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U.S. Farmers Demonstrate Overwhelming Confidence in Biotech Crops

Date Posted: August 20, 2012

Global adoption of biotech crops is expected to continue to grow in the future, particularly in developing countries, where there is a promising pipeline of new products

Commentary by Dr. Clive James, Chair of ISAAA, on the June 2012 USDA Crop Acreage Report


Clive James, ISAAA Founder

Manila, Philippines (August 17, 2012) -- Dr James said that U.S. farmers continue to demonstrate unprecedented confidence in biotech/GM crops, modified through biotechnology. The June 2012 USDA Crop Acreage Report shows near or complete optimization of the current technology in the three large-acreage biotech crops – maize, soybean and cotton – first commercialized in the U.S. in 1996.

“Unprecedented high adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Dr. Clive James, founder and chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). “Farmers are masters of risk aversion. As soon as biotech crops are commercialized, their adoption is rapid, leading to near or complete optimization – the simple reason for the success of biotech crops in the U.S., and in another 28 countries around the world, is that they generate significant and multiple benefits by reducing yield loss from insect pests, weeds and diseases, and also result in substantial savings of pesticides.”

The June USDA Crop Acreage Report, Dr. James noted, shows a continuing trend to near-or complete optimization of the technology in three major U.S. crops, with 88% of all maize, 93% of all soybean, and 94% of all upland cotton planted to biotech varieties and hybrids featuring the two principal traits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Since biotech crops were first commercialized in the U.S., and five other countries in 1996, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide have made decisions to plant and replant crops featuring the technology on an accumulated area of more than 1.25 billion hectares or three billion acres – an area of crop land 25 percent larger than the total land mass of the United States. ISAAA data indicate that, U.S. farmers continued to plant more biotech crops than any country in the world in 2011 – a total of almost 70 million hectares or 170 million acres, of which half the maize area, and two thirds of cotton had more than one trait, generating multiple benefits.

In addition to the three principal biotech crops of maize, soybean and cotton the U.S. also grew half a million hectares of sugar beet (95% adoption achieved in 5 years – the fastest rate of adoption in the US) and modest hectarages of biotech canola, alfalfa, squash and papaya. The current devastating drought in the U.S., that is badly affecting at least half of the maize crop, is generating increased interest in biotech drought tolerant maize which is currently being tested in extensive field trials. It is premature to comment on the performance of the biotech drought tolerant maize until the analysis of data from the field trials in the U.S. is completed later this year.

Drought tolerance is an infinitely more complex trait than herbicide tolerance and insect resistance and progress is likely to be on a step by step basis. Encouraging results from the 2012 field tests in the U.S. for biotech drought tolerant maize would be a significant step forward to address drought, the most important constraint to increasing crop productivity globally, to which both conventional and biotech applications can contribute.

Dr. James said that “the expected plateauing trend to optimal adoption rates of around 90 percent that we have seen in the U.S., has also been evident in other industrial countries like Australia with 99.5% adoption in biotech cotton. Similarly, as expected, the major biotech crops in principal developing countries exhibit the same trend, again confirming the trust and confidence of farmers in the technology. Herbicide tolerant soybean has virtually reached 100 percent in Argentina and the latest ISAAA data for 2011 shows Bt cotton in India at 88%, and biotech soybean in Brazil at 83%.

"Given that products in mature markets are already plateauing at close to optimal rates, incremental annual growth in adoption will be more modest and will be boosted as: 1.) additional hectares are planted, as was the case with total maize plantings in the US in 2012 (up 5%); 2.) new traits or new biotech crops are approved; or 3.) new countries adopt biotech crops,” James says.

Rate and scale of adoption in developing countries dwarfs that of industrialized nations

Dr. James observed that of the 29 countries that had adopted biotech crops in 2011, 19 were developing countries and 10 were industrialized nations. China and India lead Asian adoption, Brazil and Argentina lead Latin American adoption, and South Africa leads adoption on the continent of Africa. A growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries at 11 percent, or 8.2 million hectares during 2011, was twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

Developing countries grew approximately 50 percent of global biotech crops in 2011 and are expected to exceed industrial countries’ land area devoted to the crops in 2012, Dr. James said. Additionally, more than 90 percent of farmers planting biotech crops worldwide (equivalent to over 15 million farmers) are small resource-poor farmers in developing countries, up 8 percent or 1.3 million since 2010, he added.

Dr. James said that in the near term, the biggest driver of global biotech crop adoption will be Brazil followed by China once approval to commercialize biotech maize in China is in place, which could be as early as 2013. Brazil, second only to the U.S. in total land area planted to biotech crops, has a science-based, effective and responsible fast-track approval system for biotech crops and will also benefit from a rich pipeline of new biotech crops coming from trans-nationals, public-private partnerships and its own public-sector research institution EMBRAPA, Dr. James added.

Brazil has already approved, for the first time, a “stacked” biotech soybean tolerant to herbicides and resistant to insect pests and initial commercialization could begin as early as the end of 2012 when planting gets underway in the southern hemisphere. China already has 7 million small farmers growing biotech cotton successfully and recently assigned priority for maize so that China can benefit from enhanced biotech maize that will increase meat productivity and make the country more self-sufficient for animal feed.

As China is becoming more prosperous, more meat is being consumed which in turn creates more demand for the feed crops, maize and soybean. After more than a decade in development, approval of biotech “Golden Rice,” is expected in the Philippines in 2013/14. This very important product has the capability to generate life-saving humanitarian benefits – 6,000 people a day, mainly women and children, die from complications resulting from vitamin A deficiency.

In conclusion, Dr. James noted that on the continent of Africa, South Africa has successfully planted biotech maize, soybean and cotton for over a decade, and Burkina Faso is cultivating Bt cotton, and Egypt, Bt maize. Several African countries, including Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria have field trials underway for a range of biotech crops with the widely adopted and accepted biotech cotton likely to be the first product to be commercialized. Biotech crop field trials in Africa include cotton, maize, banana, cowpea, cassava and sweet potato.

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The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is a not-for-profit organization with an international network of centers designed to contribute to the alleviation of hunger and poverty by sharing knowledge and crop biotechnology applications. Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA, has lived and/or worked for the past 30 years in the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, devoting his efforts to agricultural research and development issues with a focus on crop biotechnology and global food security.

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