economic backgrounds to share in the benefit from their use.
Increased net incomes for farmers mean additional money to support education and health spending and allow farmers to have more time for family activities. In addition, biotech seeds create greater long term economic stability by reducing production uncertainty from insect infestations and disease.
In developed countries farmers were first attracted to herbicide-tolerant crops to lower weed competition for water and sunlight and to reduce the need for herbicides. Herbicide-tolerant crops also enable conservation tillage programs that leave crop residue on the surface to reduce water and wind erosion and lower fuel use by tractors.
Cotton producers using insect-resistant biotech varieties cut insecticide applications by half, lowering human exposure to insecticides and reducing the impact on beneficial insects.
In Brazil, the cost of insecticide for cotton can be up to 40 percent of total production costs with as many as 14 applications per year; biotech cotton can reduce costs by $40-120 per acre for farmers. Farmers in Brazil and Argentina also use minimum tillage systems to increase double cropping (producing two crops in one year) — soybeans after winter wheat in Argentina and winter corn after summer soybeans in central Brazil.
Four million limited-resource farmers in India, most of them living on $1-2 per day, and 7 million limited-resource farmers in China grow biotech cotton. Studies in India show that cotton yields increased 30-60 percent while the number of pesticide sprayings declined by 50 percent from an average of 3-7 times per year. Net income increased by $30-100 per acre, a 50-100 percent increase. In China, which has higher yields than India, biotech cotton increased yields by 10 percent, reduced insecticide use by 60 percent and increased incomes by $90 per acre.
In South Africa, insect-resistant hybrid corn yields about 30 percent more than regular hybrids. Adoption of biotech maize, soybeans and cotton has contributed to an estimated increase of U.S. $156 million in farm income.
In the Philippines, 125,000 resource-limited farmers grow an average of five acres of biotech corn, with several studies showing increased net income of $50-75 per acre with minor reductions in pesticide costs.
In addition, the next generation of biotech crops is being developed to increase the yield of commodity crops and help plants use water more efficiently, alleviating two of the growing threats — high food prices and water scarcity — to global stability.
Agriculture has long been tied to the economic propensity of nations. Today more than ever there is a dire need for a long term commitment to agricultural research, particularly to research in agricultural biotechnology.
Over 12 million farmers in 23 countries — more than 90% of whom are resource-limited farmers in the developing world — are already planting biotech crops. But for the world to succeed in addressing the threats facing it, governments, on their own and working through multilateral institutions and foundations, need to invest significant new funds in agricultural biotechnology and adopt polices that increase farmers' access to biotech crops.
1Global Risks 2009, January 13, 2009
ABOUT THE COUNCIL FOR BIOTECHNOLOGY INFORMATION
The Council for Biotechnology Information communicates science-based information about the benefits and safety of agricultural biotechnology and its contributions to sustainable development. For more information, visit www.whybiotech.com.