Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

GM technology is delivering its promise

In their article, GM: higher production doesn't mean wider acceptance, Luisa Massarani and colleagues make an unfair link between the introduction of genetically modified (GM) soya to Argentina and a shift in the agricultural practices of small farmers.

A study published in 2006 by Eduardo Trigo and Eugenio Cap shows that in the 1987–88 growing season more than 65 per cent of cultivated land in small farms (less than 100 hectares) was already planted with soya, as was 27 per cent of the land in farms larger than 1,000 hectares.

This means that, contrary to the authors' suggestion, almost ten years before the release of GM soya, small farmers in Argentina were already planting soya or leasing their land for the crop.

Massarani and colleagues also mistakenly say that the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant GM soya, combined with non-till practices, increased herbicide use in Argentina. In fact, the soya crop has always been treated with herbicides, and with agents that are more toxic than glyphosate. These are usually used pre-emergence and applied directly to the soil, where they stay active for a long time, affecting the development and yield of the winter crop planted after soya.

The replacement of these toxic herbicides by glyphosate, applied on top of GM soya, has allowed farmers to use what is called a complete non-till practice programme, with an increase in soybean rotation, a larger number of winter crops, and less soil erosion, leading to more sustainable agriculture.

When it comes to Brazil, the authors present a biased historical perspective on the delay in approving GM crops for cultivation. They make no mention of the frustration felt by the thousands of Brazilian farmers who could not use GM technology for almost ten years. And they do not mention the billions of dollars that Brazilian agriculture lost by not taking advantage of this technology.

In considering the approval of GM crops for cultivation, the Brazilian National Biosafety Technical Commission, CTNBio, drew on valid scientific evidence on the safety of these products.

Numerous national and international scientific and regulatory organisations, including Argentinean agencies, have reviewed similar evidence and concluded that GM crops pose no unique safety concerns compared with crops developed by traditional breeding. Indeed, these crops have been widely adopted by farmers across the world — they are now grown on more than 1 billion hectares worldwide — demonstrating an established history of safe use.

Many Brazilian and internationalscientific and regulatory institutions recognise GM technology as an important tool for improving crop yields and encourage its use, both in developing crops suited to poor countries and enhancing the nutritional value of staple crops for resource-poor farmers and consumers.

There is also some worldwide recognition that GM crops benefit the environment by reducing pesticide use and enabling the use of more sustainable agricultural practices.

At the turn of the century, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said: "When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanised population in the next millennium."

Ten years later, biotechnology and GM crops are certainly delivering on those promises.