Societal Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology

| July 9, 2014

Global Status and Outlook


Global Status and Outlook

Calestous Juma, PhD

Professor of the Practice of International Development

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University


Twitter @Calestous

Submission to the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture

U.S. House of Representatives

July 9, 2014



The rise of the US biotechnology industry is largely a result of reforms in intellectual property rights that allowed for the patenting of living forms. However, global regulatory hurdles have made it difficult for society to fully reap the benefits of biotechnology. Society’s innovative and entrepreneurial potentialities will be hobbled if the regulatory process for new biotechnology products takes as long as the duration of patent protection, which is at most 20 years. It has taken as long for the United States to complete the approval process for transgenic salmon. Worldwide, even more onerous and discriminatory hurdles stand in the way of societal benefits of biotechnology. Biotechnology product pipelines are being choked by discriminatory regulations, labeling threats, and a rising tide of product disparagement and misinformation.


This submission argues that although many transgenic crops are still in their early states of adoption and even more are still being tested and developed, emerging trends show significant societal benefits through positive economic impact (especially by raising farm incomes), fostering food security, and promoting environment sustainability. The crops show the potential to increase agricultural production on existing arable land; reduce losses related to pests, disease, and drought; increase access to food through higher farm incomes; raise nutrition levels; and promote sustainable agriculture. The pipeline of crops with potential benefits include a wide range of applications such as enhanced photosynthesis, stress tolerance, aluminum tolerance, salinity tolerance, pest and disease resistance, nitrogen use efficiency, phosphate use efficiency, and nitrogen fixation. However, restrictive regulations are undermining the ability of society to reap these benefits.


The largest benefits of transgenic crops are economic and derive from increased income from higher yields and resistance to loss. The best example of this is in India, where transgenic cotton production per hectare is demonstrably higher than that of non-transgenic cotton. Indian smallholder farmers who planted Bt cotton earned 50% more from higher production due to reduced pest damage. With the extra income, farmers’ food consumption levels increased. Likewise, farmers from countries as diverse as South Africa, the Philippines, and the United States who planted Bt maize saw significantly higher yields. In the United States, transgenic papaya helped save the industry in Hawaii, and it is predicted that agricultural biotechnology is the most promising option for combating the citrus greening that is severely impacting those industries in Florida, Texas, and California. Finally, crops are currently in the pipeline that address loss related to local pests and disease in developing countries. Examples include transgenic bananas that combat Xanthomonas wilt (Uganda, Kenya), pest-resistant eggplant (Bangladesh, India, Philippines), and pest-resistant cowpea (Nigeria).


Second, transgenic crops offer the ability to biofortify key crops, which is especially helpful in numerous countries where Vitamin A deficiency is a concern (e.g., Golden Bananas in Uganda and Golden Rice in the Philippines). Furthermore, other developing countries are seeking to promote increased agricultural production of key staple crops that offer nutritional benefits such as transgenic cassava and sorghum in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other crops in the pipeline with nutritional benefits include high-oleic oil soybean, which aims to eliminate trans fats, and the “Arctic Apple,” designed to resist browning and therefore encourage healthier lunch choices among schoolchildren.


Finally, transgenic crops offer environmental benefits by requiring less spraying of pesticides, reducing the amount of arable land needed for increased agricultural production, and combating the effects of climate change through the development of drought-resistant crops such as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). A reduction in the spraying of insecticides results in improved human and ecological health (NAS 2010b).


To realize the potential of transgenic crops, it is important to view them as one of the many sources of food security and to assess the benefits and risks on a case-by-case basis. Given rising agricultural challenges including the impact of climate change, it would be a mistake to adopt agricultural policies that expressly exclude transgenic crops as one of the options.


The early days of the introduction of transgenic crops were marked by divergent views over the long-term benefits and risks. It has been 18 years since the large-scale commercial release of the products and there is now sufficient evidence upon which to base historical assessments. For example, many of the policies adopted by emerging countries to regulate transgenic crops assumed that their risks were likely to be catastrophic, thereby requiring a high degree of caution. While careful monitoring of the crops continues to be warranted, the evidence so far available does not support the adoption of restrictive and costly regulatory policies.


Transgenic crops have recorded the fastest adoption rate of any crop technology in the last century. This is mainly because of the benefits that they confer to farmers, most of whom reside in developing countries. Between 1996 and 2013, transgenic crops added US$116.9 billion to global agriculture, more than half of which accrued to farmers in developing countries. If the crops had not been introduced, the world would have needed another 123 million hectares of land to meet the same levels of production. These benefits are inconsistent with earlier concerns that transgenic crops would not benefit small-scale farmers.


Evidence from large-scale studies supports the view that the crops on the market do not carry unique risks. For example, the European Commission funded more than 50 research projects involving 400 researchers at the cost of 200 million to evaluate this issue. The studies found that “the use of biotechnology and of GE plants per se does not imply higher risks than classical breeding methods or production technologies” (European Commission 2010, p. 16). The journal Critical Reviews of Biotechnology recently published a comprehensive literature review covering the last 10 years of transgenic crop safety and effects on biodiversity and human health. It concluded that “the scientific research conducted thus far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops” (Nicolia et al. 2013, p. 2).


Transgenic crops have been shown to carry the same risk profile as their conventional counterparts. In the long-run, the risks of excluding transgenic crops from global agricultural options would outweigh the risks of including them. Moreover, preventing the commercialization of transgenic crops undermines countries’ abilities to leverage the power of biotechnology whose benefits extend to other fields such as health, environmental management, and informatics.


The way forward is clear.  As mentioned, transgenic crops not only offer increased incomes for farmers, biofortification, and environmental benefits. But the impact of transgenic crops on the overall price of food is just as important, especially in a world where there is a need to feed a growing population of approximately 9 billion by 2050 and address a surge in consumption, including a 70% increase in the demand for food. Transgenic technology leads to more efficient production methods as well as a reduction in loss, which in turn leads to lower food prices both in the United States and abroad.


The balance of evidence suggests that transgenic crops offer no greater risks than their conventional counterparts, and their economic, nutritional, and environmental benefits are extensive. Yet whether or not the crops described above reach the farmers and consumers who need them most depends on the regulatory agencies and the lengthy and costly approval processes of each country, as well as on public resistance to transgenic crops in general.


The United States has historically played a critical role as a champion of biotechnology innovation worldwide. Its leadership is urgently needed at a time when global agricultural challenges are mounting. More specifically, there is a need to bring the regulatory processes governing the approval of agricultural biotechnology in line with the state of scientific knowledge pertaining to the crops and scientific advances. There is no alternative to the evidence-based regulatory processes that have enabled the United States to emerge as the world’s biotechnology innovation powerhouse. To cede this responsibility to opponents of innovation will undermine U.S. competitiveness, erode its scientific leadership, and put the global community at risk from the rising economic and ecological challenges. It will deprive global citizens of important societal benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Put more directly, a national whose regulatory processes take as long as the duration of a patent cannot continue to be a champion of innovation. This has to change and there is no better time than the present.


[1]. The submission uses the term “transgenic crops” to refer only to those crops that have been developed through the use of genes derived from unrelated species. All crops that are in use today have in one way or another been genetically modified through methods that do not involve the transfer of genes across species. This paper is therefore concerned only with transgenic crops and not all genetically modified (GM) crops, which include plants derived from conventional plant breeding.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous. “Societal Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology.” Testimony to United States House of Representatives, Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture., July 9, 2014.