Since the first genetically modified (GM) crops for sale to consumers were planted in the 1990s, farmers around the world have seen their incomes rise due to increased agricultural productivity and efficiency gains. . First adopted in the developed world, in recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of hectares planted with GM crops in developing countries as well.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotechnology Applications (ISAAA), 53% or 103.1 million hectares (MH) of the total global GM crop area of 191.7 MH, were in countries developing in 2018. In 2016, the global farms direct revenue advantage was $18.2 billion. Over the 21-year period between 1996 and 2016, farm income increased by $186.1 billion.
Genetically modified crops are plants whose DNA is altered to create desired traits, usually by adding a gene from a close wild relative. Genes confer beneficial traits such as resistance to pests, the ability to thrive under adverse or extreme conditions, in some cases can also have increased nutrient levels. The three most common traits developed in GM crops are: resistance to insect damage, tolerance to herbicides and resistance to plant viruses.
GM crops can be grown and eaten safely. This technology is one of the most regulated technologies in the world. Every review and assessment by government regulators around the world has confirmed the safety of GM crops. Several international organizations such as FAO, WHO and OECD have repeatedly confirmed the safety of biotech crops and concluded that foods derived from biotechnology are as safe and nutritious as foods derived from other methods such as conventional and organic. Each country tests these crops for safety under their local conditions before providing commercial approval. Therefore, there is data over several years in several countries that confirms the safety of these crops. People around the world have been consuming products from biotech crops for over 20 years and there is not even a single verified case of human health concern.
Similarly, India’s regulatory system, which is one of the strictest regulatory systems in the world, requires developers to conduct thorough food, feed and environmental safety studies before give regulatory approval. India’s regulatory agency, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is comprised of experts from all relevant organizations to review the biosafety of these crops. It should be noted that all relevant government departments and ministries such as science and technology, environment and forestry, agriculture, health and family welfare and independent experts are part of various committees that form the entire regulatory process.
The advancement of GM crops globally holds many lessons for farmers, plant biotechnologists, economists and policy makers. Whether in Latin America, Asia or Africa, farmers planting GM crops have reduced pesticide use, not only lowering their production costs, but ensuring environmental gains. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have helped farmers control weeds without damaging crops.
Again, there are genetically modified crops that are resistant to specific viruses. One of the very first GM crops introduced in Asia was Bt maize. The Philippine government’s approval for the commercialization of Bt maize in 2002 marked the dawn of planting of GM food/feed crops in Asia. The initial planting of Bt maize for the first year (2003) covered over 10,000 hectares. Maize crops in the Philippines are reportedly commonly destroyed by the Asian corn borer, a common maize pest in the Philippines. Maize yield levels in the island nation averaged just 2.8 tons per hectare. However, that has now changed. Together with other biotech maize varieties (herbicide tolerant and Bt/HT), the total wet and dry season area in 2018 in the country was estimated at 630,000 hectares. The yield advantage of Bt corn was 14-34% greater than that of conventional corn hybrids.
Closer to home, brinjal farmers in Bangladesh have enjoyed a resurgence of fortune through the cultivation of genetically modified crops. In January 2014, Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia to introduce a GM food crop to the region. The genetically modified brinjal Bt was developed by inserting a crystal protein gene (Cry1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the genome of various brinjal cultivars, thereby protecting the crop from infestation by the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), the deadliest pest of brinjal. Starting with 20 farmers, Bt brinjal varieties reached 27,012 farmers across the country in 2018, which was about 18% of the estimated 150,000 brinjal growers in Bangladesh. At least three other GM crops – late blight-resistant potato, Bt cotton and vitamin A-enriched golden rice – are being prepared for commercialization in Bangladesh.
India, itself, has experienced the benefits of GM crops. Since the introduction of Bollgard-I in 2002 in six states — Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu — which was the country’s first GM crop approved for commercialization, followed by Bollgard II, a pest resistant plant variety that protects the cotton crop from bollworm, in 2006 there was a dramatic increase in cotton yield in India. Cotton production increased from 8.62 million bales (of 170 kg each) in 2002-03 to 34.04 million bales in 2021-22. Between 2002-03 and 2013-14, which was the “golden period” for Bt cotton, yield increased by 167% and production by 316%, while cotton acreage increased by about 39%. In 2013-2014, the area cultivated with Bt cotton touched 11.03 million hectares, with a productivity of 510 kg per hectare, with total cotton cultivation peaking at 35.9 million bales.
However, each technology needs to be upgraded. The fallout can be seen in declining crop yields as new pests like pink bollworm and parasitic weeds emerge in cotton-growing regions. The solution lies in the introduction of the new herbicide-tolerant Bt (HtBt) cotton, as it allows farmers to spray herbicides to get rid of parasitic weeds on the farm without harming the main crop.
Meanwhile, the commercial cultivation of two GEAC-approved GM food crops – eggplant and mustard – has yet to see the light of day in India, even a decade after the approvals.
After more than 25 years of adoption of GM crops worldwide, a cumulative area of more than 2.5 billion hectares worldwide has been planted with GM crops. From soy, corn, tomato and cotton, today there are GM variants of canola, sugar beet, sugar cane, brinjal, alfalfa, potato, papaya and many others, helping to increase farmers’ incomes, agricultural yield and production levels nationwide and ensuring food security for the respective nations.
-Dr Shivendra Bajaj, Executive Director, Seed Industry Federation of India and Alliance for Agricultural Innovation