A 2012 report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications highlights the unprecedented growth in biotech crops globally, particularly in developing countries. Of the 28 countries planting biotech crops in 2012, 20 were developing countries, compared to only eight industrialized nations. The past 17 years have seen consecutive increases in the numbers of farmers worldwide planting GMOs. According to ISAAA, these figures are expected to grow.
But are GMOs really inevitable?
Finding a non-GMO option for boosting crop yields could have big payoff. In Mexico this winter, poor fearing the end of their ancestral varieties of maize, the poor marched in protest of the potential damage cross-pollination could have on their indigenous non-GMO seeds.
A new trend in India suggests an alternative that could be better-suited to small farms.
In Bihar, India's poorest state, farmers also often lack the financial capability to purchase herbicides, farm inputs and GMO seeds. Yet Sumant Kumar, a young farmer from the village of Darveshpura in Nalanda district, has shattered the world record of rice cultivation per hectare with an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice grown on only one hectare of land. This figure beat the 19.4 tonnes grown by Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping and all other attempts by the biggest agribusiness corporations. Six months after Kumar made international headlines, other farmers in his village broke records for both potato and wheat cultivation. Scientists, development groups and politicians all flocked to the region to learn firsthand what was going on.
With some help from local NGOs, the farmers were practicing a method called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which dates back to the 1980s in Madagascar. This method reverses the older practice of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four--the method typically employed by rice farmers around the globe. As reported by The Guardian last month, the technique used by farmers in Darveshpura is to cultivate only half as many seeds, then transplant the young seedlings into fields one by one. Another key step is to space the seedlings at 25cm intervals, use less water to keep the soil drier and allow abundant amounts of air to reach the roots through meticulous weeding around the plants. The whole system is built on the mantra of "less is more." Pran, a local Indian NGO, has introduced the SRI method to hundreds of villages over the past few years. With dramatic increases in yields of wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, tomatoes, yams, garlic and aubergine, the method is gaining popularity over the costly alternative of GMO seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and highly mechanized farm equipment.
"It [SRI] is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution, which said that you had to change the genes and the soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost," says Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University.
"Agriculture in the 21st century must be practiced differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are in many places more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees."
India's experience certainly calls into question ISAAA's assumption that biotech crops will continue their unfettered growth. It will be interesting to see if SRI methods make their way over to Mexico.