Saving Land and Lives with Biotechnology
BioScience News and Advocate (guest editorial)
December 15, 2003
By C.S. Prakash and Gregory Conko
The use of bioengineering technology for the development of new plant
varieties has been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies, has increased
crop yields and food production and reduced the use of synthetic chemical
pesticides in both industrialized and less developed countries.
These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite
and where hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
Critics dismiss such claims as nothing more than corporate public relations
puffery. However, while it is true that most commercially available bioengineered
plants were designed for farmers in the industrialized world, the increasing
adoption of transgenic varieties by under-developed countries over the
past few years demonstrates their broader applicability.
Globally, transgenic varieties are now grown on more than 58.7 million
hectares (145 million acres) in such countries as Argentina, Australia,
Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, and
the United States. Nearly one-quarter of that hectarage is farmed by over
5 million resource-poor farmers in less developed countries.
Why? Because they see many of the same benefits that farmers in industrialized
The first generation of transgenic crops - approximately 50 different
varieties of maize, cotton, potato, squash, soybean, rapeseed, and others
- were designed to aid in protecting crops from insect pests, weeds, and
As much as 40 percent of crop productivity in Africa and Asia and about
20 percent in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe
is lost to these biotic stresses, despite the use of large amounts of
insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals.
Poor tropical farmers may face different pest species than their industrial
country counterparts, but both must do constant battle against these threats
to their productivity.
That's why South African and Filipino farmers are so eager to grow transgenic
corn resistant to insect pests, and why South African and Chinese farmers
like transgenic insect-resistant cotton so much.
Indian cotton farmers and Brazilian and Paraguayan soya growers didn't
even wait for their governments to approve transgenic varieties before
they began growing them. It was discovered in 2001 that Indian farmers
were planting seed obtained illegally from field trials of a transgenic
cotton variety then still under governmental review.
Farmers in Brazil and Paraguay looked across the border and saw how well
their Argentine neighbours were doing with transgenic soybean varieties
and smuggling of bioengineered seed became rampant.
Recent studies in India have shown that transgenic cotton reduced pesticide
spraying by half or more, delivering a 30-40 percent profit increase.
Another report showed that the farm area under Bt cotton in India tripled
in just one year to 216,000 hectares from 72,682 hectares last year.
In Brazil, it is estimated that about three million hectares of biotech
soybean were being grown illegally until now when the government has just
made it legal.
As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There
are few greater testaments to the benefits of biotechnology than the fact
that thousands of poor farmers are willing to acknowledge having committed
a crime just to gain access to the improved varieties.
Where transgenic varieties become available (legally or not), farmers
themselves are eager to adopt them.
There is even evidence that transgenic varieties have literally saved
human lives. In less developed nations, pesticides are typically sprayed
on crops by hand, exposing farm workers to severe health risks. Some 400
to 500 Chinese cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning
because, until recently, the only alternative was risking near total crop
loss from voracious insects.
A Rutgers University study found that transgenic cotton in China has
lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced
the number of pesticide poisonings by an equivalent amount.
The productivity gains generated by transgenic crops provide yet another
important benefit: They could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife
habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation
of wildlife habitats caused by agricultural development in regions experiencing
the greatest population growth are widely recognised as among the most
serious threats to biodiversity.
Thus, increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental
goal, and one that would be much easier in a world where bioengineering
technology is in widespread use.
Channapatna S. Prakash is a professor of plant biotechnology at Tuskegee
University in Alabama and the president of AgBioWorld Foundation based
in Auburn, Alabama. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at
the Competitive Enterprise
Institute in Washington and vice-president of AgBioWorld Foundation.