GM benefits are plain to see

29 May, 2012 08:00 AM

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

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29/05/2012 3:52:27 PM

You've gotta love statistics, don't you . With the right application of stats one could present an argument for anything and get away with it. The wide adoption of conservation tillage techniques was well and truly on the march before GM technology, the development of Glyphosate is almost entirely responsible . "Roundup Ready" crops will hasten the loss of this valuable tool. The Europeans want non GM canola for biofuel, their argument is about sustainability....."Go figure"...that.
Will from Bordertown
29/05/2012 4:37:26 PM

The Next Big Thing on farmers horizons are herbicide resistant weeds. Coming from the region where the worlds first herbicide resistant ryegrass was documented some 30 years ago, and seen it first hand, I have an very good idea of how to fast track widespread herbicide resistance onto your farm, and in my humble opinion, the best by far would be to engineer a species of crop that was immune to your best non selective chemical. Come on guys, think about it for a few seconds. Don't get sucked in. It is agronomic suicide.
X Ag Soiclist
30/05/2012 7:35:50 AM

Mark Two I know you do not believe that., the Europeans wanting non GM canola for biofuel, is about sustainability.. They might say it but its just another Non-tariff barriers to trade (NTBs)
30/05/2012 9:01:46 AM

Mark2 They want non GM for biofuel in order to trade the meal to stock feed companies after the oil has been extracted.
open minded
30/05/2012 9:09:12 AM

Well written David. I'm glad to see someone printing positive facts on GM crops. Unfortunately, the misinformed are made to believe all the negativity they hear and see on this subject which is a shame because it only prevents our innovative croppers from accessing technology they want in order to be more competitive in global markets. Herbicide resistance in general is a problem and was already a problem before the introduction of glyphosate tolerant crops. Unfortunately, herbicide selection is driven by cost and with chinese glyphosate being so cheap, it's overuse will be encouraged.
30/05/2012 12:38:32 PM

i don't really care what their motives are for the preference for non GM, the fact is there is resistance to GM throughout Europe. The other problem I have with this whole debate is the selective use of statistics, which is why I picked out Mr Leyonhelm's assumption that the adoption of no-till or conservation cropping techniques are entirely attributable to the arrival of GM ("roundup ready") crops, this is clearly not the case. Argue amongst yourselves, people
30/05/2012 12:44:04 PM

How much did those who want to control farmers and our food supply with patents pay you? Can I have equal space in your publication to dispute these stats? Probably not, so with my 350 characters: In Argentina Round Up drift linked to childhood cancers, still births, birth defects up 400%. Residues on RR crops fed to cattle are linked to chronic botulism, autistic behaviour,infertility , a spontaneous abortion rate of 46 % etc. Glyphosate is the new tobacco. Farmers using GM feeds going out of business, yet countries not using GM soy in cattle feed are experiencing no such problems Go FigR
30/05/2012 5:05:49 PM

This advertorial is full of BS & bias, it would best serve as fertiliser, although the contamination would pose serious problems. How any thinking person can be so naïve to be deceived by this propaganda is beyond the imagination. GM is old hat & a failed technology that’s neither safe, sustainable or required. Those foolish enough to fall for the 3 card trick will eventually rue the day they ever heard of GM. GM may appear to provide a short term fix but it’ll be long term pain with serious ramifications. It’s time to invested in real, sustainable & safe soil fertility solutions, not GM.
30/05/2012 5:22:55 PM

Can you ,merribee ,provide us some reliable authoritative source (eg scientific journal article)to support your scaremongering claims about the deleterious GM effects . You fail to acknowledge that in North America GM feeds have been given commercially to animals and birds for more than 20 yr and these effects have failed to appear there. Again, some farmers using GM may be going out of business but more are taking it up. Merribee , you should be ashamed of yourself for taking a cheap shot at the article’s author about his motivation. How noble you are by exploiting your anonymity!
X Ag Soiclist
30/05/2012 6:59:16 PM

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