IF CROP biotechnology had not been available to the 15.4 million farmers using it in 2010, maintaining global food production would have required additional plantings of 5.1 million hectares of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton and 0.35 million ha of canola. That is equivalent, in total, to 54 per cent of Australia’s total cropping area.
Moreover, world prices of key food commodities would have been significantly higher. Between 1996 and 2010, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 97.5 million tonnes of soybeans, 159.4 million tonnes of corn, 12.5 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.1 million tonnes of canola.
The area planted with GM crops has grown from 1.66 million ha in 1996 (the first year in which a significant area of crops containing biotech traits was planted) to over 139 million hectares in 2010, more than five times Australia’s total cropping area.
While virtually all countries are happy to consume food derived from GM crops, only a limited number grow them. Chief among these is the US with 45pc of global biotech crop plantings, followed by Brazil on 19pc. Argentina, India, Canada and China are the other countries of significance.
The global net benefit in 2010 from growing GM crops, at the farm level, was $14 billion, derived from a combination of enhanced productivity and efficiency gains. The cumulative benefit since 1996 has been $78.4 billion, of which Australia gained $376.2 million.
Accusations that the only beneficiaries are agribusiness firms do not withstand scrutiny. The cost farmers paid for accessing crop biotechnology was equal to 28pc of the total technology gains (a total of $19.3 billion inclusive of farm income gains ($14 billion) plus cost of the technology payable to the seed supply chain ($5.3 billion).
Although the number of commercially grown GM crops is expanding, with GM papaya, squash and sugar beet now common, the most important by far are soybeans, maize, cotton and canola.
Biotech varieties accounted for 42pc of the global plantings of these four crops in 2010, made up of 70pc of soybean, 26pc of corn, 52pc of cotton and 20pc of canola plantings.
Biotech varieties also dominate world export markets. The biotech share of global trade is estimated to be 95pc for soybeans, 85pc for soymeal, 79pc for maize, 58pc for canola and virtually 100pc for cotton. The market for certified GM-free forms of these crops (essentially the EU, Japan and Korea) is tiny, due either to low demand or, in the case of canola in the EU, a high degree of local self-sufficiency.
This success is largely bypassing Australia, with our involvement in GM crop production tiny in global terms. Our cotton industry has been growing GM varieties for 15 years and several states now allow GM canola, but that’s it. There are formidable barriers at the Commonwealth level preventing the entry of new GM varieties, while the States have imposed additional hurdles or, in SA and Tasmania, outright bans.
For what purpose? In the 15 years in which GM crops have been grown on a large scale, not a single person has been harmed, ecosystem threatened or species wiped out as a result.
On the contrary, there have been major environmental benefits. The planting of herbicide tolerant crops has led to the widespread adoption of minimum tillage, saving fuel and facilitating moisture retention and reductions in soil erosion.
Insect resistant crops have led to massive reductions in insecticide use, saving energy, improving farm worker health and safety (especially in developing countries), increasing food safety through lower levels of mycotoxins, and reducing bee impact.
The reductions in fuel use and increased soil carbon storage in 2010 are estimated to be equivalent to removing 19.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or removing 8.6 million cars from the road for one year.
As the Americans would say, go figure.
David Leyonhjelm is an agribusiness consultant with Baron Strategic Services. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org