“Less than a decade after first commercialization, the international adoption and diffusion of biotech crops has now gone global, especially in developing countries.” That is the first sentence of the Executive Summary of “The Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004” by C. Ford Runge and Barry Ryan of the University of Minnesota. The study puts a capstone on a year that has seen both the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Bank publicly highlight the important role that biotech could play in economic development around the world. Given the extensive amount of research on biotech plants, the study may also signal the beginning of the end of using biotechnology as a barrier to trade.
The study updates the numbers on commercial use of biotechnology. There were no surprises. Five countries account for 98 percent of the $44 billion value of biotech production in the 2003-2004 crop year. The United States led at $27.5 billion, followed by Argentina at $8.9 billion, China $3.9 billion, Canada $2.0 billion and Brazil $1.6 billion. As expected, four crops – corn, soybeans, cotton and canola – accounted for almost all of the acres planted.
The more enlightening areas of the study were the other countries with commercial production, the amount of research ongoing in countries around the world, the increasing acceptance of imported biotech crops and what the study refers to as “spheres of biotech investment and research.” The researchers also noted that the European Union can slow down the diffusion process by restricting activity, but they cannot stop the process.
Eight countries beyond the big five were reported to have meaningful levels of biotech production: South Africa, Mexico, Australia, India, Romania, Spain, Philippines and Uruguay. These countries are spread across the globe, have a wide range of income levels and vary in their research and regulation capabilities. Any country that wants to increase commercial biotech production has a similar country that can serve as a model.
The study lists 57 crops in 63 countries that currently have or have had since 1996 some plant biotech research or production activity. While many people have heard about biotech research in crops like rice, tomatoes and bananas, research has also occurred for others such as watermelons, chicory and mustard. The countries range from Cuba, to Ireland to Slovenia. The study has an appendix that provides a country by country listing of research.
Research and regulations have been moving forward on food safety issues related to trade. In 2003 Japan granted import approval for six biotech crops and has had laboratory and field studies on various biotech fruits, vegetables and grains. Australia has approved four biotech crops for importation. The European Union has also opened the regulatory door to more imports. The Philippines has approved a biotech corn variety for commercial production. South Korea has approved three lines of corn and soybeans for imports. China has also expanded its list of allowable imports.
The researchers used their crystal ball to speculate where the major “spheres of biotech investment and research” will be in the years ahead. It has been easy for detractors of biotechnology to refer to it as U.S. or North American technology that is not applicable to the rest of the world, particularly developing countries. That is rapidly changing.
The current number one sphere is North America, and China is clearly the second largest sphere. While China’s current production of biotech plants is fairly modest at $3.9 billion, with most of that in cotton, it has major research and pre-commercialization projects in corn, soybeans and rice. Biotech rice appears likely to be approved sometime in the next year.
The authors believe that South Africa “has the scientific capability, political stability and investment resources to lead the continent of Africa in plant biotech.” Their biotech market is currently about $150 million per year in value of commodities. Africa has been one of the epicenters in the struggle between the United States and the EU over food safety with plant biotech. It is also a continent that has little modern agricultural infrastructure and needs to immediately increase agricultural production. “Home grown” biotech research and development from South Africa may be the perfect fit.
Argentina and Brazil are expected to be the center of a sphere. Given the rapid adoption of biotech soybeans in Argentina and Brazil’s booming agriculture, they seem like logical candidates. FAO came to the same conclusion. Despite all the logical reasons for them to lead in plant biotech development, intellectual property rights have been issues and Brazilian politicians have not come to broad acceptance of the technology.
Australia was identified by the authors as a potential sphere. They have done the research and are using biotech cotton, but they have not commercialized much beyond that. They appear to have been reluctant to go too far until there was broad support in other countries.
India is the expected leader of another sphere. The authors estimated that India has at least 20 academic and research institutions engaged in biotech research on 16 crops. Given the economic development that has occurred in industrial areas, India has the money to continue development of plant biotech. India has a population of over one billion people, with 60 percent of them getting at least some of their income from agriculture.
Based on the researchers findings there is little doubt that plant biotech has entered a new stage of development.