GM crops making global gains

by Arvin Donley
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Substantial gains were made in 2009 in the planting of biotech crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The ISAA, which released their findings in late February, said one of the most significant advances in 2009 included a landmark November decision in which China issued biosafety certificates for biotech insect-resistant rice and phytase corn (maize).

As rice is the most important food crop globally and maize is the most important feed crop in the world, ISAAA said these biosafety clearances can have enormous implications for future biotech crop adoption in China, Asia and around the world. The crops must complete two to three years of standard registration field trials before commercialization.

"With last year’s food crisis, price spikes and hunger and malnutrition afflicting more than 1 billion people for the first time ever, there has been a global shift from efforts for just food security to food self-sufficiency," said Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA. "With a current population of 1.3 billion, biotech crops are a critical component for China and other countries to gain self-sufficiency."

China is just one of 16 developing countries that grew biotech crops in 2009. Growth of biotech crops has been substantially higher in developing nations — 13%, or 7 million hectares, in 2009 compared to just 3%, or 2 million hectares, in industrialized countries. As a result, almost half (46%) of the global hectarage of biotech crops were planted in developing countries, where 13 million small farmers benefited.

"This strong adoption puts to rest the idea that biotech crops can only benefit larger farmers and industrialized countries," said Dr. Dafang Huang, former director at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. "In fact, countries like China, with hundreds of millions of small farmers, have identified biotech crops as a key to self-sufficiency to make it less dependent on others for food, feed and fiber."

During 2009, there was a noticeable growth in appreciation for the essential role of agriculture by global society. In fact, the G8 recently approved $20 billion over three years "to help farmers in the poorest nations improve food production and help the poor feed themselves."


According to ISAAA, in 2009 14 million farmers planted 134 million hectares (330 million acres) of biotech crops in 25 countries, up from 13.3 million farmers and 125 million hectares (7%) in 2008. Notably, in 2009, 13 million of the 14 million farmers, or 90%, were small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries.

Trait hectares, or "virtual hectares," reached 180 million hectares, up 14 million hectares from 2008. Eight of the 11 countries planting crops with stacked traits were developing nations.

Brazil topped Argentina as the second-largest grower of biotech crops globally. Brazil’s growth of 5.6 million hectares to 21.4 million hectares, up 35% from 2008, was the highest absolute growth for any country in 2009.

Progress continued in the rest of Africa with a significant 17% increase in South Africa to reach 2.1 million hectares and a 15% increase in Egypt to total 1,000 hectares of Bt corn. Costa Rica reported biotech crops for the first time in 2009, exclusively for the seed export market.

Six European countries planted 94,750 hectares of biotech crops in 2009, down from seven countries and 107,719 hectares in 2008, as Germany discontinued its planting. Spain planted 80% of all the Bt corn in the E.U. in 2009 and maintained its record adoption rate of 22% from the previous year.

The top eight countries, each growing more than 1 million hectares were: the U.S. (64 million), Brazil (21.4 million), Argentina (21.3 million), India (8.4 million), Canada (8.2 million), China (3.7 million), Paraguay (2.2 million) and South Africa (2.1 million). The remaining countries included: Uruguay, Bolivia, the Philippines, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Costa Rica, Egypt and Slovakia.


Biotech rice and the drought-tolerant trait have been identified as the two most important drivers globally for future biotech crop adoption, according to ISAAA. China’s biosafety clearance of insect-resistant rice is likely to spur faster development of biotech rice and other biotech crops in other developing countries. Meanwhile drought-tolerant corn could be deployed in the U.S. in 2012 and sub-Saharan Africa in 2017.

Other key highlights marking the beginning of the second wave of growth in 2009 include: the approval of SmartStax, a novel biotech corn containing eight different genes for insect and herbicide resistance, and planting in the United States and Canada of the first Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans — the first product of a new class of technology that allows more efficient, precise gene insertion to directly impact yields.

ISAAA forecasts that future adoption increases will also come from:

• significant expansion of biotech soybean, maize and cotton in Brazil;

• expansion of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso with potential adoption of biotech cotton and/or corn in other African countries including Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, and Mali; and

• adoption of golden rice by the Philippines in 2012 and Bangladesh and India before 2015.

ISAAA said wheat remains the last major staple crop without approved biotech traits. However, political will for the crop is growing globally. China may be the first country to approve biotech wheat as early as five years from now. Traits such as disease resistance are well advanced while sprouting tolerance and enhanced quality traits are being field tested. China’s public investment in the crop is likely the largest worldwide.

ISAAA said it expects the number of biotech farmers globally to reach 20 million or more in 40 countries on 200 million hectares in just more than five years in 2015.