Crop biotechnology has boosted farm income and provided significant environmental benefits over the past 16 years of widespread adoption, according to a new research paper by European ag economics consultancy PG Economics.
The report, "GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2011" was released this week in Chicago at the BIO International Convention.
"Where farmers have been given the choice of growing GM crops, adoption levels have typically been rapid," said Graham Brookes, co-author of the report. He notes that high adoption levels are due to economic benefits – an average of over $130 per hectare in 2011, according to the study.
For the 16-year period covered in the report, the global farm income gain due to biotech was calculated at $98.2 billion.
Of the total farm income benefit, $48 billion has been due to yield gains resulting from lower pest and weed pressure and improved genetics, with the balance arising from reductions in the cost of production. In 2011 alone, the net economic benefit at the farm level was $19.8 billion, the study reports.
"The environment is also benefiting as farmers increasingly adopt conservation tillage practices, build their weed management practices around more benign herbicides and replace insecticide use with insect resistant GM crops," Brookes said.
He concluded that reduction in pesticide spraying and the switch to no till cropping systems is continuing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
GHGs have decreased, the study says, because of less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2011, this was equivalent to removing 23 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – or 10.2 million cars from the road for one year, the study equates.
Higher yields due to biotech traits amounted to an extra 110 million tonnes of soybeans and 195 million tonnes of corn, the study finds. The technology has also contributed an extra 15.8 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.6 million tonnes of canola.
More specifically, insect-resistant technology in cotton and corn has delivered higher yields with less pest damage, and environmental benefits due to decreased insecticide use.
Overall, the study says biotech has reduced pesticide spraying during the time studied by 474 million kg, or 9%. As a result, this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 18.1%.
Implementation in other countries
Brookes notes that the majority (51% in 2011 alone) of biotech benefits have gone to farmers in developing countries, noting that 90% of those developing countries are resource poor and comprised of small farms. Cumulatively, from 1996 to 2011, about 50% of the benefit each went to farmers in developing and developed countries.
For farmers in developing countries the total cost of accessing the technology in 2011 was equal to 14% of total technology gains, whilst for farmers in developed countries the cost was 28% of the total technology gains, the study adds.
Study authors explain that the higher share of total technology gains accounted for by farm income gains in developing countries relative to the farm income share in developed countries mainly reflects weaker provision and enforcement of intellectual property rights coupled with higher average levels of benefits in developing countries.
Read the full report, GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental impacts 1996-2011.