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Global Summary of Genetically Engineered Crops

  • Genetically Modified Crops Only a Fraction of Primary Global Crop Production
    By Alice McKeown
    World Watch Institute, 12/8/2008
    Straight to the Source

In 2007, farmers planted an additional 12.3 million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops, bringing the total global area up 12 percent to 114.3 million hectares.1 (See Figure 1.) Genetically modified crops (also called biotech crops) have been intentionally altered through genetic engineering-the elimination, alteration, or introduction of new genetic elements, including from one unrelated species to another. Although they have been on the market for a decade, they currently account for a modest 9 percent of total land used for global primary crops.2 (See Figure 2.) Four cash crops continue to account for virtually all GM production: soybean (51 percent), corn (31 percent), cotton (13 percent), and canola (5 percent).3

Twenty-three countries were growing GM crops in 2007, including 17 high-income and upper-middle-income countries and 6 lower-middle-income countries.4 The global leader by far continues to be the United States, which accounts for half of all GM crop area.5 In 2007, GM crops were growing on 57.7 million hectares of U.S. land, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year.6 Beyond the four standard GM crops, farmers there also grew small amounts of GM papaya in Hawaii, although that has been declining over the past few years, and GM alfalfa, which court rulings have suspended until further environmental review.7

The second and third largest countries for GM crop area are Argentina, with 19.1 million hectares in 2007, and Brazil, with 15.0 million hectares.8 Other primary South American growers include Paraguay with 2.6 million hectares and Uruguay with 500,000 hectares.9 The main GM crop grown in this region is soybeans, followed by corn and cotton.10 India is now ranked fifth in total GM crop area, with 6.2 million hectares in 2007 devoted to cotton.11 This includes 2.4 million hectares that were planted between 2006 and 2007, about the same amount of new area as added the previous year. Although China was the first country to grow a commercial genetically modified crop-transgenic tobacco in 1992-added crop area rates there have significantly trailed those of India.12 In 2007 China had 3.8 million hectares in GM crops, including 300,000 new hectares, about one eighth as much as India's new crop area for the same year.13 The main GM crop in China is cotton.14

Two GM crop traits continue to dominate worldwide: herbicide tolerance (63 percent) and insect resistance (18 percent), with a combination of the two traits (called "stacked") accounting for the rest.15 (See Figure 3.) For herbicides, most crops have been altered to tolerate direct application of glyphosate, commonly known by the trade name Roundup.16 While GM crops adopted during the initial years of commercialization were mostly single-trait crops, the recent trend has been for stacked traits that are a combination of herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.17 This trend has been most prevalent over the last four years, as stacked crops grew from 9 percent to 19 percent of traits.18

In the United States, GM crop production actually increased pesticide use by more than 4 percent between 1996 and 2004, despite early signs that GM use might be tied to an overall decline.19 Reports of glyphosate-resistant weeds, or "super weeds," have been on the rise since GM crops started gaining momentum, and these weeds now total 15 species-up from 2 in the 1990s-that cover hundreds of thousands of hectares in the United States alone.20 In response, farmers have been encouraged to diversify herbicide applications or increase glyphosate applications.21 Claims of potential benefits from GM crops include increased yields and nutritional value, although to date no commercially available crops have been modified for these purposes.22 Some studies have shown that GM crops reduce yield performance, including a 5- to 10-percent yield drag in GM soybeans.23 Media reports have linked the widespread collapse of GM cotton crops and reduced yields in India to increased suicides among poor farmers.24 And although nutrition-related traits have been promised over the last decade, they are still at least five years away from market.25

Several concerns surround GM crops, including the transfer of food allergens across crop species, the unintentional spread and gene flow of GM crops, contamination of organic and other non-GM crops, the development of weed and pest resistance, and toxicity to animals that may feed on or near the crops.26 One social concern is the use of genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs), which can prevent the appearance of a GM trait or cause the seeds to be sterile in order to keep GM crops from being replicated or saved and replanted by farmers for the next crop.27 Sometimes called "terminator seeds," GURTs pose environmental risks and have been restricted, although research into new varieties continues.28

The potential social benefits of GM crops for small farmers and consumers in developing countries have not yet been realized in part because large profit-driven agribusinesses have dominated research and development and hold intellectual property protections that make public research costly and time-consuming.29 In addition, most investment has been into a small number of crops and traits targeted toward large-scale commercial farming.30

The Food and Agriculture Organization has warned of a growing "molecular divide" between industrial and developing countries, advocating a new direction that would address the needs of the poor, including research into so-called orphan crops-sorghum, millet, and pigeon pea, among others-that have received little or no attention.31 Other critics maintain that GM research threatens local agricultural knowledge and experimentation, two important components of a sustainable agricultural system.32 These concerns raise questions about portraying GM crops as a second Green Revolution: whereas in the Green Revolution research was driven by public centers and focused on providing free technology and access to those most in need, the "Gene Revolution" is largely being driven by commercial profits.33

Monsanto exemplifies the growing influence of GM agribusinesses and seed companies: its GM crop traits are found in more than 85 percent of global GM crop hectares, and the company controls 23 percent of the global proprietary seed market.34 Monsanto has been a leading proponent of prohibiting farmers from saving seeds to plant as future crops, increasing the dependence of farmers on seed companies.35 The company has collected tens of millions of dollars from farmers charged with illegally saving GM seed, even in cases where accidental contamination was the likely culprit.36

Rising food prices worldwide have led to increased media attention on GM crops. In early 2008, GM proponents like Monsanto began promoting their technology as part of the global solution to an impending food crisis, even though there are no GM crops available to increase yields.37 Livestock producers and feed makers joined the media fray, urging faster approval of GM crops and more widespread use of the technology.38 Yet a groundbreaking report by more than 400 scientists published in April 2008 and approved by more than 50 countries casts serious doubts about the role of GM crops in addressing food security and points to the existence of more-effective alternatives and solutions.39

Another area that is gaining attention is the overlap of GM crops and climate change. Some proponents have highlighted the use of GM crops in biofuels production, including 7 million hectares of corn used in ethanol and just over 4 million hectares of soybeans used in biodiesel.40 But there are no commercially available GM crops designed for biofuels, which are made equally well from conventional crops. Moreover, biofuels may result in higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petroleum fuels.41

Also receiving attention are crops that may be able to adapt to changing climate conditions like drought and extreme temperatures-sometimes called "climate-ready."42 Several large agribusinesses have announced significant research investments into these crops, including one partnership with nonprofit and research groups, called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, to develop drought-tolerant corn.43 However, there are many substantial technical obstacles to successful development of these traits through genetic modification.44 Like earlier promises of higher nutrition, most of the "climate-ready" GM crops are not expected to be widely available for 5-10 years even if they turn out to be viable.45

Even as these developments advance, tension is growing over the future of GM crops. The European Union is expected to offer new guidance on these crops by the end of 2008, a process that has already proved controversial, with allegations of secret meetings to sway the decision.46 France announced earlier this year that it was suspending GM crop production, but two other countries are expected to join the mix by the end of 2008: Egypt and Burkina Faso.47 New crops are also in development, including rice-one of the most important food staples for a majority of the world's poor.48 Yet a new scientific study funded by the Austrian government suggests that a popular variety of GM corn reduces fertility in mice, raising questions about GM safety.49 And with high-level critics like the Prince of Wales speaking out, GM crops are likely to remain controversial.50

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