Global impacts from adoption of genetically modified crops

Posted on February 05, 2013

by Stuart Smyth

canola-flower2The benefits, both fiscal and environmental, are becoming increasingly well known in Saskatchewan and Canada from the mid-1990s adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops. In Western Canada, for example, the commercialization of GM canola in 1995 has resulted in a dramatic expansion in canola production, as is witnessed by anyone traveling during the month of July. It is nearly impossible to find a stretch of highway where a bright yellow field is not visible.

Farmers produce crops that provide high returns and - according to recent research that was led by a group from the University of Saskatchewan that examined the adoption impacts from GM canola - farmers in Western Canada also benefit by an additional $350-400 million annually from cleaner fields and lower production costs.

In 1999, only 10% of canola was produced using zero and/or minimum tillage, but by 2006, zero and/or minimum tillage accounted for 65% of canola production. The environmental impact of the herbicides applied to canola had dropped by 53%, with 1.3 million fewer kilograms of herbicide active ingredient applied to canola than if GM canola not been developed. GM canola increases the safety for farmers, farm workers, consumers and the environment as a whole.

While these are important benefits, those experienced by developing countries are even more dramatic.

In Saskatchewan, when we see farmers, they are using big equipment in large fields. In South Africa, small landholder farms are several hectares in size. Given the small size of the fields, weeding is still done by hand.

Leonard Gianessi, Director of the Crop Protection Research Institute at the CropLife Foundation, reports that to prevent weed damage, conventional maize requires 276 hours of hand weeding per hectare; sorghum 150 hours/ha; cotton 200-400 hours/ha; and rice 200-418 hours/ha. A recent study by the University of Pretoria, found that smallholder maize farmers in South Africa who had adopted GM maize spent, on average, 267, 177, and 152 hours/ha on manual weeding over three seasons. Weeding is typically done by women and the study further found that the female household members indicated that the labour saving in the maize field enabled them to spend more time at home, caring for children or in their vegetable plots.

Research released last year resulting from collaboration between the University of the Philippines and Michigan State University, provides a detailed analysis of the poverty reduction effects from the adoption of GM maize in the Philippines. The mean net income in 2007 for non-GM maize farmers was 16,420 pesos (about US$400), whereas the mean net income for GM maize adopters was 24,700 pesos (US$600) – an increase of 50%. While there is a substantial on-farm effect from the adoption of GM maize, there is also a corresponding increase in off-farm income. The authors found that the amount of labour saved from GM maize adoption is so great that it has allowed many Philippine GM maize-adopting farmers to get off-farm jobs, further supplementing household incomes.

The adoption of GM cotton in India has, quite possibly, the most profound impact.

Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. The application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand, with farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers. The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. Far more importantly though, is the reduction in the number of pesticide poisonings. A study produced by the University of Goettingen in Germany, estimates that 2.4 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis, saving the Indian government US$14 million.

While the impact of GM crop adoption in Canada is important, the degree of impact is considerably lower than that in developing countries. Western Canadian canola farmers do not weed or spray by hand, therefore making it more difficult to grasp the true social benefits from the adoption of GM crops. Certainly, the small landholder farmers benefit financially, not only from the adoption of the GM crops, but in gaining from the opportunity to increase household incomes through off-farms employment.

The life-altering impacts are those that are extremely difficult to determine the value. For example, how much value does one place on the value of a female South African farmer being able to spend more time looking after her children? Or, how much value is there for an Indian cotton farmer who no longer gets poisoned from spraying his cotton fields?

In some instances the real benefits of GM crop adoption may simply be in the improvements in the quality of life. And that is priceless.

Dr. Stuart Smyth
is a Research Scientist at the University of Saskatchewan
  • Stuart Smyth

    Posted on 04/03/2014

    I think it is important to ensure that communication and outreach about the issues you mention in developing countries is an important part of the production of GM crops. Like any technology, if it is not managed properly, the benefits will be diminished. I do not agree that GM crops are only an option once food security has been achieved as one of the findings from GM crop adoption in developing countries is that it reduces labour, allowing small landholder farmers, in some instances, to take on off-farm jobs. Farmers that spend less time spraying or hand weeding their crops are able to reallocate this time to other opportunities that can generate additional household income. This could be larger gardens or part-time jobs. I think the ability to reallocate labour is an important contributor to improving food security in developing countries.

  • Pete

    Posted on 04/03/2014

    It's a fair point. Nonetheless the BT alternative is a temporary one at best, we all know that having a plant produce it's own pesticide accelerates resistance build up by the pest (naturally plants already produce such compounds, but through co-evolution some stability is achieved, specially when other elements of the ecosystem play a role in controlling pest outbreaks), and the toxin targets more than the intended herbivores, leading to a decrease in the population of beneficial insects (which in a healthy ecosystem tend to be more than 90% of the species present). On a local economy point-of-view the limitation to able to produce any crop (specially food crops) by the community's own means results on subjection to external factors that clearly limit its normal development (and affect the principle of self-determination). The solution seems to be one of spreading knowledge about community-based productive and sustainable agricultural systems and help communities to build their own means of production. GM can play a role in a posterior phase, because the problem of failed crops seems to have less to do with the seed itself but more to do with the lack of suitable means of production and proper agricultural practices (water and soil conservation, fertility cycles, fito-sanitation, integrated pest-management etc...). In the early stages seed ownership by the farmers themselves is crucial, specially in the climatic shift context, enabling the seed to co-evolve with the specific environmental conditions and farmer/community needs (a proven method). In my view GM technology should be considered after food sovereignty is well established in a community. Only then co-existence of crops can be evaluated properly. And that's applicable to western agriculture as well, we all know the impact of the monoculture-industrial-chemical formula, that's simply inefficient and unsustainable. In the last 20 years Europe as been looking at LIFS (Low Input Farming Systems) as the alternative for standard production, it must be considered (though the market dynamic has to be shifted somewhat significantly to accommodate this solution). But GM can still be a lifesaving technology (in a case by case solution approach) if we do not couple "lifesaving" with "profitable", because if we do conflicts of interest are necessarily going to shape this dynamic...

  • Stuart Smyth

    Posted on 03/03/2014

    You are right that distribution is a big problem concerning food security. Globally, enough food is produced to feed the population, but distribution challenges prevent this from occurring. This has been a problem for decades and one that is not likely to be resolved in the near future. Since the solution to improving food security is unlikely to happen through improved distribution, this forces us to examine other options, such as improving crop varieties through biotechnology. In most instances, the commercialization of GM crops in developing countries has been done in partnership with domestic companies or national public research agencies. This allows for the technology trait to be inserted into locally suitable varieties that farmers are already familiar with. Partnerships of this nature have been used to commercialize Bt cotton in India and GM corn in South Africa. In the case of Bt cotton adoption, developing farmers are already purchasing and applying insecticides; the adoption of Bt cotton allows them to make many fewer applications. The higher yields that GM crop adopters experience due to reduced insect and weed infestations results in higher yield and thus higher revenue for the farmer. One challenge that does exist for farmers in many developing countries is access to secure credit to give them access new technologies. In some instances, the technology providers provide the credit to farmers and are paid following harvest. Lack of credit availability is a challenge for many farmers in some countries (not just those that adopt GM crops) and is an important issue that technology providers are working to contribute to finding solutions. The solution to problems of this nature exceed that of science and technology and require changes to financial markets that ease the burden of inadequate credit availability.

  • Pete

    Posted on 02/03/2014

    You must understand that GMO seeds have a huge economical impact in countries that have to import them, as they're unable to adapt the seed through selection and are forced to use the "recommended procedures" for cultivation which involves further importing of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (hoping for a late come back of resistant competitive herbs and insect herbivores). Furthermore the intensive production is more expensive than traditional agriculture (which still feeds more than 70% of the world) and leaves farmers far more susceptible to market price fluctuation, and utterly dependent of seed suppliers. Most GMO seeds are not adapted to specific climates and have water requirements incompatible with the edapho-climatic reality of the region. Suitable GM seeds still rely on some degree of "traditional" seed selection and saving in order to be locally adjusted to the edapho-climatic context. If India serves as an example, the social impact of being dependent on foreign products to practice agriculture is tremendous, and jeopardizes food sovereignty. I hope you understand the actual circumstances in which the GMO technology is being applied. If a technology is of actual importance to the well being of people it shouldn't be patented so restrictively. And please be aware that food production isn't the main cause for starvation, it's mainly the lack of equitable distribution due to wasteful production, lack of means for distribution and corruption. Keep pushing for progress, but make sure it's inclusive.

  • Sylvia MacBean

    Posted on 09/11/2013

    On November 6th, Trish Jordan, Monsanto Canada

  • Stuart Smyth

    Posted on 10/07/2013

    Thanks for both comments. Mike the Scribe is correct in his assessment. Yes, glyphosate is toxic, but it is one of the most benign chemicals being applied to food production currently. the unfortunate part of chemical use in food production is that the chemicals allowed in the production of organic food are far, far more toxic than those used in the production of GM crops. Kovach et al. (1992) document this very clearly. What science needs to get better at is measuring the impacts from chemical use in all forms of food production. Banning the use of one of the safest chemicals used in food production would greatly increase global food insecurity.

  • Stuart Smyth

    Posted on 10/07/2013

    Thank you for your response. Unfortunately suicide is a concern for all countries and sectors of the economy. Farmers in Canada commit suicide as well. In a forthcoming book chapter by my colleauge Matin Qaim on the adoption impacts from Bt cotton in India, the suicide rate of Indian farmers has dropped following the adoption of Bt cotton. Prior to Bt cotton, about 18,000 farmers a year committed suicide, this dropped to 15,000 per year in 2011. Clearly this is a good sign. Sincerely, Stuart Smyth

  • MiketheScribe

    Posted on 04/07/2013

    I believe you are referring to this paper:

  • Linda

    Posted on 30/06/2013

    Review of research suggests that active ingredient in Glyphosate is hazardous to mammals inhibiting enzymes in gut bacteria, that is, it disrupts the ability of intestinal microbes to construct important amino acids that build and repair the body's cellular tissues, among other things. Over time, the unrepaired cells lead to a variety of illnesses, like inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, cancer, etc. Glyphosate is found in human urine. See Samsel and Seneff's review of 286 studies of this issue and their conclusions in Entropy, an online peer reviewed journal not affiliated with any corporate entity, but is sponsored by academics. Glyphosate is poisoning the earth and its people, we must ban its use worldwide.

  • dr sunny sandhu

    Posted on 09/06/2013

    hello dr stuart , i belong to the state of Punjab , which is witnessing an epidemic of cancer especially in the BT cotton region called the MALWA belt . I have been travelling extensively thru the region and have tried to understand what is going on . After having read ur article i want to say one thing , pesticide consumption hasnt decreased , it did initially when BT cotton was introduced but now there are resistant pests , and pesticides consumption is on the rise . BT plants itself produces a toxin which is seemignly stable in the environment and is persisting in the environment . I have met many sheep herders who dont go to the cotton fields and tend to move to northern regions of punjab as that doesnt grow bt cotton . there are reports of sheep dying in bt cotton fields . There is a train which is called the cancer train express which leaves the BT cotton belt to a hospital in rajasthan . The issue of farmer suicides in BT cotton belts of vidarbha is another issue as farmers are facing economic decline due to adoption of this flawed technique . I am wearing BT cotton shirt , but is it really free from BT toxin and pesticide ? Are farmers being pushed in the wrong direction with this GM model . I invite u to come to Punjab and understand what is really going on .

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  • Sylvia MacBean

    Posted on 07/02/2013

    I went to Africa in 2008 with a Canadian aid agency and discovered at the borders of Zambia and Mozambique the customs and immigration people went through our luggage looking for GMO seeds. GMOs they told me are deadly poisonous. I think a lot of educating of government officials needs to be done in those countries. People are starving and seeds are being burned at the border.

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