Biotech Crop Adoption Around the World and a Statement about GM Activism

Chart: Biotech Crop Countries and Mega-Countries, 2012
(Click on graphic to enlarge)

The above graphic shows us that in 2012, biotech crops covered 170.3 million hectares (420 million acres) in 28 countries planted by a record 17.3 million farmers, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). This was an increase of 6 percent or 10.3 million hectares (25 million acres) over 2011. (GM crops were first grown commercially in the 1990s.)

Last year, for the first time, more than half of the acres of biotech crops were grown in the developing nations.

ISAAA’s prediction is that in the year 2015, 20 million farmers in more than 40 countries will be using biotech and GM crops on 494 million acres (200 million hectares).

Recently, I listened to a webcast from the Univ. of California which brought in speakers to discuss “How do we sustainably feed 8 billion people by 2025″? Interestingly, the morning’s panel of more than ten individuals covering global issues expressed minimal concerns about GM crops, much to the audience’s dismay. One tweeter claimed they lost half of their audience by not choosing a “better” team of panelists.

Scientists consider genetic modification of seeds a tool that is useful in solving some of our crop production challenges, including nutrients, yields, drought tolerance, flood tolerance, and disease and pest resistance. The technology is here to stay.

Some naturally occurring gene processes exhibit exchanges of DNA not so different from the biotech processes. Even the Land Institute which works on engineering perennial grains, and has been staunchly anti-biotech, started using marker assisted breeding a couple of years ago. Marker assisted breeding is not a transgenic technique, but it is a human intervention which speeds up a natural process of selection by many years. New breeding procedural methods on the horizon may further jumble the picture in the future, as techniques may muddy the official label of what does or doesn’t qualify as GM.

Mark Lynas made a huge splash when he announced to the world earlier this year that he embraces GM technology after being militant against it and throwing a pie in someone’s face a decade ago over the issue – those Brits, you gotta luv’m. Part of his reason was that his father is an organic farmer and he couldn’t understand the logic of not being allowed to grow blight-resistant potatoes which would need no chemicals. So, he and his region in Wales had a total potato crop failure last year, wiped out by blight. If we didn’t have our global food system, the region might have resembled the Irish potato blight famine era.

Personally, I expect that one by one, other notable writers and activists will rather quietly change their stances like Lynas did, as they become more acquainted with the facts and don’t want to embarrass themselves by being the last ones holding up a picket sign.

That said, I’d like to see much more crop diversity promoted by policy, especially in a world with a changing climate. Industrial agriculture is very efficient and has its role to play, but depends upon affordable energy inputs. Many of the hectares mentioned in the statistics above are coming from soybean, corn, and cotton, in that order. Yet, we must understand that a major challenge of poor, small shareholder farmers worldwide is having reliable, productive seeds, and another major challenge that they have is dealing with pests and diseases. Most farmers have free choice and like the labor savings and reliability offered by using these seeds and methods.

We need safe food, honestly labeled food, and smart government regulations. We need smart farm policy. But no amount of activism is going to make GM crops go away.

6 thoughts on “Biotech Crop Adoption Around the World and a Statement about GM Activism

  1. Steve Savage

    These are excellent graphic representations of the reality of farmer adoption of biotech crops around the world. I only wish I could share your optimism that more activists will follow the path blazed by Mark Lynas. Mark took the effort to understand the science. That is sadly a rare thing.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks for dropping by, Steve. I think that when these more public writers such as Pollan or the Lappe’s realize that this is not just about Monsanto; this is about feeding people versus not feeding them; this is the difference between letting farmer’s families rise in their caste versus not rising; this is about saving labor so that more people can live in cities which seems to be their preferred choice.

  2. G. Davis

    I agree, nice to read this balanced view of things. Seems to me that just labeling food as GM when it is solves much of the activism problem (although I understand from the piece that it will not always be completely clear what counts as GM). There is no need for activism when you can just decide for yourself what type of food you want to eat and consequently what type of farming you support. When the facts are not hidden, people can decide for themselves and the free market can work!


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