Discussion Paper - Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, Belfer Center

Taking Root: Global Trends in Agricultural Biotechnology

| January 2015


This paper argues that although many transgenic crops are still in their early states of adoption and even more are 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. Agricultural biotechnology has the potential to increase 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 includes crops with potential benefits such as enhanced photosynthesis, stress tolerance, aluminum tolerance, salinity tolerance, pest and disease resistance, nitrogen use efficiency, phosphate use efficiency, and nitrogen fixation.

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.

Restrictive regulations, however, are undermining the ability of society to reap these benefits. The early days of the introduction of transgenic crops were marked by divergent views over long-term benefits and risks. It has been 18 years, however, since the large-scale commercial release of these crops, and there is now sufficient evidence upon which to base historical assessments. 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 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. Although 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.

The way forward is clear.  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. 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, however, it would be a mistake to adopt agricultural policies that expressly exclude transgenic crops as one of the options.


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For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous, and Katherine Gordon. "Taking Root: Global Trends in Agricultural Biotechnology." Discussion Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, January 2015.

The Authors

Calestous Juma