The Growth of Genetic Crops

The “Gene” and no longer the “Green” Revolution will fight hunger in the 21st century.

Traditional cotton fields in 2005 that have since been replaced — near Nagarjuna Sagar, India.

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm in 1970, the late, eminent agricultural scientist Dr Norman Borlaug warned the world that his “Green Revolution” had won only a temporary success in man’s war against hunger. If fully implemented, Bourlang’s modernization of farming practises could provide sufficient food for humankind only through to the end of the 20th century.

The father of the Green Revolution added that “unless the frightening power of human reproduction [is] curbed, the success of the Green Revolution [will] only be ephemeral.”

Dr. Borlaug’s innovations had a tremendous impact on India, and he continued to visit the country at least once a year until 2005. He said in his Convocation Address to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in 1996 that he believed that agricultural scientists had a moral obligation to warn the political, educational and religious leaders of the world about magnitude and seriousness of the arable land, food, and population problems that lay ahead.

He warned that “if we fail to do so in a forthright manner, we will be negligent in our duty and inadvertently will be contributing to the pending chaos of incalculable millions of deaths by starvation.”

The last time Dr. Borlang was received in India was in March 2005 to present the “Borlaug Award” (named after by him by Coromandel Fertilizers, the sponsors) to two eminent agricultural scientists. On that occasion, he advocated the launch of the “Gene revolution” by defending in his speech the use of genetically modified organisms and transgenic crops. He maintained that these offered numerous new possibilities for the future.

“My biotechnological dream,” he stated, “involves transfer of rice plants’ resistance against the dreaded rust disease to wheat and other cereals and transfer of wheat’s proteins to rice and maize.” He had prophesied that day that “you will be able to eat rice sandwiches in 50 years from now.”

Borlaug also ridiculed the proponents of organic farming by saying it was “nonsense” to think that you could feed the world without the use of chemical fertilizers. Despite the impressive increase in food production due to seed-fertilizer-irrigation-based technology, several million people still went to bed hungry.

“You have to double the food output by 2050 to feed them” he added and maintained that it was not possible even if all the organics available in the world were used for this purpose.

He added that Bt cotton was doing a good job in many parts of the world and protecting against insects and so advocated extensive use of modified crops. Bt cotton is genetically modified with Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacillus found in the soils in eastern Germany which is resistant to insects. He said those who opposed Bt cotton were not aware of the global research studies that showed genetically modified crops had raised productivity levels.

 

Organic farming rejected many of the methods used even in the Green Revolution long before the advent of genetically modified crops. It draws many adherents in the world while at the same time drawing criticism from leading agricultural scientists such as the Dr. Borlaug.

In India, there are not very many defenders of organic farming systems—even on the basis of religion. The Indian Ministry of Agriculture has published documents explaining what organic farming means and what is the extent of its popularity.

According to the National Centre of Organic Farming in India, the concept is based on the following premises: Nature is the best role model for farming since it does not use any inputs nor demand unnatural quantities of water. The entire system is based on an intimate understanding of Nature’s ways. The system does not believe in stripping the soil of its nutrients and nor does it degrade it in any way for today’s needs; instead, the soil in an organic system is a considered a living entity. The soil’s populations of microbes and other organisms are significant contributors to its fertility on a sustained basis and must be protected and nurtured at all cost.

In today’s terminology, it is a method of farming that primarily aims to cultivate the land and raise crops in a way that keeps the soil alive and in good health through the use of organic fertilizers (crop, animal, aquatic, and farm wastes) and other biological materials like beneficial microbes (bio-fertilizers) that release nutrients to crops. This ideally results in an increased sustainable production in an eco-friendly, pollution-free environment.

According to the document, the yearly harvest of crops under organic management the world over has grown from 42,000 hectares in 2003 to 10.86 million in 2010. Of this, 758,000 hectares are full-organic crops and 328,000 hectares are in conversion. The total number of farmers involved is under 600,000.

The leading countries in organic farming—Bolivia, Australia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Spain, and Mexico—all have less than one million hectares each being used for organic farming.

In comparison, the briefs published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) gives details of the global status of commercial biotech and genetically modified crops in 2010. The document offers global hectarage figures for genetically-modified crops. In millions of hectare, the following are the figures for the ten countries with the largest biotech farming area 2010:

USA, 66.8; Brazil, 25.4; Argentina, 22.9; India, 9.4; Canada, 8.8; China, 3.5; Paraguay, 2.6; Pakistan, 2.4; South Africa, 2.2; and Urugay, 1.1.

The more or less meagre area under organic farming in the world shows how unsuccessful the environmentalist appeal has been for this form of agriculture.

 

Biotech crops experienced the 15th anniversary of their commercialization in 2010 according to the ISAAA briefs. Accumulated hectarage from 1996 to 2010 exceeded one billion—close to the total area of USA or China—clearly signifying that biotech crops are here to stay.

Societies of scientists welcomed the idea of genetically modified products early on. The lead was taken by the Royal Society of London. Scientists in the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, China, and India soon followed suit. The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) had welcomed the advent of genetically modified foodgrains by July 2000.

When these societies gave their approval of genetically modified crops, however, they did not give a carte blanche consent for the production of new crops. They instead issued directions for the careful consumption of such foods, monitoring closely which crops were allowed and which were not.

In India, authorities approved the Bt cotton proposed by Monsanto and Mahyc in 2002. Despite the phenomenal success of Bt cotton since that time, however, it is important to note that the Minister for Environment blocked the introduction of Bt brinjal (egg plant) in a manner that raises questions about the system of approval or rejection of genetically modified crops in India.

The Minister had called a meeting of the “civil society” on the evening of February 9, 2011, a day before the issue was to come up before a bench of the Supreme Court of India for appraisal. The Minister arranged the meeting of the “civil society” in which few scientists were involved and most present opposed allowing the Bt brinjal crop. In an open vote, the introduction of the Bt brinjal was rejected. The Supreme Court the next morning had to cancel the case since a decision had already been made on the issue. In the scientific community, only one notable researcher was against the introduction of the Bt brinjal, but almost no scientists were allowed to attend or speak at the meeting, which prevented the introduction of this popular vegetable.

Otherwise, genetically modified crops have been widely adapted. There is a record 87-fold increase in hectarage between 1996 and 2010, which makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. The year 2010 saw strong double digit growth of 10 percent reaching 148 million additional hectares, which is notably the second largest increase in 15 years. “Trait hectares,” which contain genetically modified crops stacked with more than one additional trait, grew from 180 million hectares in 2009 to 205 million hectares in 2010; an increase of 14 percent or 25 million trait hectares.

The number of countries planning biotech crops soared to a record 29, up from 25 in 2009. In 2010, the top ten biotech farming countries each grew greater than 1 million hectares. More than half the world’s population, or 4 billion people, live in the 29 countries that are planting biotech crops. Of the 29 countries, 19 are developing countries and only ten are industrialized countries.

Three new countries, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Sweden, reported planting biotech crops officially for the first time in 2010, and Germany also initiated its biotech crop efforts

In addition, another 30 countries imported biotech crop products for a total of 59 countries approving the use of biotech crops, either for planting or importing; 75 percent of the world’s population live in those 59 countries.

Developing countries grew 48 percent biotech crops in 2010 and will exceed industrial countries hectarage before 2015. Biotech growth rate was much faster in developing countries: 17 percent or 102 million hectares versus 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares in industrialized countries. The five leading developing countries in biotech crops are China and India in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America and South Africa in the continent of Africa.

India contained the world’s largest area under Bt cotton in 2010. Bt cotton area increased by one million hectares to 9.4 million in that year, which is 86 percent of the total cotton area. For the ninth consecutive year, the adoption rate and the number of farmers using Bt cotton hybrids in 2010 all continued to soar to record highs. Indian Bt cotton represents an unprecedented 188-fold increase from 50,000 in 2002 to 9.4 million hectares in 2010.

Around the world, genetically modified crops are growing in popularity faster than any other choice of crop. Organic may always remain an option for wealthier countries, but for everyone else, the technological improvements of the Green Revolution are being aided by the Gene Revolution in order to meet the rising demands of the world’s population.

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