Biotech crops are a new industry with eleven year of commercial production around the globe. They have proven to be relatively scale neutral. They are planted on large North American, South American and European farms using the world’s most modern equipment and on small, resource-poor farms in developing countries like China, India, South Africa and the Philippines where improved incomes directly result in reduced poverty. Private companies and public institutions have applied the technology to crop varieties that meet the specific needs of local farmers.
According to estimates of 2006 plantings by the International Service for the Acquisition of Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the 22 countries that grow biotech crops have 52 percent of the world’s 3.7 billion acres of cropland and 55 percent of the world’s population. Plantings increased by 13 percent to 252 million acres, with 40 percent, 101 million acres, in developing countries. Plantings grew by 21 percent in developing countries and by 9 percent in developed countries.
Large-scale farmers focused on herbicide tolerance in the early years of biotech crops, but have increasingly relied on them for insect control. Small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries have focused almost exclusively on insect control to increase per acre yields and reduce pesticide costs. The ISAAA estimates that 10.3 million farmers planted biotech crops in 2006, with 9.3 million of them (up from 7.7 million in 2005) being small farmers in developing countries.
The countries planting biotech crops can generally be divided into four groups. The U.S. and Canada continue to dominate biotech acreage accounting for 150 million of the 252 million acres planted, 59.5 percent of the total acreage. Acreage is shifting from single trait crops to stacked traits with herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance. Approximately 28 percent of the U.S. biotech crops had stacked traits, a 30 percent increase over 2005. U.S. farmers also planted 200,000 acres of herbicide tolerant alfalfa, the first commercial perennial crop.
Four countries in South America, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, are developing countries where farmers use biotech crops in much the same manner as U.S. and Canadian producers. They planted 79 million acres, 31.3 percent of the world total. Most of the biotech acres were herbicide tolerant soybeans, but plantings of insect resistant cotton and corn are growing.
Four developing countries, China, India, South Africa and the Philippines, lead the way in the use of biotech crops among small, resource poor farmers. Most of their efforts have been on Bt crops for insect control rather than herbicide tolerance. China’s acreage of biotech cotton has been stable at about 8.6 million acres. China was expected to announce commercialization of insect resistant Bt rice, but that has been stalled due to political issues.
India has become the center of attention in developing countries. It’s acreage of Bt cotton almost tripled in 2006 to 9.4 million acres and replaced China as the leader in biotech cotton acres for developing countries with small farms. Biotech cotton was first grown in India in 2002 on 125,000 acres. Prior to recent years India’s 22 million acres of cotton accounted for about 25 percent of the world’s acreage, but only 12 percent of production. In the past five years national average cotton yields have increased by 46 percent. Rapid growth in biotech acreage has occurred despite constant efforts to disparage the use of biotech cotton. Farmers recognize that higher yields and lower pesticide use more than offset higher seed costs.
South Africa grows biotech corn, cotton and soybeans, but most of the 3.5 million acres in biotech crops is insect resistant yellow corn for livestock feed and white corn for food. Several thousand small, resource-poor farmers in South Africa grow white corn for direct human consumption and for commercial sales. These farmers have an improved standard of living as increased corn yields provide a more stable food supply and excess grain is sold in the market to pay for other good. The Philippines has about a 100,000 farmers growing 500,000 acres of insect-resistant corn.
Seven countries in the European Union planted over 400,000 acres of biotech crops in 2006. Though the acreage is small, it is growing despite continued opposition from environmental groups. Spain grew 150,000 acres of Bt corn. French farmers grew 12,000 acres of biotech corn in 2006, three or four times the acreage of last year, because of higher yields associated with better pest control. Slovakia grew a small amount of Bt corn for the first time, joining the Czech Republic, Germany and Portugal. Romania, which joined the EU on January 1 of this year, grew about 250,000 acres of herbicide tolerant biotech soybeans in 2006. Government regulations will likely make it impossible to grow biotech soybeans in Romania in 2007.
The ISAAA report also recognized the often forgotten fact that in addition to the 22 countries that plant biotech crops another 29 countries have approved biotech crops for import for food and feed and for release into the environment. Included in that list are countries like Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Corn has 35 biotech events approved for international trade, cotton 19, canola 14, and soybeans 7.
Biotech crops have earned their place as a growing part of the world food supply because they reduce production costs, increase yield per acre and meet the needs of consumers. The ISAAA expects biotech crop area planted to double by 2015 to 500 million acres per year with 20 million farmers growing them in 40 countries.