Celebrating 20 Years of Economic and Environmental Benefits from Crop Biotechnology

Today marks the United Nations’ World Environment Day, in which most global leaders have joined together in a call for us to connect #WithNature and take action to protect our environment. It is only fitting that our 12th annual report, which looks at the global impact of crop biotechnology in the 26 countries where it is widely used, is released today. The report highlights the many environmental and economic impacts that biotech crops have had in their 20-year history of use.

Agriculture plays a crucial role in providing our food supply, but is a significant user of the Earth’s natural resources. With the United Nations forecasting the world’s population will expand to 9 billion by 2050, global food production must increase significantly, whilst at the same time, avoiding further depletion of natural resources. To achieve these twin goals, scientific and technological innovations like crop biotechnology will play a vital role, by continuing to help farmers use crop protection products more effectively, adopting more sustainable farming practices and helping to conserve the earth’s natural resources.

In the last 20 years, the technology has already helped farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage, which has decreased the burning of fossil fuels and allowed more carbon to be retained in the soil. This has led to a decrease in carbon emissions. For example, had biotech crops not been grown in 2015, an additional 26.7 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide would have been emitted into the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of adding 11.9 million cars to the roads.

The technology has also allowed farmers to grow more without needing to convert additional land into farmland. If crop biotechnology had not been available to farmers in 2015, for instance maintaining global production levels that year would have required the planting of an additional 8.4 million hectares (ha) of soybeans, 7.4 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton and 0.7 million ha of canola. This is equivalent to needing an additional 11 percent of the arable land in the United States, or roughly 31 percent of the arable land in Brazil or 13 percent of the cropping area in China.

Growing more using fewer resources is an often-cited benefit by biotech farmers because the technology allows them to reduce the damage caused by pests which increases their yields. For example, from 1996 to 2015, across all users of insect resistant (IR) corn technology, yields have increased by an average of 13.1 percent relative to conventional production systems. Also, in some countries, herbicide tolerant (HT) technology has improved yields through better weed control. For example, in Bolivia, HT soybeans increased yields by 15 percent. In Argentina, HT technology has helped farmers grow an additional soybean crop after wheat in the same growing season (by facilitating the use of reduced tillage, this effectively shortens the time between planting and harvesting of a crop). All told, over 20 years, crop biotechnology has been responsible for the additional production of 180.3 million tonnes of soybeans, 357.7 million tonnes of corn, 25.2 million tonnes of cotton lint and 10.6 million tonnes of canola.

Crop biotechnology helps farmers be more efficient with their application of crop protection products, which reduces their environmental impact and saves them time and money. From 1996 to 2015, farmers reduced their applications of crop protection products by 8.1 percent on the global area planted to biotech crops, equal to a reduction of pesticide use of 619 million kilograms.

With higher yields and less time and money spent managing pests and weeds, farmers can attain higher incomes, which is especially important for farmers in developing countries who mostly farm small plots of land. Farmers in developing countries received $5.15 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds in 2015, and the higher income this provided enabled them to better feed, clothe and provide good medical care, education and housing for their families.

Looking forward, the increasing pressure on food supplies and natural resources arising from forecast world population growth means that the wider adoption of new and available technologies, like crop biotechnology will be vital. However, for this to occur, more farmers, in more countries, need access to the technology. This can only happen if authorities in countries where biotech crops are not currently grown, adopt regulations that allow their farmers the choice of using this technology.