EU experts deadlocked Monday on whether France and Greece should lift their bans on growing the sole GM (genetically modified) seed approved for planting: an insect-resistant maize engineered by US company Monsanto. Despite opposition in the EU, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) said last week, that the global area of GM crops rose from 114m hectares in 2007 to 125m hectares in 2008, producing a harvest worth $7.5bn (€5.8bn, £5.2bn). The number of farmers planting GM crops increased from 12m in 22 countries to 13.3m in 25 countries.
Almost 80% of corn and 90% of soya grown in the United States is genetically modified and after more than a decade of production, the health scare claims have not been supported, in the world's most litigious country.
Both France and Greece have used legal provisions to prohibit cultivation of MON 810 maize, which was first approved by the European Commission in 1998.
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"The (experts') committee failed to reach a qualified majority in favor or against the two proposals. For this reason the decision will be referred to the council of (EU) ministers,"the European Commission said in a statement.
The ISAAA said last week, that in 2008, three new countries and 1.3 million new farmers were able "to experience the benefits associated with biotech crops." Additionally, total planted area grew 10.7 million hectares, according to the ISAAA brief Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2008 (Executive Summary). ISAAA has been tracking global biotech crop adoption trends since 1996.
In its annual study, ISAAA found that 13.3 million farmers in a record 25 countries planted 125 million hectares of biotech crops last year, the sixth largest growth spurt in 13 years of reporting. The 2 billionth cumulative acre of biotech crops also was planted in 2008, just three years after the first billionth acre, a milestone which required a decade to reach.
Most notably, in 2008 biotech farming began in the African nations of Egypt and Burkina Faso. Africa is considered the “final frontier” for biotech crops as it has perhaps the greatest need and most to gain. In 2008, Egypt planted 700 hectares of Bt maize and Burkina Faso planted 8,500 hectares of Bt cotton. They join South Africa, which since 1998 has benefited from biotech cotton, maize and soybean.
“Future growth prospects are encouraging,” said Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA and author of the report. “The positive experiences in these new regional footholds in south, north and west Africa will help lead the way for neighboring countries to learn by example. Additionally, political leaders globally are increasingly viewing biotech enhanced crops as a key part of the solution to critical social issues of food security and sustainability.”
James says G-8 leaders in 2008 for the first time recognised the significance of biotech crops and called to“accelerate research and development and increase access to new agricultural technologies to boost agriculture production; we will promote science-based risk analysis, including on the contribution of seed varieties developed through biotechnology.”
The European Union also has acknowledged that biotech crops“can play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food crises.”
In China, Premier Wen Jiabao has said “to solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM.” As a result, China has committed an additional US $3.5 billion over 12 years for continued research and development. Biotech rice alone, already developed and field tested in China, has the potential to increase food availability and net income by about US$100 per hectare for approximately 440 million people in the country.
“Biotech crops make two important contributions to global food security,” James said. “First, they increase yields, which increase food availability and supply. Second, they reduce production costs, which will also ultimately help reduce food prices. With 9.2 billion people to be fed by 2050, biotechnology plays a crucial role in helping satisfy the growing demand.”
Further, biotechnology is beginning to identify solutions to the growing challenges with drought being seen in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Drought is the single largest constraint to increased productivity. For example, Argentina currently faces a drought so severe that farmers have made a loss on their wheat crop. Drought-tolerant crops, maize in particular, are an emerging reality with seeds expected to be commercialised in the United States by 2012 or sooner and by 2017 for Africa.
By the end of the second decade of commercialisation in 2015, ISAAA predicts that four billion accumulated acres will have been planted. Further, 200 million hectares of biotech crops annually will be planted in a total of 40 countries.
Other indicators suggesting a new wave of adoption emerging include:
- Bolivia, the ninth biotech country in Latin America and the eighth largest global producer of soybeans, planted 600,000 hectares of herbicide-tolerant soy in 2008, allowing its growers to gain the benefits its neighbors in Brazil and Paraguay have experienced for years.
- There was a sharp growth in trait hectares or “virtual hectares” with 10 countries reporting 22 million additional hectares of biotech crops with more than one biotech trait. Stacked traits will be a strong driver of future growth.
- A new biotech crop, herbicide-tolerant sugar beet was planted in the United States and Canada for the first time in 2008. Nearly 258,000 hectares or 59 percent of the U.S. crop was planted to the herbicide-tolerant variety, the highest launch adoption level ever signaling a strong desire among growers for the technology.
- Brazil and Australia planted new biotech crops previously approved in other countries. Brazil, the world’s third largest maize producer, planted up to 1.3 million hectares of Bt maize in 2008, while Australia grew herbicide-tolerant canola for the first time.
- While France did not plant biotech crops in 2008, the seven other EU countries increased their planting 21 percent to again total more than 100,000 hectares, a milestone reached for the first time in 2007. The seven EU countries in order of biotech hectarage of Bt maize were Spain, Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.
- The number of growers benefiting from the technology may soon jump sharply. Initial reports from China indicate the use of Bt cotton to control the bollworm is also suppressing the pest in other crops like maize, wheat and vegetables, allowing a potential 10 million additional growers to benefit from the technology.