Marc Gunther / Fortune Magazine
February 7, 2012
The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.
In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.
Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.
The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through. Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?
The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. (They’re probably working too hard.) But data released this week indicates farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.
Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).
Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.
“Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, the report’s author, in a statement. It must be said that James is an unabashed supporter of biotech crops but as best I can tell, his numbers haven’t been challenged.
Why do more farmers every year plant biotech crops? Critics of genetically-modified crops will say they are tricked into it by marketing or lack of knowledge or short-termism, and it’s certainly true that the popularity of a product is not a reliable indicator of its value. (ABBA sold more records than the Rolling Stones. People smoke cigarettes.) But if biotech crops didn’t make farmers more productive, or save them time or money, would they spread around the world as consistently as they have?
James writes: “There is one principal and overwhelming reason that underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in biotechnology – biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socio-economic and environmental benefits.”
The top five countries that have embraced biotech crops–the US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada–each planted more than 10 million hectares of the crops. Of the 16.7 million farmers who grew biotech crops, about 14 million were small, resource-poor farmers in China and India, most of them planting pest-resistant Bt cotton. In Africa, three countries–South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt–have commercialized biotech crops, and others, including drought-tolerant maize, are being tested.
In his letter, Gates argues that not nearly enough agricultural research is being done:
Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, it is shocking—not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous—how little money is spent on agricultural research. In total, only $3 billion per year is spent on researching the seven most important crops…Very little of the country and private spending goes toward the priorities of small farmers in Africa or South Asia.
But critics like Andrew Kimbrell says the biotech industry has failed to deliver on its promise to feed the world:
The biotech industry has exploited the image of the world’s poor and hungry to advance a form of agriculture that is expensive, input-intensive, and of little or no relevance to developing country farmers.
The debate will rage on. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to require the FDA to label genetically engineered foods. Supporters of labeling, most prominently Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms, say we have a right to know what’s in our food: “Without a requirement to label foods containing these ingredients, we are forced to be guinea pigs in a giant experiment involving our health and the environment.”
By contrast, in his book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, the veteran environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote:
I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.
[Disclosure: I'm paid to moderate the annual policy conference of Croplife America, a trade association of big agricultural firms, which sell biotech seeds.]