Growth Industry


A: The amount of global farmland devoted to biotech crops in 2004.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Despite its complicated name, this non-profit group performs a very simple job each January when it publishes the number of acres planted with biotech crops the previous year.

Well, maybe it’s not such a simple job because it involves so much counting. The figure for 2004 is 200 million acres–an increase of 20 percent from 2003, and more than 5 percent of the world’s total cropland.

Once again, it’s possible to say that more farmers planted more biotech crops on more acres than ever before last year. But then, that’s hardly headline news any more. It’s been possible to say that ever since biotech crops hit the commercial market a decade ago. Yes, 2005 marks another milestone – the 10th consecutive year that biotech crops have been planted commercially.

Here are a few other interesting facts from the ISAAA report:

• Since 1996, farmers around the world have planted 951 million acres of biotech crops. For those keeping score at home, that’s more than 26 times the size of Iowa. It also means that somewhere this year – Crop Year 2005 – a farmer somewhere in the world will plant the biotech acre no. 1 billion. That’s billion, with a “B”!

• Last year, more than 8 million farmers planted biotech crops in 17 countries, which is up from 7 million farmers in 2003. About 90 percent of these farmers are considered “resource poor.”

• For the first time ever, developing countries outpaced the industrialized world in absolute growth–their biotech crop area increased by nearly 18 million acres, compared to a little more than 15 million acres elsewhere.

• There are now 14 biotech “mega-countries,” up from 10 a year earlier, as Mexico, Paraguay, the Philippines, and Spain joined the ranks of nations growing at least 50,000 hectares (a.k.a. 123,553 acres) of biotech crops. Their addition “reflects a more balanced and stabilized participation of a broader group of countries adopting biotech crops,” confirms the ISAAA.

• The United States continues to dominate agricultural biotechnology, accounting for 59 percent of the world’s biotech acreage. Next in line is Argentina (20 percent), followed by Canada (6 percent), Brazil (6 percent), and China (5 percent). India remains one of the lesser mega-countries, but its 400 percent rate of growth in 2004 suggests that it’s ready to surge forward.

These are solid accomplishments–and there will be more of them in the years ahead. Predicting the future is a tricky business, but the ISAAA is willing to hazard an educated guess: It believes that in five years as many as 15 million farmers in 30 countries will plant 371 million acres of biotech crops. (That’s more than 10 times the size of Iowa!)

Over the long term, we’ll see a lot of growth in parts of the world that haven’t yet fully embraced agricultural biotechnology. China and India, the world’s two most populous countries, still have large rural populations and incredible room for growth. So does Brazil (where rates of biotech adoption are probably under-reported at the moment). And on the entire continent of Africa, home to well over 800 million people, only South Africa is a biotech-growing country.

Soybeans currently dominate the world’s biotech acreage, accounting for about 60 percent of what’s grown. They’re followed by the two other members of the biotech triumvirate–corn (23 percent of the global biotech acreage) and cotton (11 percent). These crops will remain growth areas for a while, though at some point relatively soon we will see other plants enter the biotech fold. Breeding an enhanced biotech crop that’s ready for commercial planting takes years of research and supervised testing as well as millions of dollars. These costs are bound to drop, and when they do we may see virtually every kind of fruit and vegetable improved by biotechnology.

Q: When will the biotech revolution be complete?

A: The day I can grow kiwi fruit in the Iowa snow.

Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology ( a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and biotechnology.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

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