Sowing Rewards: Benefits of Biotech Crops

A controversial report on genetically engineered crops claims farmers are increasingly critical of these crops. But is it really so?

The Organic Center’s Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years contends genetically engineered crops force farmers to use more herbicides because weeds have developed resistance to glyphosates, and that makes farmers wary, according to the Rhode Island-based center, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic products.

Real-world farm statistics counter the report, says Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president for food and agriculture at BIO. U.S. farmers have adopted many genetically engineered crops — such as soybeans, cotton and corn — deploying them widely since their introduction in 1996 because of the value they bring. Biotechnology allows farmers to boost crop yields and agricultural productivity.

“There’s no doubt that farmers continue to embrace biotechnology because of the benefits these products deliver, specifically crops that yield more per acre with lower production costs while using farming practices that better protect the land and environment,” she says.

Driving Up Productivity

According to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the first decade of genetically engineered crops in the United States, the productivity gains can result in higher income for farmers. As found in the USDA report, The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, herbicide-tolerant cotton and corn were associated with higher economic returns, as were insect-resistant cotton and corn when pest infestations were more prevalent.

Research from English consulting firm PG Economics shows that farm incomes increased by $44.1 billion between 1996 and 2007, thanks to biotech crops. In 2007, the direct global farm income benefit was $10.1 billion, which is the equivalent of adding 4.4 percent to the value of global production of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola crops, according to the October 2009 report, Focus on Income, Well-Being and Food Security

Environmental Aid

Biotech brings environmental benefits, too: fuel conservation, reduced soil erosion, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. “Farmers have adapted no- and reduced-tillage systems, which utilize herbicidal weed control rather than plowing,” says Lauritsen. “In 2007, the fuel savings alone was equivalent to removing 31.2 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or equal to removing nearly 6.3 million cars from the road for one year.”

In addition to the economic and environmental advantages, plant biotech improves the quality of life for many farmers, allowing them to spend less time in the field and more with their families.

A Point About Pesticides

The Organic Center report, which was also sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety, asserts that farmers have used 318 million more pounds of pesticides in the past 13 years as a result of biotech crops.

But it’s actually the opposite, says Lauritsen. “Since 1997, the use of pesticides on global biotech crop acreage has been reduced by 790 million pounds, an 8.8 percent reduction,” she says. 

Take it from a farmer:
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in Illinois. “I’ve used many different tools to protect my crops from destruction — everything from old-fashioned pesticides to new-fangled biotechnology,” he blogged. “I can say with absolute certainty that biotech crops have allowed me to reduce my pesticide applications.”

BIO members concur. “Decades of documented evidence demonstrates that agricultural biotechnology is a safe and beneficial technology that contributes to both environmental and economic sustainability,” Lauritsen points out. Agricultural biotech has an important role to play in helping to feed and fuel our growing world.