Genetically modified crops are continuing to spread across the world’s farmland, according to the leading annual survey of GM in agriculture, published on Wednesday.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) said the global area of GM crops increased from 114m ha in 2007 to 125m ha in 2008, producing a harvest worth $7.5bn. The number of farmers planting GM crops rose from 12m in 22 countries to 13.3m in 25 countries.
Clive James, ISAAA chairman, said the most significant development last year was the first commercial planting of biotech crops in two African countries: maize in Egypt and cotton in Burkina Faso. Both crops contain “Bt genes” from bacteria, which kill insect pests. In 2007 South Africa had been the only country on the continent with GM plants (cotton, maize and soya).
Mr James, a strong supporter of GM in agriculture, said: “Future growth prospects [in Africa] are encouraging. The positive experiences in these new regional footholds will help lead the way for neighbouring countries to learn by example.”
The third country where GM crops were planted for the first time last year was Bolivia, where farmers grew herbicide-resistant soya; it is the ninth country in Latin America to adopt the technology. One new GM crop, herbicide-resistant sugar beet, was launched last year in the US and Canada.
In Europe the area sown with Bt maize, the only GM crop approved for planting in the EU, was little changed from the previous year at 107,000 ha. While France suspended the planting of GM maize, this was balanced by a 21 per cent increase in seven other European countries.
But US farmers are responsible for half the world’s GM acreage. They planted 62.5m ha with biotech crops in 2008.
Crops with “stacked traits” are becoming increasingly important, the ISAAA report shows. These contain two or more genetic modifications in the same plant – usually a combination of herbicide and insect resistance. Planting with stacked traits increased by 23 per cent to 27m ha in 2008.
The ISAAA review argues that biotech crops “make an impressive contribution to sustainable agriculture”, by increasing yields of food, fibre and biofuels while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.
Of the cumulative economic gains of $44bn over 10 years of growing GM crops, the report attributed 44 per cent to yield increases and 56 per cent to reduced production costs, including the use of 359,000 tonnes less pesticide.
Looking to the future, ISAAA says the most important new biotech trait will be drought tolerance, because drought is much the greatest constraint to increased agricultural productivity worldwide. ISAAA is a non-profit organisation based at Cornell University in New York and with branches in Africa and Asia.
Mr James expects the first drought-resistant maize for temperate regions to be launched in the US by 2012. A drought-resistant variety for tropical regions of Africa, where it is most needed, could follow by 2017, he said.
Friends of the Earth published its own report on GM crops on Wednesday with a very different message. Their cultivation “is still confined to a handful of countries with export-oriented intensive farming”, the environmental group said. “The most widely grown GM crop, soy, is grown mostly as high protein animal feed for export to the UK and Europe. GM soy monocultures in South America are wiping out forests, causing massive climate emissions and forcing communities off their lands.” The Financial Times Limited