Over 100 million hectares (102m) of genetically modified (GM) crops were planted in 22 countries around the world in 2006, up 13% on the previous year, according to a study by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). The 60-fold increase since 1996 – the highest adoption rate of any crop technology – is helping to alleviate poverty in the developing world. Meanwhile, next-generation products are unlikely to reach European consumers any time soon.
Although 53% of GM crops are planted in the US, developing countries now account for 40% of the global biotech crop area. GM crop adoption in the developing world grew 21% compared to only 9% in industrialised nations, according to the report. Study author Clive James, chair of ISAAA, said more than 90% of the 10.3m farmers growing biotech crops were small, resource-poor farmers from the developing world.
Increasing the earning power of people in the developing world is dependent on increasing crop yields. Generally, although GM variety seeds cost more than non-GM varieties, the GM crops produce higher yields and have reduced spraying costs, resulting in increased production and income. Increased yield from Bt cotton, for example, has been a major contributor to increased cotton exports from India, which soared from 0.9m bales in 2005 to 4.7m bales in 2006, according to CD Mayee, chair of India’s Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board and ISAAA trustee.
The ISAAA predicts 20m farmers will plant 200m hectares by 2015, the most significant growth being in the developing countries of Asia, such as India, China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Vietnam. Further growth could come from biotech rice, which could push these estimates up significantly, according to the report. Use of the crops for biofuels could also be a major growth driver. And drought-tolerant biotech crops, which are expected to reach the market in the next five years, could unlock substantial production opportunities in dryer climates, it says.
Currently, GM soy is the most common biotech crop planted (57%), followed by maize (25%), cotton (13%) and canola (5%), and herbicide tolerance is the dominant trait, followed by insect resistance. Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer, Dow, and Bayer are the main companies commercialising GM crops.
Meanwhile, crops with consumer benefits are starting to emerge. Monsanto, for example, has developed a canola product with modified oils for reduced trans fats, according to Julian Little, spokesperson for ABC. However, such products are unlikely to be grown commercially in Europe any time soon, thanks to the ongoing regulatory political impasse. Although trials may get the go ahead in EU countries, there have been no regulatory approvals of any crops for commercialisation in Europe since the late 1990s, said Little.