“It’s the Economy, Stupid”: Understanding Agricultural Biotechnology

By | Blog, Future Directions

Plant scientists develop knowledge that may lead to new cultivars or products that have great potential to benefit agriculture, society, and research. Although these technologies often show immense promise in the lab or during experimental field trials they are not always adopted in the field. James Carville’s famed explanation of what determines the result of the US presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid,” also applies to agricultural biotechnology. Research in agricultural economics is investigating what happens to these innovations beyond the experimental phase. Why are some of them succeeding while others are not? What is the social value of a given technology and what is its potential? Why are individuals and groups objecting to their introduction?

I have been working on agricultural biotechnology over the last decade, and there is quite a large body of literature on this topic. Two excellent surveys of the literature can be found in Qaim (2009) and Bennett et al. (2013). This blog focus on how technology affects agricultural productivity and profitability at the farm level, which helps to explain adoption choices, amount of food available, and food prices.

The first large-scale, commercially available agricultural biotechnologies to utilize genetic modification incorporated either pest-control traits, such as insect resistance through plant-producing Bt toxin, virus and oomycete resistance, or herbicide tolerance (to glyphosate). Such cultivars had the potential to increase output/edible yield by reducing damage and competition.

Agricultural economists have found that reasons and rates of adoption of such genetically modified (GM) cultivars vary among locations. In some cases, GM cultivars increase profits by increasing yields (mostly in developing countries where they address problems that have not been addressed before). In other cases, it increases profits because it leads to the reduction of alternative pest controls (mostly in developed countries). There is also significant evidence that many farmers have adopted GM cultivars not only because they have reduced pest infestation but also because the have reduced exposure to chemicals known to be toxic. For example studies of Bt-cotton in China have found that its adoption has actually saved lives in China (Huang, Pray, and Rozelle, 2002) There were several fatalities from the application of toxic chemicals agrichemicals, and these types of fatalities have significantly declined since the adoption of Bt-cotton.

cottonIn the case of Bt-cotton in China and Bt-maize in South Africa, adoption rates are considerably high and have also increased farmers’ profits significantly (greater than 50% in India (Subramanian and Qaim, 2009)). It is often thought (incorrectly) that the profits from GM-cultivars end up in the pockets of the large multinational corporations, instead our evidence indicates that they are shared among the providers of the technology (both the multinational corporations and local companies that sell it), the farmers, and the consumers. Consumer benefits also increase the greater the adoption rate, and the larger the price effect. In fact it is possible to distinguish between adopters who simply switch from traditional to GM-cultivars and those who expand production capacity because it becomes more profitable when growing GM cultivars. For example, in India, most cotton production has switched to Bt-cultivars and the share of global cotton production from India subsequently increased. In the case of soybeans global acreage has increased by more than 40% over the last 20 years, and most of this new acreage is growing GM-soybean. It should be noted that a large proportion of this expansion in soybean occurred through double-cropping in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, so the actual footprint of agriculture did not increase. Our studies estimate that the over supply of maize increased by about 10%, of cotton by 20%, and of soybeans by 30%. Without GM-soybeans, the price of soybeans is estimated to have been 33% higher on average, the price of maize 13% higher, and the price of cotton about 30% higher (Barrows, Sexton, and Zilberman, 2013).

800px-Soybean_fields_at_Applethorpe_FarmThe fact that GM-cultivars have already reduced the price of soybeans is very significant. While increases in commodity prices have little effect on consumers in the USA or EU, they affect consumers in developing countries quite substantially. Likewise, when supply decreases, consumers in the poorest countries around the world suffer most. We all remember the food price crisis of 2008. Without GM-crops, we would have experienced a much worse food situation. The increase in the supply of food provided by GM-crops is of the same order of magnitude as the amount of maize that is allocated to biofuel. If Europe and Africa adopted Bt-maize and soybeans, prices would decrease significantly and we would not face the food supply and access challenges that we face today. If we introduce existing traits to rice and wheat, the global food situation will improve, which will benefit poor producers and consumers the most. Moreover, since existing traits improve edible yields, they allow farmers to produce more on a given unit of land. Without GM-cultivars, we would need to employ more land in production, which translates to greater deforestation and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from more water and fertilizer use. The use of Roundup Ready soybeans enables the adoption of low-tillage farming practices, which leads to carbon sequestration (Lal, 2005). A conservative assessment suggests that the adoption of GM-crops reduced future GHG emissions by an amount equivalent to 1/8 of the level produced in a year by cars in the United States.

Agricultural biotechnology is in its infancy. The process to breed a new cultivar begins with researchers in companies and universities making new discoveries and seeking intellectual property such as patents or plant variety rights. Then, startups and companies invest in their development and commercialization. In the 1990s, the biotechnology industry was growing very fast. However, complex regulatory systems, particularly in the EU, have placed a heavy burdened on this process, drastically slowing the innovation process and in some cases even stalling the industry. As a result the technology is far from reaching its potential. In the pipeline alone, there are many innovations that can improve food quality, digestibility, nutritional intake, and shelf life. These technologies can be beneficial to consumers and, through increased efficiency of inputs such as land and water- They can also reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. Heavy and uncertain regulation denies us from obtaining the benefits from these technologies. In many crops (e.g. fruits and vegetables), there has been minimal adoption of agricultural biotechnology, which reduces our ability to address disease and pest problems as well as achieving improved product quality. More importantly, we need as many tools as possible to adapt to climate change, drought, flood, extreme temperatures, unstable weather, and new pests. But, with stricter regulation and resistance to GM-crops, there will be limited investment in these technologies and our capacity to adapt to and mitigate climate change will be compromised. Economic research aims to assist governments in developing policies that will make consumers, producers, and the environment better off. The existing heavy regulation of agricultural biotechnology is very costly and thus suboptimal from an economic perspective.

This blog was provided by David Zilberman – Professor and Robinson Chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.



Barrows G., S. Sexton and D. Zilberman. 2013. “The impact of agricultural biotechnology on supply and land-use.” CUDARE Working Paper 1133, University of California, Berkeley.

Bennett, A.B., C. Chi-Ham, G. Barrows, S. Sexton and D. Zilberman. 2013. “Agricultural biotechnology: Economics, environment, ethics, and the future.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 38: 249-279.

Huang, J., C. Pray and S. Rozelle. 2002. “Enhancing the Crops to Feed the Poor.” Nature 418:678– 684.

Lal, R. 2005. Soil erosion and carbon dynamics. Soil Tillage Research 81:137–142.

Qaim, M. 2009. “The economics of genetically modified crops.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 1: 665-694.

Subramanian, A. and M. Qaim. 2009. “Village-wide effects of agricultural biotechnology: the case of Bt cotton in India.” World Development 37:256–267.

Musings of a Well-Travelled Plant Biologist

By | Blog, GPC Community

As someone who’s been “all over the map” as a plant scientist, I have a special appreciation for the goals of the Global Plant Council (GPC).  

My Dad was a country doctor, and my best friends as a child were the sons and daughters of farmers who raised pigs, corn and soybeans in rural Indiana. It was an interesting time in which small farms were gradually being consolidated and the percentage of our population engaged in farming was gradually decreasing—a phenomenon I’ll come back to later in this blog.

If you count my time as an undeDelmer LAb MSU-DOErgraduate and graduate student, then a post-doc, and later as a faculty member in the plant sciences, I’ve been associated with 5 major American Universities. Having been married to an Israeli, I also spent 10 years as a faculty member at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem where I was challenged in my middle age to learn to lecture in Hebrew. I spent two sabbaticals in the private sector—at The ARCO Plant Cell Research Institute and at Calgene, Inc. My research on plant cell walls was supported at various stages by grants from The US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, from the US-Israel bi-national Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD), by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF), by Cotton Incorporated that is funded by cotton growers in the U.S., and from funds that supported a few collaborations with scientists from Pioneer HiBred and Monsanto.

I have chaired the Section of Plant Biology at UC Davis and served as President of the American Society of Plant Biology and was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

At age 60, I turned my life upside down with a decision to leave Academia and work as a program officer doing grant making in support of developing world agriculture for the Rockefeller Foundation. Although based in New York City, this work took me to China, Thailand, the Philippines, India, and a number of countries in Africa where I was exposed to the complex challenges facing developing world agriculture. I also interacted with scientists from many National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) and as well as those from the international centers of the CGIAR. I am now officially retired but continue to serve on scientific boards and consult for foundations that support research related to international agriculture.

So, yes, I suppose you could say I’m a bona fide member of the global plant science community. And so, for the rest of this blog, I thought I would try to do two things: first, to outline from my perspective some of the great strengths and weaknesses of these various research systems; and second, to outline some thoughts on how the GPC might best interact with these systems in ways that take advantage of their great strengths and offer help to address some of their weaknesses.

I’ll begin with the Universities and Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs). On the plus side, Universities and ARIs provide the venue for truly cutting edge research in the plant sciences; they possess a diverse array of scientists who are well funded and motivated to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works and to seek new knowledge of fundamental plant processes. Such activities thus lay a foundation for applied research that benefits the environment, agriculture, and consumers of food. In this best-case scenario, their scientists have the time and enjoy educating a new generation of students who are challenged to think for themselves and express their ideas freely.  In the worst-case scenario, scientists at these institutions are under-funded, over-worked, forced to choose between doing good teaching and good research, and also feel isolated from the larger global agricultural community.

By contrast, scientists in the NARIs of the world represent the public sector’s system for translation of scientific advances into new products and practices that can be passed on to farmers. In the best of all worlds, their staffs enjoy good government support and excellent relationships with a strong team of local extension agents and with the farming community. They see first-hand the true issues facing farmers, and their feedback to the research community is vital for setting global research priorities. Their counterpart in the private sector includes all those companies that also supply farmers with agricultural inputs but with the aim of generating a profit. The size and strength of NARIs can vary tremendously, ranging from large, well-funded organizations such as Embrapa in Brazil or the USDA to very small operations in the poorest countries of the world that may lack even one PhD scientist and suffer from very modest government support and pathetic facilities. A similar range of sizes holds true for private sector companies that can range from the large multi-national companies with very deep well-funded and innovative research programs and large global sales down to the smallest seed company in the poorest country in the world that does its best to get access to quality seed at prices their clients can afford.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving functioned on behalf of a private donor (The Rockefeller Foundation) and later as a member of one center Governing Board, I am most intrigued by the complex role played by the 15 international research centers that represent the CGIAR. Each center has a specific mandate to work on certain crops, fish or livestock or to address policy issues related to international agriculture. They also operate within a larger global framework that has goals to reduce rural poverty, enhance food security, to promote better nutrition and health and sustainably managed natural resources. In the best of all possible worlds, these centers should serve as the obvious natural bridge between the upstream work of the Universities and ARIs and the downstream applied efforts of the NARIs; they should also find ways to have productive interactions with the private sector that involve win-win scenarios for all. At their worst, the centers suffer from some uncertainties as to who their clients really are, to a lack of infusion of more new blood into the system, to relatively rigid management structures, and to new uncertainties about organizational issues and stability of funding as a result of recent attempts at CGIAR reform.

But when I began to think about some of the larger weaknesses of these various systems, I was surprised to discover that they all share many key challenges. Although one can argue there is a huge difference between what the University of California and a NARI of a small African country requires in the way of research budgets, both engage in a constant struggle to obtain sufficient funding froChickpea Field trials at ICRISATm local and national budgets. The private sector and the CGIAR centers worry no less about financial matters. All these systems are blessed by the power of the Internet and the increasing ease with which we can communicate with others around the globe. But all are challenged by the overwhelming increase in data to be managed and shared in a fair way. All are affected by the divisive global debate over GM crops, by the disparate and uncoordinated systems for regulation of such crops, for rules regarding quarantine and global exchange of germplasm, and for the lack of harmonization for processes of approval and release of new crop varieties. All are affected by local, state and international policies that affect the advancement of agriculture at all levels. And all are struggling with ways to best contribute to solving the profound issues of food security, malnutrition, and the effects of global climate change.

There are two other issues that concern me a great deal. One relates to an issue I alluded to in the beginning of this blog—the way in which farm communities grow and change as they progress and adapt to an ever-changing world. Progress in agriculture has often (but not always) involved consolidation of farms into larger more efficient operations.   Yet the development community often continues to look for solutions that could bring prosperity to a woman farmer growing maize on one hectare of land while running a household and raising 5 children. At the other end of the spectrum, while there is growing concern about the rising level of large “land grabs” that involve the leasing or selling of land to create vast for-profit farms in the developing world, there is, in my opinion, room for much more discussion about ways to promote “pro-poor” land consolidation in combination with creation of more off-farm job opportunities. This is an issue that increasingly affects the future of agriculture for rural communities across the planet.  

The second issue that concerns me relates to how we interact with each other within this vast global community. In my opinion, there is a serious gap in the way these various research systems talk to each other, understand each others’ respective roles, and in the ability to forge productive international partnerships.  I have to also say that I have seen huge differences in management styles that certainly differ across, but also within, cultures. Having grown up in the American academic system, I believe that one of the strongest reasons it stands out internationally as one that fosters a high level of innovation is the way that this system (at its best) fosters in its younger students, post-docs and faculty a freedom to engage in independent thinking and offers the freedom to challenge those in power. One thing that has continually distressed me in all my global wanderings is a recognition that many research organizations across the globe are much too hierarchical with a top-down style of management that discourages free discourse, stifles the voice of the young, and discourages innovation.

I recognize that all may not agree with my opinions on the many issues discussed above but this is a blog, and I was encouraged to speak my mind! And that is one of the great things about having the Global Plant Council as a venue to discuss difficult issues. And the real reason I agreed to write this blog is my belief that the Global Plant Council can provide one very powerful venue to help address the many challenges I have outlined above. One can already see the GPC forging initiatives to create a more powerful international dialog on issues such as the creation of a Digital Seed Bank, dealing with malnutrition through support for biofortification efforts, and coping with climate change through an emphasis on building more stress resilience into our agricultural systems. There are many more issues that could be addressed such as harmonization of seed systems, quarantine laws, and some sort of harmonization of regulatory processes for the safe approval and monitoring of GM crops. Such harmonization is particularly critical for small countries that share boundaries and markets but cannot afford to develop such regulations on their own. The GPC could also provide a forum for the sharing of advanced educational materials, for promoting international collaborations and arranging imaginative internships and sabbatical exchanges, and for promoting a broader and more inclusive discussion of policies relating to issues such as farm consolidation and the interactions of agriculture with the environment. Maybe it could also create learning modules and foster dialog that helps leaders of research institutions function most productively to foster innovation in the 21st Century. All this and much more–but only if the GPC has strong support from all of us as individuals, from our scientific societies, from private donors, and from governments of both rich and poor countries.


Deborah Delmer

Professor Emeritus, University of California Davis

Program Officer, The Rockefeller Foundation (retired)

A New Venture in Agriculture and Food Science: The World Food Center at UC Davis

By | Blog, Future Directions

WFCblogIn mid-2013 the University of California Davis announced establishment of the World Food Center (WFC) following extensive planning with input from a broad spectrum of university faculty and external advisors. There was broad agreement that the University could, and indeed should, strive to bring its leadership in food and agriculture research together to address specific global challenges in this arena. In doing so it would take a broad and trans-disciplinary approach to developing solutions to questions that the University is qualified to lead.

The Mission of the World Food Center is not simple:

The World Food Center will connect visionary research and teaching with innovators, philanthropists, industry, and public and social leaders to drive economic, health, social, and environmental value in the world’s food system.

tomsmallUC Davis is well known for outstanding research and teaching in disciplines that span food and agriculture, nutrition and health. Furthermore, work at the University has played a large role in the success of agriculture inside and outside the state. California’s agriculture is a vibrant industry based on production of more than 400 different crops as well as dairy and animal agriculture. The industry contributes more than $46 billion to the state economy. Since these crops contribute heavily to dietary diversity of consumers and provide essential nutrients, the University has developed outstanding research and education programs that span from molecular biology of crop and animal genomes and molecular breeding, seed biology, food sciences, enology and wine and other brewing sciences, sustainable agriculture, water management, post-harvest sciences, food safety, food sciences and food safety, nutrition (including the role of gut microbiome), health and wellness. It also includes substantial strengths in economics, social sciences and policy studies related to food and agriculture. Bringing this diversity of knowledge and technical skill to bear on grand challenges in food and agriculture (writ large) presents faculty and students with opportunities to have broader impacts on society than if single or even several disciplines are engaged. This is a goal of the WFC.

maizesmall2The World Food Center is not alone in striving to address grand challenges in food and agriculture, and other universities and research institutions around the globe have taken on similar goals, with variations. We suggest that during the next year a concerted effort be made to identify institutional initiatives with similar goals in developing ‘systems approaches’ to addressing challenges in food and agriculture. This exercise should lead to a more coordinated global effort that will minimize duplication of efforts while encouraging collaboration in research and training. And, it will increase the impacts of our efforts to address the grand challenges in food and agriculture.

If you are aware of other centers with goals similar to those of the World Food Center please contact us at

Roger N. Beachy, Executive Director, World Food Center, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616.

Celebrating Norman E. Borlaug’s Centenary: Looking backwards for the leap forward

By | Blog, GPC Community

You cannot build peace on empty stomachs
John Boyd Orr
1949 Nobel Peace Laureate and First FAO Director General (1945-1948)

On the centennial of Borlaug’s birth Global Plant Council representatives Rodomiro Ortiz and Russell Jones reflect on his achievements and legacy.

wheat1The last Nature editorial “Wheat Lag” [1] affirms “growth in yields of the cereal must double if the Green Revolution is to be put back on track”.  Google records about ½ million hits for the term “Green Revolution,” which refers to the huge increase between 1943 and the late 1970s in the production of rice and wheat, the main small grain cereals that feed the world. Plant research had led to the development of new cultivars, the sharing of seed, and improved crop husbandry. Without these developments, crop yields would have been at least 20% less and food prices about 19% higher than they had been in 2000, according to Evenson and Gollin [2]. Their modeling reveals that calorie consumption would have dropped by about 5% and the number of malnourished children increased by at least 2%. It is estimated that the Green Revolution helped improve the health status of 32 to 42 million pre-school children.

BorlaugWithout doubt, the leader and main advocate of this Green Revolution was the late Norman E. Borlaug (1914-2009), a wheat breeder who continues to be a source of inspiration in plant science and whose impact on livelihoods was immense [3]. As noted elsewhere, his wheat cultivars saved millions of humans from starvation and death [4]. It was therefore not surprising that the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The award noted that, “more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world” [5]. Wheat breeding, however, only meant something to Borlaug if it increased production and improved food security. In his words “For more than half a century I have worked with the production of more and better wheat for feeding the hungry people, but wheat is merely a catalyst, a part of the picture. I am interested in the total development of human beings. Only by attacking the whole problem can we raise the standard of living for all people in all communities, so they will be able to live decent lives. This is something we want for all people on this planet.

Even though critics of the Green Revolution insisted that Borlaug’s “miracle wheat” depleted natural resources [6], research shows that the net effect of high grain yields resulting from the Green Revolution reduced emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon (GtC) (590 GtCO2e) between 1961 and 2005 [7]. In one of his last writings, Borlaug argued eloquently with evidence that significant grain yield increases [8] actually spared land from agricultural uses. His assertion has recently been verified: plant breeding on the major staple crops between 1965 and 2004 saved an estimated 18 to 27 million hectares from being brought into cultivation [9]. The widespread adoption of high-yielding bred cultivars preserved natural ecosystems rather than displacing pastures and deforesting lands for intensive agriculture. 

In his last years, Borlaug cautioned that there was no room for complacency in the fight to ensure food security, especially when there are still almost 1 billion people going to bed hungry every night in the world. He was convinced that advances in plant science could provide new tools for crossbreeding, crop husbandry and more efficient use of resources. He contended that, in the absence of scientific evidence that food derived from transgenic crops harmed either human health or the environment, consumers would benefit from their use.  Particularly in the developing world, plant biotechnology could help to ensure the food supply [10]. He always thought that uncontrolled population growth posed more threat to the environment than plant science.

Borlaug warned of the dangers of research subject to excessive organization. Research directed from the higher reaches of administration could result in scientists using valuable time to write reports justifying their work, or in finding themselves doing research isolated from their peers [8]. During his prolific professional career he advocated that No matter how excellent the research done in one scientific discipline is, its application in isolation will have little positive effect on crop production. What is needed are venturesome scientists who can work across disciplines to produce appropriate technologies and who have the courage to make their case with political leaders to bring these advances to fruition.”

A growing world population increases the need for nutritious and quality food, feedstock, fiber, and fuel, while at the same time the Earth faces a decline in arable land. Agro-ecosystems are affected by land erosion, water scarcity, stalled crop productivity, overgrazing of pastures, deforestation, and anthropogenic climate change.  These new global challenges require an integrated plant science agenda that goes beyond productivity gains; this agenda needs to include increased resilience, eco-efficiency, and sustainability. Plant scientists need to work together with growers, retailers, entrepreneurs and policy makers for intensifying sustainably agro-ecosystems. Growers will need to increase output with less input, adapt their farming to climate change, and conserve agro-biodiversity by capitalizing on the advances brought by plant science. Agribusiness entrepreneurs together with growers and plant and food scientists need to add value throughout the food chain and improve the quality and safety of the human diet. Likewise, decision makers, with support from policy analysts, should ensure that food markets work for social benefits. Plant science must therefore contribute to a healthy and prosperous society in the 21st Century by providing knowledge, methods and tools that deliver diverse, nutritious and healthy food for a balanced diet. Increasing the wellbeing of everyone in this global village will be the best tribute to the memory of Norman E. Borlaug, the humanitarian plant scientist who changed the world.

Rodomiro Ortiz, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Alnarp, Sweden 

Russell Jones, University of California, Berkeley, USA


[2] Evenson RE, Gollin D (2003) Science 300:758-762

[3] Ortiz R, Mowbray D, Dowswell C, Rajaram S (2007) Plant Breeding Reviews 27:1–38

[4] Easterbrook G (1997) The Atlantic 1997.01.01


[6] Bunge J (2014) The Wall Street Journal 2014.03.25

[7] Burney JA, Davis SJ, Lobell DB (2010) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 107:12052–12057

[8] Borlaug NE (2007) Euphytica 157:287–297

[9] Stevenson JR, Villoria N, Byerlee D, Kelley T, Maredia M (2013) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 110:8363–8368