The Global Biotech Crop Revolution


A certain breed of publicist believes that there’s no such thing as a bad controversy. As long as people are talking about something–a celebrity, a TV show, a book–then the publicist can sit back and say, “mission accomplished.”

I wouldn’t apply this standard to biotechnology in agriculture, but it sure does seem that in spite of all the “controversy” surrounding GM crops, they’re becoming incredibly popular.

In 2002, for the first time ever, more than half the world’s population–51 percent, to be precise–lived in a country where gene-altered crops are planted.

Some countries aren’t big participants in the biotech revolution–at least not yet. Indian farmers planted their first genetically-modified plants last year, and saw first hand, Bt cotton’s benefits when the non-Bt cotton failed due to bugs. The planet’s second-most populous country accounted for less than 1 percent of the world’s biotech acreage.

This will no doubt change, as a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications makes clear. “Adoption rates for transgenic crops during the period 1996 to 2001 are unprecedented and are the highest for any new technologies by agricultural industry standards,” writes Chairman Clive James in his annual analysis.

Last year, in fact, marked the sixth straight year gene-altered crops have posted double-digit gains in total global acreage. As many as 6 million farmers in 16 countries planted 145 million acres of biotech crops, up from 5 million farmers in 13 countries planting 130 million acres in 2001.

This pace of progress may seem swift, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. I started planting Roundup Ready soybeans in the mid-1990s, and I’ve kept on planting them for one simple reason: They work. My fields are much cleaner and the task of managing them is much easier.

I remember when the Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced. You could drive around fields near my home in northeast Iowa and tell which ones had Roundup, because they didn’t have any weeds. Today almost all of the soybean fields you see are weed-free. Practically everyone uses Roundup technology. That’s because the technology works.

It’s only a matter of time before farmers in other countries catch up. We already know that a 17th country will join the biotech club in 2003, because the government of the Philippines recently approved its first GM planting.

The problem confronting other nations has nothing to do with economics or science, because gene-altered crops are economically efficient and scientifically safe. It’s all about politics, which means there’s no reason to oppose biotech crops, except for irrational fears among a misinformed public and the protection of special interests.

Each is a significant hurdle, but also surmountable. Experience shows us that biotech crops boost yield, conserve biodiversity, and increase stability. Farmers in other countries will soon want these benefits for themselves, and so will people who’ve never heard the sound of a combine.

Nearly two-thirds of all gene-altered crops are grown in the United States, and almost one-quarter of them are grown in Argentina. Together, our two countries account for about 89 percent of the world’s GM-crop acreage. Canada accounts for about 6 percent and China for about 4 percent. Australia, Bulgaria, Colombia, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Romania, Spain, South Africa, and Uruguay split the (very small) remaining piece of the pie.

Yet the size of that pie is growing. Last year’s biotech harvest was valued at $4.25 billion, up from $3.8 billion the year before. It will soon pass the $5 billion mark, according to James, and continue moving upward.

I know I’m going to keep using biotech crops on my farm. I started with soybeans and then added Bt corn to my fields. Both have improved my farm operation and life style.

Pretty soon, these amazing products and others like them will improve farm operations just about everywhere.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

Leave a Reply