Biotech makes farming 'greener'

Biotech makes farming 'greener'

Comprehensive study finds biotech crops have major benefits to crop yields, farmer income and environmental sustainability.

A COMPREHENSIVE and important study -- peer reviewed and published in a biotechnology and economics professional journal -- clearly and decidedly shows that the world has benefited from a decade of biotech crops.

In the period covering 1996 through 2005 -- the first 10 years in which biotech crops were commercially planted to any significant extent -- farmers have experienced greater yields and income for grain, oilseed and cotton crops, and the world has experienced major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gasses), according to the study.

Biotech is truly helping the world "go green," according to the U.S. Grains Council, which hosted a news conference to release the study in the U.S.

The study, GM Crops: The First 10 Years -- The Global Socio-economic & Environmental Impacts, analyzed biotech crop production in the principal user countries around the world and was conducted by PG Economics Ltd. in the U.K. It was commissioned by Monsanto Co.


Changed way to farm

Herbicide-tolerant biotech crops planted using conservation tillage practices help retain carbon in the soil, and insect-resistant crops "dramatically" reduce the need to spray fields and, thus, reduce farm fuel usage, according to Graham Brooks, author of the study and director of PG Economics.

In 2005 alone, biotech crops planted on 87 million hectares (215 million acres) by 8.5 million farmers around the world reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 9 million kilograms (8.9 million tons), Brooks said. He noted that the impact is the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road for an entire year -- 17% of the cars in the U.K.

Put simply, "biotech crops have changed the way people farm," Brooks said, emphasizing that their environmental performance shows the important role biotechnology is playing to help agriculture around the world decrease its carbon dioxide emissions.

Countries such as Argentina, Canada and the U.S. are leading the way "toward these environmental benefits" by planting herbicide-tolerant crops to switch to low- and no-till crop production and insect-resistant crops to reduce sprayings, Brooks said. It all adds up to less tillage and reduced field operations, he said.

Conventional tillage disturbs soil and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, whereas low- and no-tillage cropping systems that use herbicide-tolerant varieties leave more plant residue on soil surfaces, sequestering carbon in the soil and contributing to soil and water conservation, he explained.

Furthermore, since 1996, biotech crops have saved farmers 1.7 billion liters (441 million gallons) of fuel in the decreased field work, eliminating 4.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the study.

In just Argentina, the study concluded that herbicide-tolerant varieties led to a 157% increase -- from 5.9 million hectares (14.8 million acres) in 1996 to 15.2 million hectares (38 million acres) in 2005 -- in no-till soybean plantings, decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by 21.0 billion kilograms (20.8 million tons).

Worldwide, the study found that biotech crops decreased the environmental impact of crop production related to pesticide use by more than 15% over the 10 years.


No longer overlooked

According to the study, biotech crops provided a $5.6 billion net benefit to farmers' income around the world in 2005 -- counting a second soybean crop in Argentina -- and a $27.0 billion net benefit in the 10 years (Table 1). The additional income comes from decreased costs for field work and increased yields, the study said.

The study reported that corn production in the U.S. increased 29 million tons in the 10 years due to biotech corn production, U.S. farmers' net income increased $2.7 billion from biotech corn production and U.S. farmers' net income has increased $13 billion from all biotech crop production.

This impact on income is size neutral, Brooks said, pointing to how farmers in developing countries actually captured more (55%) of the income benefit in 2005 than farmers in developed countries did (Table 2).

Brooks said biotech crop planting is currently approved in 22 countries, with projections putting that number at 40 countries and 200 million hectares (500 million acres) by 2015.

Looking ahead, he said the gains made possible with biotech crops have the potential "to compound quite dramatically" as the technology becomes available to more farmers worldwide. "These are benefits that, if overlooked in the past, will not be in the future," he said.

PG Economics, based in Dorchester, U.K., provides consultant services to agricultural and other natural resource-based industries and specializes in agricultural production systems, markets and policy and plant biotechnology.

The U.S. Grains Council is a private organization representing agribusinesses and farmers committed to building international markets for U.S. barley, corn, grain sorghum and their products.

The study was published in the Jan. 17 issue of AgBioForum and is available at in the News & Information section and at


Here's the point

SOMETIMES, facts just speak for themselves and speak clearly and convincingly. Such is the case in a comprehensive study of the first decade of biotech corn, soybeans and other crops admittedly commissioned by Monsanto Co., which has a vested interest in biotechnology, but put together by an independent and internationally recognized specialist in agricultural production systems, PG Economics Ltd. in the U.K.

The study found that biotech crops increase yields and permit farmers to use conservation-focused low- or no-till production practices that reduce field work, pesticide use and, therefore, farm fuel use. This has obvious benefits to farm income, i.e., increased production at less cost.

This also has obvious benefits to environmental sustainability, i.e., reductions in carbon dioxide emissions -- greenhouse gasses that have been linked to environmental issues such as air and water quality and global warming.

Furthermore, the benefits are significant. Biotech corn production increased corn production in the U.S. by 29 million tons and U.S. farm income by $2.7 billion in the 10-year period from 1996 to 2005, and biotech crop production increased overall U.S. farm income by $13 billion, according to the study. Biotech crop production increased farm income worldwide by $27 billion in the 10-year period.

In 2005 alone, biotech crop production reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 9 billion kilograms (8.9 million tons), which is equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the road for one year, the study said.

These benefits will become even greater as biotech crop production expands in the future as more countries approve biotech plants that provide current traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, as well as new traits such as drought tolerance, according to the author of the study. The future also promises new quality traits such as high omega-3 oil content, he said.

These are important messages farmers should share with fellow farmers, food producers and retailers, policymakers and the general public in the U.S. and around the world in personal contacts and other forums and by referencing



1. Biotech crop impact on farm income (million U.S. $)


Increase in

Increase in farm


farm income 2005

income 1996-2005

GM HT maize



GM HT soybeans

2,281 (2,842)

11,686 (14,417)

GM HT cotton



GM HT canola



GM IR maize



GM IR cotton



Other GM crops




5,027 (5,588)

24,244 (26,975)

Note: GM is genetically modified, HT is herbicide tolerant and IR is insect resistant.

Note: Bracketed number is with second soybean crop in Argentina.



2. Biotech crop impact on farm income in developed and developing countries (million U.S. $)




% developed

% developing

GM HT maize





GM IR maize





GM HT soybeans





GM HT cotton





GM IR cotton





GM HT canola





GM IR papaya and squash










Note: Study considered all countries in South America as developing.

Source for Figure and Tables: GM Crops: The First 10 Years -- Global Socioeconomic & Environmental Impacts, a study by PG Economics Ltd.


Volume:79 Issue:19

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