The billionth acre of biotech crops will be harvested about October 2, 2005, in the tenth year of commercial biotech crop production. The second billion acres will likely be harvested in only four years as biotech crops continue to spread around the globe.
The billionth acre harvested may very likely be corn, soybeans, cotton or canola in the U.S. According to USDA surveys about 115 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 2005. That acre could be canola, corn or soybeans harvested in Canada. Mexico also has commercial acreages of biotech cotton and soybeans. The EU could have the billionth acre from biotech corn in Spain. Maybe it will be biotech soybeans grown in Romania. China and India are major producers of biotech cotton. In the Philippines about 5 percent of the corn is biotech.
While we are busy harvesting crops, farmers in the Southern Hemisphere are just beginning the planting season. With a new biotech crop law in Brazil, early estimates are that 40-45 percent of the soybeans planted in 2005 will be biotech compared to 20 percent last year. The limiting factor is the availability of seed adapted to the various regions of the country. Argentina will again have almost 100 percent biotech soybeans, as will Paraguay and Uruguay. Biotech corn in Argentina is expected to account for over half the crop. Australia will have about 80 percent of its cotton as biotech. South Africa will plant biotech white and yellow corn, soybeans and cotton, with biotech white corn the most watched crop because most of it is used for human consumption and some is exported. Last year about 10 percent of the white corn was biotech, including white corn grown by small landholders who use a portion of the crop for family consumption. This year 20 percent of the white corn is expected to be biotech.
At the top of the watch list for new biotech crops is rice in China. Farmer field tests have been run for at least five years, and a major report on some of the results was released earlier this year. The government has spent $1.8 billion over the past decade on biotechnology development. Xu Guanhua, Minister of Science and Technology for China, recently said “Biotechnology will be put high on the country`s mid-and-long-term scientific and technological development strategy for 2006 through 2020.”
While China gets most of the attention on biotech crops in Asia, India also has major research efforts in biotech crops with 35 public institutes and 18 private companies. The government is establishing a regulatory framework that will allow more research to move toward field trials and commercial use. India is working on “orphan crops” such as chickpeas and mung beans that are important to India, but not to multinational biotech companies.
Australia is having a thorough airing of the benefits of biotech crops. Biotech cotton and carnations are the only crops now grown. State governments in major crop growing areas have bans on biotech crops like canola. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics estimates that losses to Australian farmers could be $1.6-6.0 billion over the next decade if the bans continue. Some of the state bans expire next year.
African countries in addition to South Africa continue to pursue biotech crop research. According to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) earlier this summer, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Zimbabwe have the most advanced research. Of the biotech modifications under research, 49 percent deal with disease resistance and 20 percent with insect resistance. Drought and salt tolerance are addressed by 15 percent of the modifications and quality and nutrition by 9 percent. IFPRI has a Program for Biosafety Systems to enhance regulatory policy in Africa.
Non-profit groups in the U.S. and other developed countries are also stepping up efforts to use biotechnology to increase production of traditional crops grown by subsistence farmers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded a $7.5 million, five year grant to a group of researchers at 10 different institutions headed by Dr. Richard Sayre, a Plant Cell and Molecular Biologist at Ohio State University. The BioCassava Plus group will develop novel transgenic cassava germplasm to make it a more complete food source with a longer storage life and elevated viral disease resistance. As Economics Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University noted about biotech crops, “…they`re very important for development because they have this huge benefit that all the technology comes packaged in the seed.”
Public and private researchers are well aware that world population forecasts show an increase from about 6.4 billion people today to somewhere over nine billion people by 2050. Most of that increase will occur in developing countries like India where over 60 percent of the population still gets some or all of its income from agriculture.
Drought tolerance is getting more research attention in both developed and developing countries. Smaller scale agriculture in developing countries is also interested in insect resistant varieties of crops. The next target for both large scale and small scale agriculture will be conditions like wheat fusarium head blight common in the U.S. and a new strain of wheat rust that is now threatening wheat crops in east Africa. Also, golden rice with carotene for vitamin A is nearing commercial production.
The billionth acre harvested of biotech crops is a milestone to be celebrated, but the best is yet to come as more producer and consumer needs are met by biotechnology.