Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology

When launching the IAASTD report, the World Bank’s objective was to settle the dispute over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, or at least to reach a broad scientific consensus on the issue. The cultivation of genetically modified organisms only accounts for a small part of modern biotechnologies in the agricultural and food sector. The success of the few GMOs that are commercially available is still disputed. The associated health hazards and environmental risks still cannot be reliably assessed, whilst findings and concepts of research regarding long-term security remain missing. Problems resulting from the privatisation and patenting of knowledge and seeds are particularly serious in genetic engineering. The extent of its monopolisation in the hands of a few multinational corporations is unprecedented. As GMOs are both costly and research-intensive, the IAASTD estimates that they will not play a significant role for small-holders in developing countries or in the fight against hunger in the foreseeable future. Poorer countries are faced with particular problems resulting from the complex safety regulations and control provisions that are required, as well as from the unresolved questions regarding cross-breeding of genetic properties and the coexistence with GMO-free cultivation methods. >>more

Biotechnology and Private-Sector Control

There are two contrasting views laid out in the IAASTD report in terms of the best possible use of modern biotechnology for development and sustainability.
One camp argues that an over-regulation of modern biotechnology hampers the speed and full realisation of its benefits, especially those for the poor, while others claim that the extensive control of modern biotechnology by the private sector weakens the ability of public authorities to create and disseminate knowledge, research and technologies that serve the common good (Synthesis, p. 43).

Facts & Figures

According to the biotech lobbying organisation ISAAA, in 2013 GM crops reached 175 million hectares, an increase of 3% as compared to 2012. The US is the lead producer of biotech crops with 70 million hectares (40% of global). Brazil ranks second with 40.3 million hectares.

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 175 million hectares planted with GM crops in 2013 as stated by the ISAAA only make up roughly 3.5% of the total agricultural area and 12.5% of arable land.

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. In the EU, 43 out of 49 applications for GM cultivation are for herbicide tolerant or insect resistant varieties. 15 out of 23 pending applications in the US are also for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance.

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% for 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.

Pesticide Use: An NGO report, which draws on empirical research, found that GM crops do not lead to a reduction in pesticide use. In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, pests have increased 12-fold since 1997 and with that the use of pesticides. Soya growers in Argentina and Brazil use twice as much herbicide on their GM as on conventional crops. A survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.

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.

Monsanto spent $2 million in the third quarter of 2011 to lobby the US federal government on issues including regulations for genetically engineered crops and patent reforms. That is slightly more than the $1.9 million Monsanto spent a year earlier and up almost 18% from the $1.7 million it spent during the previous quarter.


  • FAO Biotechnology Overview of FAO’s activities in agricultural biotechnologies
  • EFSA - GMO Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority
  • APHIS Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - U.S. Department of Agriculture agency in charge of regulating genetically engineered organisms
  • World Bank's position on GMOs in the World Development Report Innovating through science and technology World Bank, 2008.

Civil Society


Videos: Genetic Engineering

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  • UNEP GM Crop ProductionUNEP GM Crop Production
  • UNEP BiotechnologyUNEP Biotechnology
  • UNEP Land Area: Conventional and GM cropsUNEP Land Area: Conventional and GM crops
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Unterstützer von biovision Verlag der Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft e.V. Demeter Greenpeace Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung Eine Welt Stiftung Die Grünen, Europäische Freie Allianz Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst NABU - Naturschutzbund Deutschland e.V. Misereor Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft in der GLS Treuhand
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