Countries around the world continue to examine the role of genetically modified (GM) crops in the future of food production and food security. A new study has been added to the growing body of evidence outlining the economic and environmental benefits that the use of seeds improved with biotechnology can bring to global agriculture.
Released in late May 2016 by the UK-based agriculture advisory and consulting firm PG Economics, “GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2014” is one of the most comprehensive global impact studies currently available on the highly topical issue of GM crop production. Drawing on the body of peer-reviewed literature, the study presents in-depth findings on the diverse impacts GM crops have had since their first commercial planting on a significant scale took place 19 years ago.
In broad terms, the study reveals that, in situations where farmers have made or been given the choice to grow GM crops, the use of these seeds has resulted in clear economic gains. These gains have primarily derived from higher yields and extra production. There have also been important environmental benefits, thanks to more farmers adopting conservation tillage practices and having the ability to use more benign herbicides that allow them to reduce or eliminate insecticide use.
Detailed highlights and key findings from the study include:
Higher Yielding Crops
Thanks to the use of insect resistant (IR) technology, pest damage to crops like cotton and corn has been decreased, allowing for the consistent delivery of yield gains. When comparing users of IR technology to conventional production systems over the period from 1996 to 2014, IR corn has seen a yield gain of more than 13 percent, while IR cotton has seen a yield gain of over 17 percent.
In addition to IR technology, herbicide tolerant (HT) technology has also helped boost yield gains. In some cases, HT even allows for more than one crop to be planted and harvested in the same fields during a single growing season, thanks to improved weed control.
Better Incomes for Farmers
By offering greater control over pests and weeds, the use of crop biotechnology makes it possible for farmers to earn more secure and stable incomes. In 2014, the net farm level economic benefit was $17.7 billion: an average income increase of $101 per hectare.
Over the 19 years that GM crops have been in commercial production, a total of $150.3 billion has been recorded in global farm income gains. While this total was divided almost equally between farmers in developed countries (49 percent) and farmers in developing countries (51 percent), it is still farmers in developing countries who continue to see the highest yield gains thanks to crop biotechnology.
Better Investment Returns for Farmers
For millions of global farmers, crop biotechnology continues to be a sound investment. In 2014, farmers around the world paid $6.9 billion to access crop biotechnology, and they received in return an average of $3.59 for every dollar spent on GM crop seed investment.
Broken down by geographic location, farmers in developing countries saw higher returns on their investment dollar. These farmers received $4.42 for each dollar invested in GM seeds, compared with a return of $3.14 for every investment dollar for farmers in developed countries.
Decreased Burden on Land Resources and Improved Global Food Security
Between 1996 and 2014, crop biotechnology allowed for the global production of an additional 158.4 million metric tons of soybeans and 321.8 million metric tons of corn. This is due to the fact that GM seeds enable farmers to grow more crops without having to use more land. If the 18 million farmers who used crop biotechnology in 2014 had relied instead on traditional production, 7.5 million additional hectares of soybeans and 8.9 million additional hectares of corn (an area requirement of nearly 10 percent of the arable land in the US) would have had to be planted to maintain 2014 global production levels.
One of the major benefits brought about by crop biotechnology has been a significant reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from agricultural practices. This is due primarily to the reduced tillage required by GM crops, allowing for less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage. In 2014, GHG emission reductions from the use of crop biotechnology totaled 22.4 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 10 million cars off the road for one year.
The other important environmental benefit has been a major reduction in pesticide spraying. From 1996 to 2014, pesticide spraying was reduced by 581 million kilograms. This represented a decrease of more than 8 percent over that period and a total amount equivalent to the quantity of pesticide active ingredient used on crops in China for more than one year. This has led to an overall decrease of 18.5 percent in the environmental impact associated with the use of herbicides and insecticides on the land area planted with biotech crops.