Many experts believe the key to feeding the world's 6 billion people and the many more billions to come lies in producing genetically altered crops that can resist harsh environmental conditions, insects and herbicides. American companies engineered such plants in the 1990s, and about half of the American soybean crop, for example, is now transgenic. But some farmers and importers in Europe and Japan have balked at buying the seeds or crops, and a controversy has erupted in the United States over the labeling of food items that contain transgenic ingredients. Environmentalists have warned that the use of transgenic crops can speed the development of insecticide-resistant insects and weeds that are invulnerable to herbicide.

Production of genetically altered crops has increased 23-fold in the past four years.

Global area of genetically altered crops (This chart was not available)

Three countries grew almost all of the world's commercially produced transgenic crops this year. Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, France, Portugal, Romania, Ukraine together account for a fraction of 1 percent.

Canada 10%

Argentina 17%

China 1%

U.S. 72%

NOTE: Numbers rounded

Four crops made up almost all of the transgenic harvests worldwide in 1999. Potatoes, squash and papayas accounted for less than 1 percent combined.

Soybean 54%

Corn 28%

Canola (rapeseed) 9%

Cotton 9%

NOTE: Numbers rounded

All About Genetically Altered Crops

In 1980, researchers spliced the gene of a bacterium into a petunia, creating the first "transgenic" plant. This feat was followed by a tomato made frost resistant through a gene from a flounder. Currently seven major transgenic crops are grown commercially. These plants produce their own insecticide, reducing the inconvenience and cost of spraying for pests. These plants also can be made resistant to the most common herbicides. As a result, weeds, which inhibit crop growth, can be controlled with as little as one herbicide spraying per season, instead of many applications. Better weed control also means less tilling, and less tilling reduces soil erosion.

SOURCES: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, World Watch Institute