Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops: More Food with the Same Land Base? Back »

Man’s existence has been a constant struggle to secure food, fuel, and fiber. The development of agriculture has been key to accomplish this. Thomas Malthus (1766 –1834), an English cleric and scholar published in 1798 the book “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. Malthus warned that population growth would exceed food resource development, leading to checks on overpopulation (Malthusian trap figure 1). This would occur since population growth was exponential while food supply’s was linear. Options to make sure the world did not arrive to this “Malthusian trap” were:

  1. Reduction in global population growth.
  2. More food produced by cultivating more land.
  3. Greater productivity of the current land base.

1. World population population growth

Until recently Malthus mathematical projections were right on target, world population increased exponentially and food production linearly. However, according to FAO (2015), population growth is expected to slow-down from the 1.7 percent per year in the last 30 years, to 1.1 percent up to 2030 (35 percent reduction).

Figure 1. Malthus theory: population growth and food supply.

As a result the agency expects the demand for agricultural products to align with this reduction, from the 2.2 percent yearly average of the past 30 years, to 1.5 percent per year until 2030 (32 percent reduction). According to FAO, world crop production is also expected to slow-down to 1.4 percent per year up to 2030, down from the 2.1 percent of the past 30 years (33 percent reduction).

Figure 2.
World population growth.

A couple of things are happening though. First, world food production is not evenly distributed. This projected slow-down will be more striking in developing countries, from 3.7 percent to 2 percent (46 percent reduction) per year through 2030. As a result grain production in developing countries will only fulfill 84 percent of their internal needs and will thus rely on imports. Secondly, there will be a shift in food choices throughout the world, giving preference to higher quality products such as meat and dairy.

Food-producing countries are expected to export the balance. If they do not, there will be reduced food in the developing world with dire humanitarian, and geo-political outcomes. Increased food production implies greater productivity of the current land base with sustainable agricultural practices that are at least environmentally neutral or even better yet, beneficial.

2. More grain produced by cultivating more land

The two most important cash crops for the state are corn and soybeans. During the last 15 years (2000-2014) corn acreage in South Dakota has increased from 3.85 million to 5.32 million or 38 percent. During the same time period production increased from 112 to 148 bushels per acre (32 percent) for a total production of 431 and 787 million bushels in 2000 and 2014, respectively. The combined effect of more acreage and yield resulted in an 83 percent increase in just 15 years. When cancelling the increased acreage effect total corn production efficiency increased by 32 (the difference in yield!) percent between 2000 and 2015. When divided between the 15 years the figure is identical to the one published by FAO of 2.1 percent grain production growth per year. Similarly, between 2000 and 2015 soybean acreage grew from 4.37 to 5.11 million acres or 17 percent. Yield increased from 35 to 45 bushels (29 percent) for a total of 153 and 230 million bushels for 2000 and 2014, respectively. In the future the state needs to grow its agricultural production without using additional land, in other words produce more grain with the same or even less land devoted to agriculture.

3. Increased productivity with the current land base

Back in the 1960’s world population growth was accelerating exponentially and it seemed arriving to the Malthusian trap was unavoidable. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), a US plant scientist, was aware of this and worked very hard to increase crops productivity worldwide. Borlaug understood that pure-line plants had only a limited amount of genes for disease resistance. His hypothesis was that pathogens mutate continuously challenging the ability of plants with a limited number of genes to resist disease. By manipulating plant genetics through genetic selection Borlaug helped increase yields to levels never seen before. His accomplishments termed “the Green Revolution”, are credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. As a result of his research he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Pathogens mutate challenging the ability of plants with a limited number of genes to resist disease.

Modern advances in plant genetics have allowed plant scientists to modify the plant genome and obtain comparable results to those obtained by Borlaug nearly half a century ago. One advantage of Genetic Engineering is that results can be obtained faster than with crossing varieties. There are essentially two groups of bioengineered crops: herbicide-tolerant (the most widely adopted) and insect resistant. The most common herbicide tolerant crops are those resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide effective on many species of grasses, broadleaf weeds, and sedges. Glyphosate tolerance has been incorporated into soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. Genetically Engineered insect resistant crops have also had widespread adoption. These are called Bt crops named derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis gene in them. An example is Bt corn which protects the plant mainly from the European corn borer. There are also combinations of insect and herbicide resistance called “stacked gene” varieties. A brief description follows of the degree of adoption of Genetically Engineered varieties in the US and South Dakota both for corn and soybeans.


  • Insect-Resistant varieties (Bt)
    Adoption of genetically engineered crops in the US and individual states has been variable (USDA. 2015). After a relatively strong (29 percent) initial adoption period between 2000 and 2007 the use of Bt corn in South Dakota dropped drastically (to 7 percent) in 2008 and was almost negligible in 2015. In fact Bt adoption during the last decade was on average 7.7 percent, the lowest of all states in the USDA corn-estimating program. Between 2006 and 2015 the top five states in the US with the largest average Bt corn adoption as percent of all corn planted were Missouri (19.2 percent), Nebraska (18.8 percent), Texas (18.8 percent), North Dakota (18.6 percent), and Kansas (18.3 percent).
  • Herbicide-tolerant varieties (Ht)
    Yearly US adoption of Ht varieties between 2000 and 2015 was 16 percent, peaking at 24 percent in 2007. The highest average yearly adoption rate among all US states during the same time period was for South Dakota with 23.1 percent (peaked at 34 percent in 2007), followed by Kansas and North Dakota with 21.6 and 21.2 percent, respectively.
  • Stacked-gene varieties
    The stacked gene variety adoption between 2000 and 2015 has been nearly 33 percent on average across the US. South Dakota was again on top with 44 percent adoption, followed by Iowa with 38 percent, and Illinois with almost 37 percent.

    The adoption rate of all Genetically Engineered varieties combined between 2000 and 2015, was on average 66 percent for the US and highest for South Dakota with almost 84 percent, followed by Minnesota and Nebraska with 74 percent each.


  • Herbicide-tolerant varieties (Ht)
    Adoption of genetically engineered soybean Ht varieties in the US was almost 86 percent between 2000 and 2015. South Dakota again led with 93 percent adoption, followed by Mississippi and Nebraska with almost 91 and 90 percent, respectively. The adoption of all Genetically Engineered varieties in the US was 85.9 percent during the same time period. The leader was again South Dakota with 92.5 percent, followed again by Mississippi and Nebraska, with almost 90 and 91 percent, respectively.

South Dakota has consistently led the adoption of Genetically Engineered crops. In 2015 South Dakota, with 23 percent adoption, has led the country in Herbicide tolerant variety use for corn (US 16 percent). Corn stacked gene variety adoption was 44 percent in South Dakota again the highest in the US (33 percent). During 2015 both South Dakota and North Dakota led the US in Genetically Engineered corn adoption with 97 percent (US 92 percent). For Herbicide tolerant soybean varieties South Dakota led the adoption rate during 2015 with almost 93 percent followed by Nebraska with 90.8 (US 85.9). Mississippi led the country in the adoption of all Genetically Engineered soybean with 99 percent followed by Arkansas with 97, and then South Dakota, Iowa, and Kansas all three with 96.

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