By PAUL ELIAS
The Associated Press
Saturday, January 20, 2007; 9:03 PM
SAN FRANCISCO -- A biotechnology advocacy group reported Thursday that a record number of biotech crops were planted worldwide last year, but critics complained the gains were more of the same: aimed at making corn, soy and cotton crops resistant to weed killers and bugs.
None of the genetically engineered crops for sale last year were nutritionally enhanced and much of the output feeds livestock, which critics said undercuts industry claims that biotechnology can help alleviate human hunger.
Still, the report prepared by the industry-backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications touted the record as evidence that crops engineered to cut pesticide use can ease poverty and financially benefit small farmers around the world.
Some 10.3 million farmers in 22 countries grew engineered crops on 252 million acres last year, a 13 percent increase over 2005, according to the report. About 9.3 million of those people were considered subsistence farmers.
The United States, Argentina and Brazil were the top three countries that grew genetically engineered crops last year, mostly soy. India tripled its acreage of genetically engineered cotton last year to 9.5 million acres.
"I have been able to increase my yield significantly," said Ravinder Brar, an Indian cotton farmer told reporters on a conference call. Brar said cotton engineered to resist boll weevil saved her about $320 an acre in pesticide costs on her 17-acre farm last year.
In the United States, 80 percent of soy _ a key ingredient in many packaged foods _ and a similar percentage of cotton are genetically engineered. Some 80.5 million acres of biotech corn are planted _ about 40 percent of the country's crop _ though much of that is used for animal feed.
In all, about 136.5 million acres of the nation's 445 million acres of farmland was under biotech cultivation last year, an increase of 10 percent over 2005 plantings.
Clive James, head of the advocacy group that prepared the report, said he expected more genetically engineered corn seed to be planted this year because of the recent boom in ethanol production. Ethanol, which is primarily made from corn in the United States, is expected to get another boost next week during President Bush's State of the Union address.
The report was paid for by two philanthropic groups, the Rockefeller Foundation and Ibercaja, a Spanish bank. The advocacy group received funding from biotech companies.
The share price of St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which supplies most of the world's genetically engineered seeds, have risen about 36 percent in the last year. Monsanto shares fell 21 cents to close at $54.01 on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under cultivation. Now genetically engineered crops are grown throughout the Americas, China and India. Last year, Slovakia became the sixth European Union country to plant genetically engineered crops.
"As more countries gain experience with biotech crops, acceptance will grow," James said. "Biotechnology offers many opportunities for the alleviation of poverty."
However, opponents note that no new or innovative genetically engineered crops have been introduced in the last decade. Much of the worldwide growth last year was attributed to soybeans designed to resist weed killer and corn spliced with bacteria genes to resist bugs, traits that directly benefit farmers, not consumers.
Skepticism of the technology continues to run deep in Europe where many consumers shun products containing genetically engineered ingredients. An increasing number of U.S. consumers pay premium prices for biotech-free, organic products because of environmental and health concerns, though no illness has been attributed to biotechnology crops.
So far, no one has introduced crops with added nutrients and other attributes that could fight hunger in the developing world, as the biotech industry often promises. What's more, few biotech versions of crops such as rice that are widely consumed in poor countries have been distributed on a large scale. The four most popular biotech crops are soy, corn, cotton and canola.
"No (biotech) crop on the market today offers benefits to the consumer in terms of quality or price, and to date these crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere," said Nnimmo Bassey, a spokesman for the anti-biotechnology advocacy group Friends of the Earth Africa in Nigeria. "The great majority of (biotech) crops cultivated today are used as high-priced animal feed to supply rich nations with meat."
On the Net:
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications: http://www.isaaa.org/default.html