Bionic Growth For Biotech Crops

A combine is driven in an Arkansas rice field. A new report says rice that has been genetically altered to make it more resistant to insects may soon transform the global harvest of the world's most important food crop.
A combine is driven in an Arkansas rice field. A new report says rice that has been genetically altered to make it more resistant to insects may soon transform the global harvest of the world's most important food crop. (By Danny Johnston -- Associated Press)
By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Since genetically modified crops were first planted a decade ago, the acreage devoted to them worldwide has been growing at double-digit rates, and it did so again last year, jumping 11 percent to 222 million acres, according to a new report.

The crops are gaining popularity in middle-income countries such as China, India and Brazil, the report says, with small cotton farmers in particular embracing a technology that allows them to grow more cotton while reducing the use of chemical pesticides.

The report notes that the world's most important food crop, rice, could be on the verge of a transformation. Iran has already commercialized gene-altered rice and China appears nearly ready to do so, the report says. Widespread acceptance of such rice could put crop biotechnology into the hands of the tens of millions of small rice farmers who grow nearly half the calories eaten by the human race.

Commercialization of rice that has been genetically altered to resist insects "has enormous implications for the alleviation of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, not only for the rice-growing and -consuming countries in Asia, but for all biotech crops and their acceptance on a global basis," says the report, compiled by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. The group publishes an annual review, funded partly by the Rockefeller Foundation, that is considered the definitive global analysis of trends in crop biotechnology.

Proponents of the technology welcomed the findings, saying the spread of biotech crops demonstrates their usefulness for farmers and society. But two advocacy groups preemptively attacked the new report before it was published, putting out reports of their own this week that questioned industry "hype" and disputed the impact of gene-altered crops.

The Polaris Institute, an anti-globalization group in Ottawa, acknowledged that biotech crop acreage appears to be increasing but noted that the technology is still concentrated in a handful of countries, with the United States, Argentina, Canada and Brazil accounting for 90 percent of the world's biotech acreage. The group pointed out that the technology is widely used in only a few crops -- mainly cotton, corn, soy and canola.

Industry claims that the technology would help alleviate poverty in Africa have proven illusory so far, the group said, a point echoed by a report from environmental group Friends of the Earth. And the groups said growing biotech crops can hurt farmers' export markets in countries that are skeptical of the technology.

"Instead of wholesale adoption, we are seeing at most experimentation," David Macdonald, a Polaris Institute analyst, said in a statement. "Worldwide farmers have good reason to be wary."

It's clear, in fact, that even after a decade of growth, biotech crops are grown on only a small fraction of the world's arable land -- well under 1 percent. But the trend is also clear: When they were first commercialized in 1996, biotech crops were planted on 4.3 million acres in six countries, but the report says that by 2005 farmers were planting them on 222 million acres in 21 countries. "Biotech crops deliver substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to farmers and, increasingly, to society at large," the report says.

Almost a third of the agricultural land in the United States is planted in gene-altered crops, and more than half in Argentina and Paraguay, the report shows. Brazilian farmers had been illegally planting biotech crops for years, but that country has now legalized them and the acreage there is growing rapidly, the report says.

The report says China stands to become a major player in the field. Clive James, chairman of the group that published the report, estimated that 2,000 scientists in China are working on numerous gene-modified crops. "If we look at the investment in China in biotech crops, it is very significant," he said in a conference call yesterday from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Agricultural companies, led by Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, created the first biotech crops in the 1990s by moving genes from other species into plants. Bacterial genes give some plants the ability to resist worms, and others gain the ability to survive heavy applications of herbicides that kill nearby weeds.

But a controversy erupted over the technology in Europe in the late 1990s, with advocacy groups saying the crops posed unnecessary environmental risks and much of the European public agreeing.

The United States has been trying to pry open the European market, with some recent success. The new report notes that five of 25 European countries are now growing at least small quantities of biotech crops, though only Spain has embraced the technology in a big way.

The United States filed a complaint against Europe over the issue with the World Trade Organization, and a ruling is expected soon. The European Commission in Brussels has been battling resistance by individual countries and this week ordered Greece to permit a variety of gene-altered corn.

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