Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

When initiating the IAASTD process in 2003, one of the World Bank’s main objectives was to settle the dispute over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture by reaching a broad scientific consensus on the issue. This aim, however, was not achieved. In the end the scientists only reached agreement on the fact that they did not agree about the opportunities and risks of this form of technology."Two framing perspectives on how best to put modern bio­technology to work for achieving sustainability and de­velopment goals are contrasted in the IAASTD. The first perspective argues that modern biotechnology is overregulated and this limits the pace and full extent of its benefits. According to the argument, regu­lation of biotechnology may slow down the distribution of products to the poor. The second perspective says that the largely private con­trol of modern biotechnology is creat­ing both perverse incentive systems, and is also eroding the public capacity to generate and adopt AKST that serves the public good." (Synthesis, p. 43)Since the discovery of the genetic code (DNA), ground-breaking findings in molecular biology have revolutionised our understanding of nature. A new image of life has emerged: living organisms are seen as information systems whose functioning can seemingly be analysed and deliberately manipulated with the help of computers. However, the more genome researchers advance into the complex interaction between DNA, RNA and proteins, genetics and epigenetics, genetic make-up and the environment, the more confusing the picture becomes.

The IAASTD sees huge potential in the wide field of modern biotechnologies for food and agriculture. The cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMO), whose genetic information was artificially altered, only accounts for a small part of this field, albeit a highly controversial one. Multinational companies make good money with GMOs, selling them in combination with the compatible pesticides. They make their profits with large-scale, pesticide-intensive monocultures of maize, soybean, cotton and rapeseed. Only two genetically modified traits have been commercialised on a large scale. Firstly, herbicide tolerance that allows the use of total herbicides in every stage of plant growth and any quantity. Secondly, insect-resistant Bt crops that are genetically modified to produce toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, reducing the need to use chemical insecticides. However, both work only for a time.

The predictions of the IAASTD have meanwhile become reality: nature is adapting and an increasing number of weeds have become resistant to certain herbicides. The use of herbicides has therefore multiplied in areas where genetically modified crops are grown, with a whole mix of agrochemicals required. Insects can also develop a resistance to Bt toxins. In addition, other insects with a resistance to Bt use the host plants that have become available and have to be controlled with additional insecticides. This fundamental dilemma of the chemical control of organisms, which have turned into pests due to large monocultures, is not solved by methods of genetic engineering. This may be due to the fact that this would be damaging to the business interests of GMO manufacturers. >>more

Facts & Figures

According to the biotech-lobbying organisation ISAAA, in 2014 GM crops reached 181.5 million hectares, an increase of 3.6% as compared to 2013. The US is the lead producer of biotech crops with 73.1 million hectares (40% of global). Brazil ranks second with 42.2 million hectares (23% of global area), followed by Argentina (13%), India and Canada (both 6.3%).

According to the FAO, the global agricultural area amounts to 4.9 billion hectares and arable land to 1.4 billion hectares. This means that the 181.5 million hectares planted with GM crops in 2014, as stated by the ISAAA, only make up roughly 3.7% of the total agricultural area and 12.9% of arable land.

Genetic modification is still largely restricted to four crops; soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton. GM crop varieties now account for 79% of global soybean planting, 32% of global maize planting, 24% of global canola planting and 70% of global cotton planting.

Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are the only two traits that have been developed and cultivated on a large scale, supposedly to reduce pesticide usage. 57% of GM crops grown are herbicide tolerant, 16% are insect resistant and 27% are a combination of both.

In 2013, the GM maize MON810 was being grown on a mere 0.14% of the total arable land in Europe and only in five EU countries. In 2013, the European Court of Justice annulled the authorisation for the GM potato Amflora. Spain is the main GM crop growing country in the EU with 136,962 hectares. In the other four countries, areas of GM crop production are low and in some cases declining. Between 2012 and 2013 there was a reduction of more than 1,000 ha in the GM crop area in Portugal.

The area of U.S. cropland infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has expanded to 61.2 million acres (24.7 million hectares) in 2012, up from 40.7 million acres in 2011. Nearly half of all U.S. farmers interviewed by Stratus Agri-Marketing reported that glyphosate-resistant weeds were a problem on their farm in 2012, up from 34% of farmers in 2011. The rate at which glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading is gaining momentum; increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012.

During 2011, South African farmers planted a total of 2.3 million hectares of GM crops. According to the South African National Seed Organisation, 77% of maize seeds, 100% of cotton seeds and 78% of soybean seeds sold in South Africa in 2010/2011 were genetically modified. Between 2008 and February 2012, South African authorities granted a total of 1,458 GMO permits. 76% of these permits were awarded to the country’s three largest seed companies Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Pannar.

GM herbicide-tolerant crops led to a 239 million kilogram increase in herbicide use in the US between 1996 and 2011, while Bt crops have reduced chemical insecticide spray use by 56 million kilograms. Overall pesticide use increased by 183 million kilogram, or about 7%, compared with the amount that would have been used if the same area had been planted to non-GM crops.

From 1991 to 2012, the cereal and oilseed cultivated area in Argentina increased by 50% and the crop yield by 30%, but pesticide use increased by a staggering 858% to 335 million litres per year. While the average amount of glyphosate applied per hectare was three litres in 1996 when GM soya was initially introduced to Argentina, the amount being applied in 2013 was 12 litres per hectare and year.

Monsanto spent $6.94 million in 2013 to lobby the US federal government on issues including regulations for genetically engineered crops and patent reforms. That is 16% more than the 5.97 million Monsanto spent a year earlier.

Cost of contamination: The EU’s research programme on co-existence and traceability (Co-Extra) estimates the additional economic costs of GM cultivation for the food chain can increase to 13% of total product turnover. According to Friends of the Earth this neglects factors such as the economic burden of co-existence measures, avoidance and segregation costs for the food industry. The negative effects of contamination incidents are also covered insufficiently.


  • FAO Biotechnology overview of FAO’s activities in agricultural biotechnologies
  • EFSA The European Food Safety Authority's Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms deals with GMOs and genetically modified food and feed
  • APHIS Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - U.S. agency in charge of regulating genetically engineered organisms
  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of genetically engineered organisms
  • European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) brings together independent scientific expertise for the critical assessment of existing and emerging technologies
  • ISAAA International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications is a pro-GMO organisation which offers statistics on GM crop cultivation

Civil Society


Videos: Genetic Engineering

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The World According to Monsanto

Spotlight on superweeds


  • UNEP Major GM crop production countriesUNEP Major GM crop production countries
  • UNEP BiotechnologyUNEP Biotechnology
  • UNEP Land area: conventional and GM cropsUNEP Land area: conventional and GM crops

Map of genetically engineered food labelling laws

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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