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Environmental Protection & Preservation

Biotech Crops Help World's Farmers 'Go Green'

Biotech crops have produced a decade of improvements in yield and net farm income for grain, oilseed and cotton farmers. Now, according to a peer-reviewed study on the crops' global economic and environmental impact, the benefits are "clear" -- especially reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2005, herbicide-tolerant biotech crops planted using conservation tillage practices helped to retain carbon in the soil. Insect-resistant crops dramatically reduced the need for spraying, while also significantly reducing farm fuel usage. All told, biotech crops, planted during their 10th year of use on 87 million hectares (215 million acres) by 8.5 million farmers, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 9 billion kg. (8.9 million tons). That's the equivalent to removing nearly 4 million family cars from the road for an entire year, according to study author Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics Limited of Dorchester, United Kingdom.

Biotech Crops and the Green Era

"Simply put, biotech crops have changed the way people farm," Brookes said. "Their environmental performance during the first decade of use shows the important role the technology is playing both now and in the future in helping global agriculture reduce its greenhouse gas emissions."

According to Brookes, countries such as the United States, Canada and Argentina have led the way toward these environmental benefits by utilizing herbicide-tolerant crops to switch to no- and low-till crop production. There and elsewhere, insect-resistant biotech crops also have reduced sprayings. It all adds up to less tillage and reduced field operations, he said.

Brookes' study estimates that since their commercialization in 1996, biotech crops have saved farmers 1,679 million liters (441 million gallons) of fuel through reduced field operations -- eliminating 4,613 million kg. of carbon dioxide emissions.

Disturbing the soil with conventional tillage releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. No- and low-tillage cropping systems that use biotech herbicide-tolerant varieties, Brookes said, leave more plant residue on the soil's surface, sequestering the carbon and contributing to soil and water conservation.

In Argentina alone, the study estimates that herbicide-tolerant varieties helped to increase no-till soybean plantings by 157 percent, from 5.9 million hectares in 1996 to 15.2 million hectares in 2005 -- reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20,988 million kg.

Worldwide, use of biotech crops decreased the environmental impact of crop production associated with pesticide use by more than 15 percent as calculated using Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) methodology, according to the study. Since 1996, herbicide tolerant and insect-resistant biotech crops reduced pesticide sprayings by 224 million kg. (500 million pounds) of active ingredient -- a 6.9 percent reduction worldwide. That reduction is equivalent to about 35 percent of the annual volume of active ingredient applied to arable crops in the European Union.

$5 Billion Benefit to 2005 Net Farm Income

According to Brookes' estimates, biotech crops contributed $5 billion in net farm-level economic benefit to farmers -- or $5.6 billion if the additional income arising from a second crop of soybean in Argentina is included.

Combining biotech insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits in corn has boosted farm income by more than $3.1 billion since the traits' introductions, Brookes noted.

The largest gains in farm income have come from biotech soybean and largely from cost savings. In 2005, herbicide-tolerant soybean generated $2.84 billion additional income -- adding about 7 percent to the value of the crop in biotech soybean growing countries.

Brookes summarized that the economic and environmental benefits of biotech crops are fairly evenly divided between farmers in developed and developing countries. In 2005, farmers in developing countries captured 55 percent of the additional net farm income generated by biotech crops globally. Over the 1996-2005 period, farmers in developing countries accrued 48 percent of the environmental benefits, primarily from reduced crop protection product usage.

The study's documentation of biotech crops' increased productivity and reduced environmental impact comes at a good time. "We are constantly being asked if North America can produce enough corn to meet food, fuel and export needs," said U.S. Grains Council Chairman Vic Miller, an Iowa corn producer. "The answer is yes, especially with the help of biotechnology. This study goes a long way toward documenting the production increases achieved with biotech crops. And greater yields mean more corn for ethanol, which -- unlike fossil fuels -- removes carbon dioxide from the air each time a new corn plant sprouts. Reduced environmental impact through biotech crop use is becoming an important selling point as we communicate with our grain trading partners."

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), more than half of the world's arable land (776 million hectares/1.9 billion acres) lies in 22 countries now approved for planting biotech crops. By 2015, ISAAA forecasts biotech crops will be under cultivation in 40 countries with at least 20 million farmers planting 200 million acres annually.

"Projecting forward, the environmental gains made possible with biotech crops have the potential to compound quite dramatically as the technology is available to more farmers worldwide. These are environmental benefits that if overlooked in the past will not be in the future," Brookes concluded.

Brookes' study, "GM Crops: The First 10 Years -- Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts," was commissioned by Monsanto and was published in the Jan. 17, 2007 issue of AgBioFourm, a peer-reviewed journal on economics and biotechnology. The complete study is available on the U.S. Grains Council website,, and the ISAAA website,

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