The rise of genetically modified crops, in two charts

May 1, 2013

The newest issue of Nature has a thoughtful package of articles taking a careful look at the rise of genetically modified crops around the world. It's definitely worth a read for anyone interested in the subject.

This chart, for instance, shows that GM (transgenic) crop planting is dominated by just five countries: The United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. And, as it happens, there's been a real slowdown over the past five years:

Meanwhile, just four crops — soya bean, corn, cotton, and canola — account for "nearly all GM crops grown in 2012." And the most popular modifications involve herbicide tolerance and insect resistance for a handful of crops:

There's more in the Nature issue than just a few charts. Natasha Gilbert, for instance, takes a look at the research on GMOs and scrutinizes some of the more popular claims out there. Some highlights:

--GM crops have bred superweeds: True 
--GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide: False
--Transgenes spread to wild crops in Mexico: Unknown

In a separate essay, three British scientists argue that the debate over the use of GMOs in developing countries would be much more productive if it moved beyond wild claims like "GM crops will destroy everything" or "GM crops will fix all our agricultural problems":

Genetic engineering is not essential, or even useful, for all crop improvement. But in some cases, it helps to improve yields and nutritional value, and reduces the risks and costs associated with the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Excluding any technology that can help people to get the food and nutrition that they need should be done only for strong, rational and locally relevant reasons.

Another noteworthy take comes from the Nature editors, who point out that GMOs haven't delivered yet on many of the wonderful social and environmental benefits they promised 30 years ago. That's partly because so much of the research has been confined to the private sector:

Genetic modification is a nascent technology for which development has moved very quickly to commercialization. That has forced most research into the for-profit sector. Without broader research programmes outside the seed industry, developments will continue to be profit-driven, limiting the chance for many of the advances that were promised 30 years ago — such as feeding the planet’s burgeoning population sustainably, reducing the environmental footprint of farming and delivering products that amaze and delight.

The full set of articles is worth reading. And the pointer is thanks to Keith Kloor.

Related: Here's a basic primer on genetically modified foods and the labeling debate. Note that Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota raised the same issue with me that the Nature editorial does — in practice, biotech companies tend to focus their GMO research efforts on making crops more profitable, rather than making foods more nutritious or boosting yields to alleviate world hunger.

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Neil Irwin | May 1, 2013