Conko and Prakash Guest Editorial from BioScience News and Advocate

Conko and Prakash Guest Editorial from BioScience News and Advocate

December 14, 2003

The use of bioengineering technology for the development of new plant varieties has been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies, has increased crop yields and food production and reduced the use of synthetic chemical pesticides in both industrialized and less developed countries. These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite and where hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition.Critics dismiss such claims as nothing more than corporate public relations puffery. However, while it is true that most commercially available bioengineered plants were designed for farmers in the industrialized world, the increasing adoption of transgenic varieties by under-developed countries over the past few years demonstrates their broader applicability.Globally, transgenic varieties are now grown on more than 58.7 million hectares (145 million acres) in such countries as <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United States. Nearly one-quarter of that hectarage is farmed by over 5 million resource-poor farmers in less developed countries.Why? Because they see many of the same benefits that farmers in industrialized nations do.The first generation of transgenic crops - approximately 50 different varieties of maize, cotton, potato, squash, soybean, rapeseed, and others - were designed to aid in protecting crops from insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases.As much as 40 percent of crop productivity in Africa and Asia and about 20 percent in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe is lost to these biotic stresses, despite the use of large amounts of insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals.Poor tropical farmers may face different pest species than their industrial country counterparts, but both must do constant battle against these threats to their productivity.That's why South African and Filipino farmers are so eager to grow transgenic corn resistant to insect pests, and why South African and Chinese farmers like transgenic insect-resistant cotton so much. Indian cotton farmers and Brazilian and Paraguayan soya growers didn't even wait for their governments to approve transgenic varieties before they began growing them. It was discovered in 2001 that Indian farmers were planting seed obtained illegally from field trials of a transgenic cotton variety then still under governmental review.Farmers in Brazil and Paraguay looked across the border and saw how well their Argentine neighbours were doing with transgenic soybean varieties and smuggling of bioengineered seed became rampant.Recent studies in India have shown that transgenic cotton reduced pesticide spraying by half or more, delivering a 30-40 percent profit increase. Another report showed that the farm area under Bt cotton in India tripled in just one year to 216,000 hectares from 72,682 hectares last year.In Brazil, it is estimated that about three million hectares of biotech soybean were being grown illegally until now when the government has just made it legal.As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There are few greater testaments to the benefits of biotechnology than the fact that thousands of poor farmers are willing to acknowledge having committed a crime just to gain access to the improved varieties. Where transgenic varieties become available (legally or not), farmers themselves are eager to adopt them.There is even evidence that transgenic varieties have literally saved human lives. In less developed nations, pesticides are typically sprayed on crops by hand, exposing farm workers to severe health risks. Some 400 to 500 Chinese cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning because, until recently, the only alternative was risking near total crop loss from voracious insects. A Rutgers University study found that transgenic cotton in China has lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced the number of pesticide poisonings by an equivalent amount.The productivity gains generated by transgenic crops provide yet another important benefit: They could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats caused by agricultural development in regions experiencing the greatest population growth are widely recognised as among the most serious threats to biodiversity. Thus, increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental goal, and one that would be much easier in a world where bioengineering technology is in widespread use.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />