As production of biotech crops enters its tenth year and approaches one billion acres planted, the economic and environmental benefits continue to be documented. Large scale, high tech farmers and limited resource farmers in developing countries are benefiting from this new technology with lower costs and increased profits. Per acre use of pesticides has declined, and less soil erosion has occurred due to less soil tillage.
The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (National Center) of Washington, DC in October of 2004 released a study “Impacts on U.S. Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2003.” It is an update of 11 case studies released in 2002 using data from the 2001 crops. The study showed that in 2003 U.S. farmers saved $1.5 billion through lower production costs, reduced pesticide use by 46.4 million pounds and increased yields by 5.3 billion pounds. The total economic impact at the farm level was $1.9 billion. While these numbers are impressive, the benefits are more real when looked at for individual crops and conditions.
Root-worn resistant corn hybrids became commercially available in 2003 and were planted on 340,000 acres. According to the National Center study, based on typical insecticide use of 0.66 pounds per acre of active ingredient insecticide use declined by about 225,000 pounds compared to conventional practices. Corn yields increased by 4.5 bushels per acre. Corn producers responded to these outcomes by planting about 3 million acres in 2004 and insecticide use declined by 1.98 million pounds. With a greater availability of seed supplies, acreage should be substantially higher again this year and will result in further reductions in insecticide use and higher production of corn.
The 225,000 pound reduction in insecticide active ingredients used for root-worm resistant corn in 2003 was only a small part of the reduction in insecticide use due to biotech crops. Corn varieties resistant to European corn borers, southwestern corn borer and other pests used 3.7 million less pounds of insecticide active ingredient compared to conventional corn varieties. Insect resistant cotton varieties led to a 3.2 million pound reduction in insecticide active ingredient use on cotton in 2003. The total reduction in active ingredient insecticide use in 2003 according to the National Center study was 7.1 million pounds.
The insect resistant corn varieties led to an average 4.0 bushels increase in yield, $10 per acre. The insect resistant cotton had an average yield increase of 59 pounds per acre, $30 per acre.
The greatest reduction in pesticide use in 2003 came from herbicide tolerant crops. According to the National Center study, biotech soybeans resulted in a 20.1 million pound reduction in herbicide active ingredients, cotton 9.6 million pounds, corn 9.4 million pounds and canola 0.15 million pounds for a total of 39.2 million pounds of herbicide active ingredients. Corn and cotton had just under a one pound reduction in herbicide active ingredients for each acre planted to herbicide tolerant varieties and soybeans had a one-third pound reduction for each acre.
The herbicide tolerant varieties of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola resulted in a reduction in pesticide costs, but not generally an increase in yields. The herbicide tolerant varieties resulted in production cost savings of $22 per acre for cotton, $20 per acre for soybeans, $12 for canola and $10 for corn.
The benefits of biotech crop varieties extend beyond lower costs, higher production and reduced pesticide use. The increased flexibility for managing weed control has allowed for continued expansion of no-till farming that reduces soil erosion. According to the National Center report, since biotech crops were first introduced in 1996, farmers have increased no-till soybean acres by 45 percent, no-till corn by 14 percent and no-till cotton by 300 percent. No-till crop production also results in less fuel use and lower machinery costs which further improve the bottom line for producers.
Positive economic and environmental results of biotech crop varieties have also been documented in developing countries. A 2002 study by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute in The Hague, Netherlands on Chinese adoption of Bt cotton in 1999 by 282 cotton farmers reported that adopters of Bt cotton sprayed 60 percent fewer times (from an average of 20 times to an average of 8 times) and reduced insecticide expenditures by 82 percent. Seed costs for Bt cotton were 100-250 percent higher, but follow-up research showed that seed costs declined over time. Yields for 1999-2001 increased by 7-15 percent, with an average of 10 percent, compared to conventional cotton. In 2004 two-thirds of China’s cotton was Bt cotton.
India has over a million acres of Bt cotton and is achieving similar results. A recent survey by IMRB International of 3,199 farmers reported a 58 percent improvement in productivity and a 60 percent rise in profits.
Australian farmers report another benefit from Bt cotton – the preservation of “beneficial” organisms like spiders, wasps and ladybirds. By reducing insecticide applications from 18 times a year to three, more beneficials remain alive and eat harmful pests.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications biotech crops were grown on 200 million acres of cropland in 2004, 5 percent of all global cultivable cropland. Worldwide biotech crop acreage increased by 32.9 million acres in 2004, with developing countries increasing by 17.8 million acres and developed countries by 15.1 million acres. Developing countries now account for 34 percent of total biotech acres.
With the benefits of biotech crops clearly established in both developed and developing countries, acreage will continue to increase as more crop varieties are developed and regulatory structures allow for their increased adoption. Farmers and consumers will continue to benefit from increased supplies of food and fiber, lower costs of production and less pesticide use and soil loss.