Are genetically-modified crops on course to being the future of food despite the opposition? Evidence suggests they may well be, as more emerging economies try them out -- Brazil to India.
The facts can astonish. At 11.6 million hectares, the area of GM crops in India is now equivalent to Canada’s and more than China’s.
The upsurge is extraordinary, since it entirely comes from just one crop India has approved so far: BT Cotton. In contrast, Canada grows a range of such GM crops, canola and soybean. India’s adoption rate for BT cotton has been 95%.
GM crops are those whose seeds are genetically altered for various types of benefits, such as resistance to pests or higher nutrients.
For the third year in a row in 2014, developing countries planted more biotech crops than industrialised nations, the update by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAA), a non-profit that advocates GM crops, stated.
The growth comes in spite of a fiercely polarised debate around GM crops. Last year, protestors destroyed a field where Gold Rice was being tested in Philippines. In China, where public protests are highly regulated, anti-GM protestors have turned up to protest before the agricultural ministry.
But with large chunks of the population in developing countries dependent on farms, more poor and small-holding farmers now grow GM crops, signaling the faster scale of adoption. Brazil ranked second for the sixth consecutive year, increasing its area under GM crops by 1.9 million hectares from 2013. Argentina has retained its third spot, with 24.3 million hectares.
Latest provisional estimate by economists G Brookes and P Barfoot indicate India had enhanced farm income from Bt cotton by US$16.7 billion (about Rs 98000 crore) in the 12-year-period between 2002 and 2013.
What has led the upsurge?
Although GM crops are deemed unsafe by those opposing them, it is widely reckoned there is no scientific evidence yet of any harm to human health. Last year, the biggest study so far by Matin Qaim and Wilhelm Klümper, both of Göttingen University, and published in PLOS ONE found that GM crops have large benefits.
Critics in India, such as the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, claim macroeconomic data indicate the opposite. For instance, it says in the US, food insecurity has risen from 12% in pre-GM 1995 to 15% in 2011.
In poor and middle-income countries, such as India, biotech seeds companies are fast filling in a critical gap of providing on-farm crop-care advice and direct handholding. Success of these crops is as critical for seed firms, such as Monsanto, as for farmers. These services, known as extension and officially supposed to state-run, have long collapsed in India. Such close coordination and rising aspirations have made BT cotton quite popular.
Although the debate over safety or environment isn’t likely to end, the biggest growers of GM crops could be those where opposition has been most fierce.
With 2.7 million hectares under GM crops in 2014, South Africa ranks as the leading developing country to grow biotech crops in Africa. Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by approximately 50% in 2014. Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda are conducting field trials on several crops including rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava and sweet potato.