Continued expansion in the worldwide acreage of biotech crops is the result of economic and political forces. Farmers adopt them to increase yields and/or lower costs and government regulators in more countries accept them as safe as real world experiences confirm what scientists have reported for almost two decades. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in its “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008” estimates that acreage planted to biotech crops increased 9 percent in 2008 to 308.8 million acres, 16.1 percent of the 1.92 billion acres of crops in the 25 countries that grow approved biotech crops.

Three countries officially grew biotech crops for the first time in 2008. Bolivia had 1.5 million acres of biotech soybeans, 63 percent of the soybeans in the country, making it the tenth largest biotech country in acres grown and the ninth country in Latin American producing biotech crops. Bolivia is know for growing corn at high altitudes, but it is also the world’s eight largest soybean producing country in its eastern region next to Brazil and Paraguay growing soybeans much like is done in its larger producing neighbors.

The other two new countries, Burkina Faso and Egypt, are much different. Burkina Faso grew 21,000 acres of biotech cotton for seed multiplication and commercial use and is one of four West African countries heavily dependent on cotton production. South Africa is the only other sub-Saharan country with biotech crops. Burkina Faso and its neighbors need to improve cotton production to meet competition from developing countries like India and Brazil. Egypt grew 1,700 acres of biotech corn. It has growing livestock and poultry industries and imports 4-5 million metric tons of corn each year.

Three African countries had major breakthroughs on regulations. The National Assembly of Mali, a neighbor of Burkina Faso, passed a National Biosafety Law in November of last year. Kenya in East Africa passed a biosafety law in December that was recently signed by the President which creates the legal framework for adoption of biotech crops. Kenya has done research on biotech crops in recent years and has often been seen as on the verge of commercial production. In July of 2008 the Cabinet in Malawi in southwest Africa approved a National Biotechnology Policy based on their Biosafety Act of 2002 to provide regulations for biotech crops.

Regulatory progress has also been made in other countries. Australia, which has grown biotech cotton since 1996, finally produced 23,000 acre of biotech canola after years of delays. Brazil has expanded beyond biotech soybean and cotton to include 3.2 million acres of biotech corn. India’s 23 percent growth in biotech cotton acreage to 18.8 million acres moved it into fourth place in the world just ahead of Canada.

The U.S. produced biotech sugar beets for the first time with 640,000 acres, 59 percent of the sugar beet area. The U.S. continued to shift to more double and triple stacked traits for corn and cotton that combine herbicide tolerance with one or more insect resistance traits. These accounted for 75 percent of biotech cotton acreage and 78 percent of biotech corn acreage. In 2010 release is expected for a corn with eight biotech traits, called Smartstax, to provide multiple insect resistant and herbicide tolerant traits. Attention is increasingly focused on drought tolerant corn in the U.S. that is expected to be available in 2012.

The authors of the ISAAA report believe that a drought tolerant corn may be available in sub-Saharan Africa by 2017. A public/private partnership is already working on the project. It is viewed as the most important trait to become available in the second decade of biotech crops because drought is “the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide.”

Even in the EU acreage of biotech crops continued to increase. Spain remained the leader with 196,000 acres of biotech corn in 2008. Other EU countries with biotech corn included the Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. France had previously grown biotech corn, but President Sarkozy banned its production. The ban by France and one by Greece may be overturned by the EU based on the recent deadlock of experts on the issue. A vote in coming weeks may also allow two other biotech corn varieties to be grown in the EU.

The biggest non-event for biotech crops was the continued stalling of biotech rice in China which has been ready for commercialization for at least four years. Biotech rice could help 110 million rice growing households in China and another 140 million households in the rest of Asia who grow an average of 1.25 acres of rice and live on incomes as low as $1 per day.

Poverty is not unique to rice growers. Fifty percent of the world poorest people are limited-resource farmers and another 20 percent live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for income. The World Bank estimates that 2.2 billion rural people live in countries where national economic growth is not possible without a productivity revolution among small, limited-resource farmers. They could benefit as 12.3 million limited-resource farmers in developing countries have already benefited from the higher yields and/or lower inputs costs associated with biotech crops.

Politics and economics have for centuries driven opportunities for farmers around the world. Those forces aligned to allow for biotech crops to help move millions of people up the economic ladder in 2008. The same should happen again in 2009.