Last year, 14 million farmers worldwide planted 330 million acres (134 million hectares) of biotech crops. That’s an increase of 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively. These achievements set new records in both categories, according to a new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Unfortunately, my country of Kenya is not home to any of these farmers or acres. This will have to change if we’re going to achieve food security. We’ll need access to the best agricultural technologies available. So will farmers in the rest of Africa as well as across the developing world.
The benefits of biotechnology are obvious: GM crops enable farmers to spend less and produce more. That means more food for more people–and it gives Kenya a fighting chance in its quest to eradicate extreme hunger, a curse that afflicts far too many of my fellow citizens. In 2009 alone, at least 10 million Kenyans faced famine on account of drought instigated food shortages.
Farmers in 25 countries now grow biotech crops. The vast majority are just like me: small-scale growers well removed from the industrial world. Agricultural biotechnology may be associated with wealthy nations such as the United States, where its use is near-universal for cotton, corn, and soybeans. Yet about 90 percent of the farmers who take advantage of genetic improvement work on small plots of land in poor countries.
My own farm is 25 acres, in a district that is Kenya’s leading producer of grain. I used to grow about ten acres of corn, but three or four years ago I scaled back because of declining yields due to pests, a lack of rain, and the rising cost of inputs such as fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide.
Biotechnology would help on each of these fronts. GM crops require very little land tillage, demand less herbicide and insecticide, and have a higher nitrogen uptake. This represents a considerable savings in cost for farmers, which helps rural economies. Bt has great potential to contribute to welfare growth in developing countries, as farmers are also able to pass on lower prices to consumers.
That’s why so many farmers have adopted biotechnology. Kenya may not have GM crops yet, but the global acreage of GM plantings in 2009 would cover my country more than two times over.
The good news is that ISAAA believes biotechnology will continue to spread. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only Burkina Faso and South Africa have welcomed biotechnology. Yet Kenya, Malawi, Mali, and Uganda may join the Gene Revolution soon.
I don’t see how it could be any other way. Growing populations, water shortages, and climate change will make it untenable for countries to turn their backs on biotechnology. There is a good deal of debate over the definition of agricultural “sustainability.” From my perspective, the word is meaningless if it doesn’t include the expansion of biotechnology.
Within five years, the ISAAA expects at least 20 million farmers in 40 countries to grow close to half a billion acres of biotech crops. It projects significant expansion of biotech cotton, corn, and soybeans in Brazil (which is already a major biotech user), commercialization of Bt cotton in Pakistan (which is not), and the acceptance of golden rice in China, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
Then there’s the next generation of crops, which promise even greater benefits. These will include the ability to fend off additional diseases, flood resistance, improved nitrogen efficiency, and nutritional enhancements. What’s more, biotechnology can help battle drought, which has battered Kenya and exacerbated food shortages for three years in a row.
Despite the incredible promise of biotechnology, we cannot take its acceptance for granted. In Europe, activists have forced agriculture to retreat from its future. Germany once planted biotech crops–not many, but some. Last year, its farmers planted none. Across Europe as a whole, in fact, biotech cultivation was down about 10 percent.
Well-fed Europeans can survive without the benefits of biotechnology, at least for now. The rest of us, however, don’t enjoy the same luxury. Poverty and hunger are real problems–and biotechnology presents a pragmatic solution. I hope the day soon comes when we can use it in Kenya.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.