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Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics


OSU Economist: GM Crops have had an Impact on Agricultural Productivity, Could Offer Solutions for Global Food Security

Jan. 14, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio – With recent food price spikes impacting global food security and a growing reliance on emerging economies to produce our world’s agricultural supplies, encouraging greater discussion on the impact that genetically modified (GM) crops have had on agricultural productivity is important, recently said Ian Sheldon, the Andersons Professor of International Trade in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“The fact that the world will be relying more on emerging economies such as China and Brazil for both global food production and investment in agricultural research and development, revisiting the impact GM crops may have on agricultural productivity is an important issue for public debate,” noted Sheldon, who is a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics.  

Since 1996, 1.25 billion acres of farmland across the globe have been planted to GM crops. By 2010, 20 percent of global cropland was planted to the four main GM crops: corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. There is currently no commercial use of GM technology in grains, such as rice and wheat, Sheldon said.

Developing economies have been integral to the adoption of GM technology. According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, the U.S. and Brazil account for 85 percent of GM corn planted; the U.S., Brazil and Argentina account for 92 percent of GM soybeans planted; India, the U.S. and China account for 90 percent of GM cotton planted; and Canada accounts for 85 percent of GM canola planted.

Additionally, Sheldon said, these same researchers provide substantial evidence that, over the period 1990-2010, the planting of three of these GM crops has resulted in positive yield impacts. He noted that “corn has shown a 2-14 to 9-19 percent yield increase; cotton has shown a 0-25 to 5-29 percent yield increase; and soybeans have shown a 2-39 percent yield increase.”

This adoption of first-generation GM crops has not only had a positive impact on productivity, but there have been associated impacts on prices and land use, Sheldon said.

“The adoption of GM corn, cotton and soybeans has lowered prices by 13 percent, 18 percent and 2-65 percent respectively,” he noted, citing research from the University of California-Berkeley study.

According to Sheldon, with an increasing global population, the impact of GM agriculture is something that must be considered when discussing global food security and ensuring that food prices remain at sustainable levels. 

“Growth in agricultural productivity has important implications for food security and food prices. Not only would international trade be a good thing for global food security but investments in research and development in the agricultural sector can have a significant impact as well,” Sheldon said.

In the development and use of GM crops, the developing world has much to gain, he noted.

“Net food importing countries have rapidly growing populations and growing food demand per capita, plus poorer land and water availability. Additionally, the potential for yield gains from GM technology are likely greatest where pest pressure is high, for example, in low income developing countries. We expect the potential for yield gains from GM agriculture to be highest in low income countries.”

The developing world has shown an interest in the adoption of GM technology. As Sheldon noted, agricultural economists Julian Alston and Philip Pardey report in a recent article that public expenditure on agricultural research and development in developed economies has dropped from 56 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2009. This is primarily due to increases in spending on off-farm issues, such as health and nutrition research.

Meanwhile, developing economies have increased their public expenditure on agricultural research and development. For example, Brazil, India and China now account for 31 percent of public agricultural research and development dollars, which Sheldon believes could translate to significant production increases and productivity growth.  

Public concern over the safety of GM crops has impacted growth in the industry. For example, Sheldon says, these concerns have slowed the approval and release of GM rice and wheat varieties. In 2009, GM rice was approved for use in China but, due to consumer fears, the variety has not been fully commercialized in the country. Additionally, bans or regulatory restrictions on GM corn exist in China, parts of Africa and in countries governed by the European Union.

Sheldon spoke during the December kickoff of the college’s 2014-2015 Agricultural Policy and Outlook series. The series features agriculture policy and economic outlook meetings that are being held at numerous locations across Ohio through Jan. 29.

The meetings feature presentations by AEDE experts on key issues in the agricultural community for 2015, including policy changes, key issues, and market behavior with respect to farm, food and energy resources, and the environment.

The Agricultural Policy and Outlook series meetings are open to the public. A meal is provided with each meeting and is included in the registration cost. More information on the meetings, including policy briefs and presentation files from each of the presenters, can be found at

To read Sheldon’s policy brief prepared for the 2014-2015 Agricultural Policy and Outlook series, visit

January 14, 2015