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Biotech crops keep advancing and currently cover over a billion hectares

Wednesday, February 23rd 2011 - 06:32 UTC
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Clive James, chair of ISAAA Clive James, chair of ISAAA

The amount of land devoted to genetically engineered crops grew 10% last year, and 7% in the year before, as farmers in major grain and soy exporting countries such as Brazil and Argentina continued to adopt the new seeds.

These so-called biotech crops, often bred with genes that allow them to tolerate weed killers or generate their own insecticides, now cover 10% of the world's farmland, up from nothing just 15 years ago.

The figures are in this year's International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications report, out Tuesday. In 2010, over a billion hectares have been cultivated with GM seeds involving 15 million farmers. According to ISAAA 81% of all soybeans, 64% of cotton, 29% of corn and 23% of canola globally were from biotech seeds.

The most common modification is herbicide tolerance, where plants are given a gene that allows farmers to spray them with the weed killer glyphosate, known to most home gardeners as Roundup, without harming them. Sixty-one percent of biotech crops carry this gene.

The other commonly used trait is the addition of a gene from soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis that allows plants to produce their own insecticide. About 17% of biotech crops carry this trait. About 22% contained both genes.

Genetically engineered crops have been commercially planted since 1996. Major crops are soy, corn, cotton and canola, then small amounts of sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, summer squash, poplar, potato, tomato and sweet pepper.

A total of 29 countries worldwide now plant GM crops, with the United States planting the most, at 165 million acres, Brazil with 63 million acres, and Argentina with 56 million. But debate over use of these crops continues.

Genetically engineered seed can cost more than conventional seed, but for many farmers, especially larger and more technologically savvy ones, the savings they represent in time and diminished insecticide and pesticide use makes them economical. Opponents, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, charge that the crops could represent unknown hazards to animals and humans who eat them, including possibly adding new allergens and toxins to foods.

The so-called “Roundup Ready” crops that can tolerate glyphosate are a problem because they're so popular, says the Union's Doug Gurian-Sherman. He says it's destroying the efficacy of Roundup, an important herbicide because it's “effective, breaks down quickly and is inexpensive.” Resistant weeds are beginning to emerge, he says, in part because “we're not managing it well,” he says.

Other groups feel the biotech crops favor richer farmers over poor ones because of their costs and are a threat to biodiversity. The crops have been enthusiastically embraced by farmers in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China. Much of Europe is opposed to them.

Genetic modification will be crucial as the world's climate changes, says Clive James, chair of ISAAA's board. “Speeding the breeding as you get more frequent and more severe changes in climate, whether it's temperature or water level, we need a technology that allows you to develop improved varieties more rapidly.”

Some who feel genetic engineering can be positive worry that the benefits won't be used to help the poorest farmers.

Peggy Lemaux, at the University of California, Berkley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, says ”because of the expenses involved, creating engineered crops for developing countries requires humanitarian contributions by philanthropists like (Bill) Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation, or perhaps by companies who see value in such endeavors.”

Categories: Agriculture, International.

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