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GM crops increase profits and environmental sustainability

Study finds developing countries have highest yield gains after using GM crops.

Farmers who used genetically modified (GM) seeds are benefitting economically while also improving the environmental sustainability of their farming operations, according to a newly released global impacts study. 

The economic benefits for farmers who use genetically modified (GM) seeds amounted to an average of more than $117/hectare in 2012, according to the report GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2012 released this week by PG Economics.

“Half of the farm income gains and the majority of the environmental gains associated with changes in pesticide use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions occurred in developing countries,” said Graham Brookes, co-author of the report.

Dr. Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), points out that the report’s findings regarding biotechnology’s contributions to the environment are equally significant.

“The increased use of insect-resistant crops has reduced the need for chemical insecticides and the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops have enabled farmers to switch to more benign herbicides to help control weeds,” explained Enright.  “In addition, the switch to no-till cropping systems by farmers growing herbicide-tolerant crops has reduced on-farm fuel use, enhanced soil quality and cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

The PG Economics annual global impacts report quantifies the impact of agricultural biotechnology on the environment and on farmer incomes since biotech’s commercialization in 1996.

One of the key findings of the report was that biotech crops have contributed to significantly reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices as a result of using less fuel and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with biotech crops.

In 2012, this was equivalent to removing 27 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 11.9 million cars from the road for one year.

The study also found that from 1996-2012, crop biotechnology reduced pesticide spraying by 8.8%. As a result, the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops decreased by 18.7%.

Insect resistant (IR) technology used in GM cotton and GM corn consistently delivered yield gains from reduced pest damage, according to the report. The average yield gains over the 1996-2012 period across all users of this technology increased 10.4% for insect resistant corn and 16.1% for insect resistant cotton.

Farmers who use improved seeds and grow biotech crops saw substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17 year (1996-2012) period. The total farm income gain of $116.6 billion was divided equally between farmers in developing and developed countries, but the highest yield gains were obtained by farmers in developing countries, many of which were resource-poor and farm small plots of land.

Lastly, as global leaders continue to contemplate the dilemma of feeding a growing population, the report revealed the significance of using GM crops. Between 1996 and 2012, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 122 million metric tons (mmt) of soybeans and 231 mmt of corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 18.2 mmt of cotton lint and 6.6 mmt of canola.

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