More Harm Than Good? The Two Faces of Genetically Modified Agriculture

In countries like the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, genetically modified (GM) crops are already a reality. Millions of farmers produce them and their consumption is widespread. Nevertheless, this is not the case throughout the world, and the spread of these crops is hardly free from controversy. While some believe that GM foods could help to reduce global hunger, others warn about the possible risks to the ecosystem and to consumers’ health. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a sizable increase in the size of the acreage under cultivation.

Brazil is among several developing countries eagerly adopting GM crops. Following in the footsteps of the United States, which pioneered the production and introduction of GM crops, the country has become a significant producer of GM corn, sugar cane and various types of soy beans. It is now the second-largest producer in terms of the acreage under GM cultivation, following the United States. In 2009, Brazil had 21.4 million hectares of land under cultivation, compared with 64 million hectares in the U.S.

In terms of land area, Brazil has overtaken Argentina for second position. Argentina, with its 21.3 million hectares, specializes in soy beans, corn and cotton. Brazil’s rise was due to its 35% increase in GM crop production last year — a clear indication that the government of President Lula da Silva is committed to GM agriculture. Other leading producers of GM crops trail well behind Brazil, including India with 8.4 million hectares and Canada with 8.2 million.

In Europe, GMOs are far less widely cultivated. Widespread reluctance concerning their possible health and environmental risks has led governments to impose strict regulations on their cultivation. Nevertheless, in recent months, certain measures have been carried out that show the market is opening up. In March, the European Union (EU) authorized — after twelve years of unwillingness — the cultivation of a transgenic potato developed by Germay’s BASF, to be used for the production of a starch for the paper industry. The EU’s authorization opens the door to human consumption of this type of crop by including a clause that permits 0.9% of transgenic product in foods for humans.

Consumers support the move, according to the latest Eurobarometer report (an official survey by the European Commission) titled, “Agriculture and Agricultural Common Policy,” published in March 2010. In that report, Carlos Vicente, an expert in genetically modified agriculture at the IE Business School, notes that “an overwhelming (90%) majority [of consumers] consider agriculture a key factor in the future. And 77% believe that European farms must take advantage of biotechnology advances in order to be competitive and deal with challenges such as climate change.” Vicente is also Monsanto’s director of biotechnology and corporate relations in Spain, Portugal and Egypt.

In Spain, there are 16 authorized genetically modified varieties of corn that are used for animal consumption. Beginning in 1998, transgenic Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)corn has been produced in the country. Monsanto, which leads the market in biotech crops, researches and develops a variety of transgenic corn, protected against the growth of bad grasses, in the province of Guadalajara in the central region of the country. The company hopes to demonstrate that the new seeds permit farmers to improve their productivity by 40% for crops not treated with herbicides, and by 10% for fields treated against bad grasses, but without any of the pernicious effects that those chemicals generate.

Beginning with a Tomato

People in more than 50 countries consume products that contain ingredients extracted from genetically modified components. The fundamental premise behind genetic modification is that crops can become more efficient by changing their genetic material. The technique is based on identifying a specific gene in a live organism, isolating it and multiplying it, in order to later integrate it into one of the chromosomes of the organism that receives it.

GM products originated in the United States, where the first genetically modified plant was created in 1993. Eleven years later, the U.S. permitted the marketing of the first transgenic food — a long-lasting tomato, created from a complex technique that enabled researchers to inhibit the enzyme responsible for ripening the vegetable. Since then, production and consumption of genetically modified foods have gradually increased. Currently, 134 million hectares around the world are devoted to the production of biotechnologically altered crops. Production is distributed unevenly in 25 countries.

In recent years, biotech crops have been expanding more rapidly in developing countries than in developed countries, according to Vicente. “Biotechnology is one of those technologies that we cannot do without, and its rapid adoption in developing countries reveals that fact. [The growth in production] shows how [biotech] is contributing to increased yields from these crops in a sustainable way.”

During the first twelve years of commercialization, biotech crops yielded a net profit of $44 billion around the world. By 2009, some 14 million farmers were cultivating these crops; 700,000 farmers more than in 2008. Of these, 90% (13 million) were small farmers in developing countries.

The remaining one million people were large-scale farmers in industrialized countries such as the U.S. and Canada, and emerging nations such as Argentina and Brazil. According to a report titled, “Global Conditions for the Commercialization of Biotech/Genetically Modified Crops in 2009,” prepared by Clive James, founder of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) and president of the ISAAA’s board of administration, there are 13 million poor farmers around the world, and most of them produce Bt cotton. Of those, some 7 million live in China, and 5.6 million in India. The other 250,000 farmers are in the Philippines (GM corn), South Africa (GM cotton, corn and soy, often cultivated by women who practice subsistence agriculture), as well as in 12 other developing countries that produce biotech crops.

Last year, the biggest increase in the number of agri-biotech producers took place in India. Currently, 600,000 small farmers in that country produce the Bt variety of cotton, which represents 87% of all Indian cotton production, up from 80% in 2008. “In the period between 2002 and 2008, Bt cotton generated economic benefits of US$5.2 billion; cutting in half the need for insecticide treatments, doubling crops yields, and converting India from a net importer of cotton into a net exporter,” says Vicente.

The ISAAA report stresses that the improved income that biotech crops provides for smaller farmers is a “modest initial contribution to alleviating poverty.” Over the second decade of commercialization (2006-2015), biotech crops can be “of great help in fulfilling the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half by 2015,” Vicente notes. According to Clive James, the first studies done in China show that another 10 million poor farmers in that country who work in the fields [but do not own farms] could also benefit from Bt cotton.

Growing Movement in South America

The number of countries where biotech crops are produced has risen from 6 nations in 1996 to 18 nations in 2003, to 25 in 2009. Of those countries, 10 are in Central and South America. The latest country to join the list of producers was Costa Rica in 2009. Like Chile, it produces biotech crops exclusively exported to seed markets.

According to María José Vilaça de Vasconcelos of the center-west region of Sete Lagoas in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, genetic engineering is the new intellectual and industrial frontier of the 21st century, and “is becoming an authentic revolution in global agriculture that, without doubt, will have a positive impact on Brazilian agribusiness.” Brazilian corn farms, like other agribusinesses aimed at crop cultivation, already work with grains that are genetically modified.

Currently, Brazil produces 16% of the world’s biotech crops, which generated revenues of US$2.8 billion from 2003 to 2008, according to the ISAAA report.

Some 16.2 million out of the 21.4 million hectares of cultivation were used for the production of genetically modified soy beans, compare to 14,2% in 2008. In addition, Brazil planted some five million hectares of Bt corn this year, both during the summer and the winter. Bt corn acreage increased by 3.7 million — a record high rate of almost 400% compared with 2008. This is the biggest absolute increase registered for any biotech crop in any country in the world in 2009.

The rates of transgenic adoption — or the percentage of a crop that is produced through biotechology — were 30% for summer corn and 53% for winter corn. In the case of cotton, the acreage used for the Bt variety reached 145,000 hectares for the fourth time; some 29,000 acres of [transgenic] HT cotton were planted for the first time.

The total acreage of biotech soy, corn and cotton in Brazil grew by 35% in 2009, year-on-year, the equivalent of an additional 5.6 million hectares. This is the biggest increase registered by any country. More important, for the first time ever Brazil became the second-largest producer of transgenic crops, measured by acreage.

Brazil’s biotech crop industry has become so important that beginning in 1989, the sector has held an international fair where the latest biotech advances are put on display. At this year’s expo, which took place in February, participants were able to observe 4,800 experimental plots of land, new varieties of crops, and trends in herbicides and insecticides. The event also has an important commercial focus, since 1,200 agribusiness machines were sold, representing a volume of US$330 million.

Fears of Contamination

Nevertheless, this sort of agriculture has been rejected in some developed countries — especially in Europe, where there are widespread doubts about whether the beneficial effects of transgenic products are outweighed by the potential for negative side effects on the environment and human health. Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Romania have all committed themselves to transgenic production. However, Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg have all prohibited it. Even so, European producers have collectively devoted only 300,000 hectares of cultivable acreage to transgenic crops in 2009. In part, it’s because they fear that these crops will wind up spreading to human beings genes that are resistant to antibiotics. In addition, environmental organizations believe that genetic contamination could lead to the disappearance of some indigenous species of plants.

According to Vicente, “This reluctance reflects ideological and economic criteria rather than scientific criteria. Some of those countries are opposed to biotech crops, and grains that come from these crops — such as corn that originates in the countries outside the EU — are from [countries that are] large producers of corn.”

He adds, “In the case of Spain, which works with transgenic corn, there haven’t been any conflicts between the transgenic and traditional camps, nor has food production declined; on the contrary, the productivity of the earth has improved.”

In this respect, Alda Lerayer, executive director of the Brazilian Council of Information on Biotechnology (CIB), comments, “One of the myths about genetically modified organisms is that they do away with biodiversity, when [in fact] biodiversity is fundamental for improving and developing genetics.” Even so, according to current Brazilian regulations, the distance between a conventional crop and a transgenic crop must be at least 100 meters. However, regulations permit this distance to be reduced to 20 meters, and permit the planting of 10 rows of traditional crops next to the transgenic crops, in order to prevent mixing.

Lerayer adds, “All of the dairy products consumed in the world have transgenic bacteria. It’s just that in some countries, they are not considered as such but as additives, and there is no requirement to put that on the label.” As a result, he insists that there is no risk, either for animals or for people, because the original gene is controlled and, if that leads to any problems, those problems are detected both during the process and after it.

This much is clear: This new way of producing crops is here to stay. Experts warn that those countries that don’t commit themselves to new technology for food production will have a disadvantage compared with the rest of the world.  

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