One of the most frequent claims from the critics of biotechnology and GM crops is that ‘there are no benefits to GM crops’. This is a claim made largely in ignorance and refusal to acknowledge that there are benefits from GM crops as well as claiming that identified benefits have been manipulated by multinational corporations that develop the technology. However, the claims of biotech critics does not detract from the fact that there are documented benefits from the production of GM crops. One example of this is the production of GM cotton in the African nation Burkina Faso.
Farms in West Africa are small and non-mechanized. Farm size is defined by the number animals available to assist with farming operations. Large farms have two or more pairs, while small farms operate with only one pair of animals. There are also manual farms, meaning there are no livestock to assist with planting or harvesting, all of the work is done by the family farming the land. Large farms account for 46% of Burkina Faso farms, small farms account for 51% and manual farms the remaining 3%. A typical family farm in Burkina Faso includes 14 people with at least 8 of them involved in the farm operations. Annual household incomes for farmers growing cotton range from US$450-780. On average, farms would have 3 hectare of cotton production.
Due to the increase in insect pests that attacked cotton, cotton yield losses range from 25-85%. These losses are experienced in spite of heavy spending on chemically-based pest controls. Chemical applications are made by the farmer, wearing a backpack sprayer, walking through their cotton field, hand-spraying the plants, frequently wearing little or no protective clothing that would protect against poisoning from the chemical application.
A three year analysis (2009-11) on GM cotton adoption in Burkina Faso was led by Jeffrey Vitale, where GM cotton was approved for commercial production in 2008. Average yield increases of 22% was achieved from GM cotton, compared to conventional cotton. The cost of production was nearly identical as the higher seed costs for GM cotton was offset by the higher amount of insecticides that needed to be purchased by conventional farmers. In total, the per hectare cost for GM cotton was US$6 higher than conventional, US$361 vs $355. While yield increased by 22%, revenue per hectare more than doubled, rising from US$70/ha to US$150/ha.
Perhaps the most important benefit is the reduction in the number of reported cases of pesticide poisoning. The analysis found that 70% of cotton farmers do not wear protective clothing of any kind and over one-third do not even bother to wash their clothes after spraying in a cotton field. Given the close proximity between the farmer spraying insecticide and direct contact with the chemical, 50% of cotton farmers reported a case of pesticide poisoning in the three years prior to 2009. With the reduced level of insecticide application in GM cotton, it was estimated that over 30,000 cases of pesticide poisoning were annually avoided.
The US$80/ha revenue increase from GM cotton meant that on some of the smaller farms, household annual incomes increased by 50% from the 3ha of cotton production. Raising annual household income from US$450 to US$700 is without a doubt a beneficial impact from biotechnology and GM crops.