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February 14, 2012

Are biotech crops winning over farmers?


by Marc Gunther

The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.

In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.

Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.

The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through.

Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?

The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. But data released last week indicates farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.

Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).

Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

Why do more farmers every year plant biotech crops?

Critics of genetically-modified crops will say they are tricked into it by marketing or lack of knowledge or short-termism, and it’s certainly true that the popularity of a product is not a reliable indicator of its value. (ABBA sold more records than the Rolling Stones. People smoke cigarettes.)

But if biotech crops didn’t make farmers more productive, or save them time or money, would they spread around the world as consistently as they have?

complete article…Sustainable Business Forum 

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