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The Real Environmental and Economic Impact of GMOs

This comprehensive paper, which is the ninth annual report on the global economic and environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) crops, provides insights into the reasons why so many farmers around the world have adopted crop biotechnology and continue to use it in their production systems since the technology first became available on a widespread commercial basis, in the mid-1990s. 

The paper draws, and is largely based, on the considerable body of peer-reviewed literature available that has examined the economic and other reasons behind farm-level crop biotechnology adoption, together with the environmental impacts associated with the changes. 

Given the controversy that the use of this technology engenders in some debates and for some people, the work contained in this paper has been submitted and accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed publication. The full analysis paper, nearly 200 pages, is too long for acceptance for publication as a single document in peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, the authors submitted two papers focusing separately on the economic and environmental impacts of the technology. These papers have been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal GM Crops ( The economic impact paper (“Global income and production effects of GM crops 1996–2012”) is available in GM Crops and Food: Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain, 5.1, 1–11, and the environmental impact paper (“Key environmental impacts of global GM crop use 1996–2012”) is available in the following edition, 5.2, 1–12 (April/May). These papers follow 15 previous peer-reviewed papers by the authors on the subject of crop biotechnology impact. 

Copies of the full report can be downloaded from A brief summary of the key findings follows: 


GM crop use continues to benefit the environment and farmers


Crop biotechnology continues to provide major environmental benefits and allow farmers to grow more, using fewer resources. A majority of these benefits are in developing countries. 

“‘In the 17th year of widespread adoption, crops developed through genetic modification delivered more environmentally friendly farming practices while providing clear improvements to farmer productivity and income,’ said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics, co-author of the report. ‘Half of the farm income gains and the majority of the environmental gains associated with changes in pesticide use and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions occurred in developing countries.’” 

A few highlights from this comprehensive review are: 

  • Crop biotechnology has contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This results from less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2012, this was equivalent to removing 27 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 11.9 million cars from the road for one year; 
  • Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying (1996–2012) by 503 million kg (-8.8%). This is equal to the total amount of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the EU 27 for nearly two crop years. As a result, this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 18.7%[1]
  • The insect-resistant (IR) technology used in cotton and corn has consistently delivered yield gains from reduced pest damage. The average yield gains over the 1996–2012 period across all users of this technology has been +10.4% for insect-resistant corn and +16.1% for insect-resistant cotton; 
  • The herbicide-tolerant (HT) technology used in soybeans and canola has also contributed to increased production in some countries by helping farmers in Argentina grow a crop of soybeans after wheat in the same growing season[2], through higher yields and improved weed control; 
  • Between 1996 and 2012, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 122 million tonnes of soybeans and 231 million tonnes of corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 18.2 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.6 million tonnes of canola; 
  • GM crops are allowing farmers to grow more without using additional land. If crop biotechnology had not been available to the (17.3 million) farmers using the technology in 2012, maintaining global production levels at the 2012 levels would have required additional plantings of 4.9 million ha of soybeans, 6.9 million ha of corn, 3.1 million ha of cotton and 0.2 million ha of canola. This total area requirement is equivalent to 9% of the arable land in the U.S., or 24% of the arable land in Brazil, or 27% of the cereal area in the EU (28); 
  • Crop biotechnology helps farmers earn reasonable incomes for their work. The net economic benefit at the farm level in 2012 was $18.8 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $117/hectare. For the 17-year period (1996-2012), the global farm income gain has been $116.6 billion; 
  • The highest-yield gains were obtained by farmers in developing countries, many of which are resource-poor and farm small plots of land; 
  • The total farm income gain of $116.6 billion was divided equally between farmers in developing and developed countries; 
  • Crop biotechnology continues to be a good investment for farmers around the world. The cost farmers paid for accessing crop biotechnology in 2012 ($5.6 billion[3][4] payable to the seed supply chain) was equal to 23% of the total gains (a total of $24.4 billion inclusive of the $18.8 billion income gains). Globally, farmers received an average of $3.33 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds; 
  • Farmers in developing countries received $3.74 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds in 2012 (the cost being equal to 21% of total technology gains), while farmers in developed countries received $3.04 for each dollar invested in GM crop seed (the cost being equal to 25% of the total technology gains). The higher share of total technology gains realized by farmers in developing countries relative to farmers in developed countries mainly reflects weaker provision and enforcement of intellectual property rights, coupled with higher average levels of benefits in developing countries. 

[1] As measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) indicator (developed at Cornell University)

[2] By facilitating the adoption of no tillage production systems this effectively shortens the time between planting and harvest of a crop

[3] The cost of the technology accrues to the seed supply chain, including sellers of seed to farmers, seed multipliers, plant breeders, distributors and GM technology providers.

[4] A typical ‘equivalent’ cost of technology share for non GM forms of production (e.g., for new seed or forms of crop protection) is 30–40%. 


Update: The 2016 report is available here.