Biotech Crops Used by Limited-Resource Farmers in Developing Countries


For the first time in the sixteen year history of the commercial production of biotech crops, more acres where planted in developing countries in 2012 than developed ones, 219 million acres versus 202 million acres, according to estimates by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA).  Of the 219 million acres in developing countries, 171 million acres where in six South American countries with large farms much like developed countries.  The remaining acres are in countries with large numbers of limited-resource farmers.

India has the largest biotech crop acreage among counties with large numbers of limited-resource farmers with 7.2 million farmers growing 26.7 million acre of biotech cotton, an average of 3.7 acres.  According to the ISAAA, for 11years biotech cotton has helped suppress the cotton bollworm in India, with the adoption rate reaching 93 percent in 2012.  Based on adoption rates in the U.S. and other countries, 93 percent is probably near the optimal rate.  The number of farmers growing cotton increased from 5.0 million in 2002-03 to 7.6 million in 2012-13, and production increased from 13.6 million bales in 2002 to 25.5 million bales in 2012.   According to estimates by USDA, yields in India have increased from about 270 pounds per acre before the introduction of hybrid and biotech cotton to 450 pounds per acre in recent years.  Herbicide resistant cotton will enter the market in the near future to further increase yields by controlling weeds and conserving moisture.

China had the next largest acreage of biotech crops in 2012 at 9.7 million acres of cotton grown by 7.2 million limited-resource farmers.  China also had 15,500 acres of virus resistant papaya and 1,200 acres of biotech poplar trees.  China first grew biotech cotton in 1997 and now has an 80 percent adoption rate.  In 2009 government regulators approved domestically-developed biotech phytase corn and two varieties of rice now undergoing extensive field trials before release for commercial production.  The biotech rice could benefit 110 million rice growing households in China and another 140 million rice producers in the rest of Asia.

Pakistan has grown biotech cotton for only three year, but already has an adoption rate of 82 percent, with 700,000 limited-resource farmers growing 6.9 million acres.  Farmers can choose from 16 insect resistant biotech varieties.  Yields had been almost stagnant for the past two decades, and Pakistan hopes to become a consistent exporter of cotton.  A similar production opportunity exists for corn.

Limited-resource farmers in the Philippines growing biotech corn on an average of 5 acres increased to 375,000 in 2012.  The country’s biotech crop plantings totaled 1.9 million acres.  Second generation Golden Rice is being field tested at the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute.  Fruit and shoot borer resistant eggplants are also being developed.

About 100,000 farmers with an average of 7.4 acres planted commercial biotech cotton in 2012 for the fifth year in Burkina Faso in West Africa.  Plantings of 775,000 acres of biotech cotton were 51 percent of total cotton acreage which increased 27 percent from 2011.  Data from biotech plantings in 2011 showed yields almost 20 percent higher than conventional cotton, 2 sprayings of insecticides instead of 6 and a net gain in income of $95 per acre.  Two thirds of the additional income from higher yields and lower insecticide expenses is retained by the farmers and one-third goes to the technology developers and the local seed companies.  Cotton is the principal cash crop for the country and provides over 50 percent of the country’s export earnings.

The South Asian country of Myanmar produced insect resistant biotech cotton for the seventh year in 2012.  About 428,000 farmers grew an average of 1.7 acres and a total of 741,000 acres, 84 percent of the total cotton acres in the country.  Agriculture accounts for half of the nation’s GDP and 70 percent of employment.  The ‘Silver Sixth’ variety was developed, produced and distributed by the Myanmar Industrial Crops Development Enterprise.

The Republic of Sudan in northeastern Africa in 2012 became the fourth country in Africa to commercialize a biotech crop with 49,000 acres of biotech cotton grown in irrigated and rainfed areas.  About 10,000 farmers planted 2.5-6.0 acres; acreage was limited by seed availability.  Total cotton area is about 370,000 acres.  Chinese biotech cotton was used to demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology in controlling bollworms.  Agriculture employs about 80 percent of the population and accounts for a third of GDP; cotton is a major agricultural export product.

In 2012 Egypt planted 2,500 acres of biotech corn before temporary planting restrictions were placed on the crop.  In 2011, 7,000 acres were planted.  This work is part of Egypt’s Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute, the leading crop biotech institute in the Arab world.  They are researching other biotech crops like wheat, barley and cotton.  Egypt is extremely land constrained, but agriculture continues to provide 13 percent of GDP and almost 30 percent of employment.  Egypt imports about 50 percent of the food consumed by its 80 million people.

Cuba is now growing biotech corn with ‘regulated commercialization’ in which farmers seek permission to grow the crop.  In 2011, farmers grew an estimated 12,400 acres of biotech corn, and in 2012 farmers planted 7,400 acres of hybrid biotech corn.  Cuba has joined other late adopters of modern seed technology by introducing the two technologies at the same time.  The program is part of an ecological sustainable pesticide-free program.  The major threat in Cuban corn is the fall armyworm, and reducing insecticides with biotech seed protects beneficial insects and increases yields up to 30 percent.  The technology was developed by the Havana-based Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

The information gathered by the ISAA shows that biotechnology is producer size neutral.  Limited-resource farmers at the edge of the market economy can use the technology as effectively as large scale farmers if a responsive regulatory structure exists and a local seed industry can pull the technology through the development chain.  Researchers in these countries have also shown that biotechnology is a proven technology that can be replicated in developing countries, tailored to meet the specific needs of local producers and provide benefits to agricultural producers and consumers.

Ross Korves is an Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology ( Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.


Ross Korves

Ross Korves

Ross Korves served Truth about Trade & Technology, before it became Global Farmer Network, from 2004 – 2015 as the Economic and Trade Policy Analyst.

Researching and analyzing economic issues important to agricultural producers, Ross provided an intimate understanding regarding the interface of economic policy analysis and the political process.

Mr. Korves served the American Farm Bureau Federation as an Economist from 1980-2004. He served as Chief Economist from April 2001 through September 2003 and held the title of Senior Economist from September 2003 through August 2004.

Born and raised on a southern Illinois hog farm and educated at Southern Illinois University, Ross holds a Masters Degree in Agribusiness Economics. His studies and research expanded internationally through his work in Germany as a 1984 McCloy Agricultural Fellow and study travel to Japan in 1982, Zambia and Kenya in 1985 and Germany in 1987.

Leave a Reply