When the subject of biotech development of new varieties of food and fiber crops, the debate typically rages around the issues of commercial control, patent rights, food safety and potential damage to the identity preservation efforts of organic farmers and growers.
Those are all legitimate concerns, certainly not peripheral to the discussion, but they’re also divorced from the real reason that genetic engineering needs to be more widely utilized. Both the public and the policymakers in North America tend to evaluate agricultural biotech as an option, one that the developed countries of the world can either embrace or discard.
The only question is whether the (alleged) environmental risks outweigh the potential benefits.
The discussion is entirely different—or at least it ought to be—elsewhere in the world. In Africa, in Asia, in many parts of Latin America the debate isn’t merely a matter of weighing the pros and cons of GM crops, as if the decision were akin to selecting which brand of luxury automobile is most suited to improve transportation efficiency. The urgency of increasing agricultural productivity as the only reliable means to ensure food security for fully one-third of the world’s population should be the driver behind widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops.
This could be one globally critical issue where the developing world outpaces the West in adopting a technological solution to what is arguably the world’s most pressing problem.
That reversal of the norm, whereby developed countries develop and deploy technology that is then exported to developing countries, may already be happening.
Third World leadership
Since biotech crops were first widely introduced in the mid-1990s, they have been adopted at an unprecedented rate, according to the 2011 annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which was released earlier this year.
Biotech crop acreage increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011, making GM crops“the fastest-adopted agricultural technology in the history of modern agriculture,” wrote Clive James, chair of the Philippines-based ISAAA and author of the report.
The ISAAA report also noted the rapid adoption of biotech crops in certain key developing countries—Argentina, Brazil, China, India, the Philippines and South Africa—which have adopted such crops twice as quickly as developed nations. Together, those countries now cultivate more than 40 percent of the world’s genetically engineered crops, according to ISAAA data.