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Commercialising biotech crops - the global picture

Crispus Kiamba, the permanent sectretary in the Ministry of Science and Technology in Kenya (Zablon Odhiambo)
Crispus Kiamba, the permanent sectretary in the Ministry of Science and Technology in Kenya
Zablon Odhiambo

The global area under biotech crops grew considerably in 2006 to an impressive 60-fold increase at the close of the first decade of biotech crop adoption (1996-2005). This provides a clear indication that yet more land will be given over to biotech crops by 2015. According to the Annual Report for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the increase marks the highest adoption rate of any crop technology, and has contributed more than US$27 billion to the global economy. In addition, the report anticipates that much of biotech's growth over the next decade will be in developing countries.

Twenty-two countries planted biotech crops during 2006 and another 29 countries approved import of biotech crops, whether for food, livestock feed or for release into the environment*. In the same year, 102 million hectares of GM crops were planted by over 10 million farmers, a 13 per cent increase from 2005. ISAAA predicts that by the year 2015, these figures will have doubled to 200 million hectares planted by more than 20 million farmers in about 40 countries.

GM soybean continues to be the principal biotechnology crop, covering almost 60 million hectares, followed by maize (25 million hectares), cotton (13 million hectares), and canola (4.8 million hectares).

From the Americas to Asia

The US maintained its position as the principal adopter of biotech crops in 2006, reporting the largest absolute increase in biotech crop area, followed by Argentina, Brazil and Canada. Most growth in biotechnology during the next ten years, however, is expected to occur in key Asian developing countries, particularly China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. And interestingly, more than 90 per cent or 9.3 million farmers out of the 10.3 million farmers who adopted biotech crops in 2006 were reported to be small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

In 2006, India emerged as the leader for cultivation of biotech crops in Asia, surpassing China. Both countries have only sanctioned the commercial planting of Bt cotton. C. D Mayee, an ISAAA trustee and Chairman of India's Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, says "Bt cotton has contributed significantly to the increase in cotton yield in India. Commercially, the increment in India's cotton production through Bt cotton has resulted in an impressive growth in exports from 0.9 million bales in 2005 to 4.7 million bales in 2006, the highest ever in India's history. Mayee added that there are now as many as 62 varieties of Bt cotton seeds available in the market compared to only 20 in 2005.

Forest being cleared in Argentina to make way for planting of GM crops (Greenpeace)
Forest being cleared in Argentina to make way for planting of GM crops

According to Clive James, Chairman and Founder of ISAAA "more than half of the global population now live in countries where biotech crops are grown, allowing 3.6 billion people to benefit from the economic, societal and environmental advantages generated through biotech crops." Speaking at the recent launch of the ISAAA report in Nairobi, James suggested that the higher growth in adoption of biotechnology reported in developing countries (21 per cent), compared with industrialised nations (nine per cent), is an indication of the important contribution that biotechnology can make to poverty alleviation. Biotech crops will not only help improve productivity and income for farmers, he suggested, but they will also reduce the environmental impact of farming and offer more social benefits.

African experiences

In Africa, the experience in South Africa will likely lead other countries to begin planting biotech crops, including Egypt, Burkina Faso and Kenya, where promising field trials have already been conducted. In South Africa, significant advances in the areas attributed to biotech crops are predominantly from Bt white maize, primarily used for food, and Bt yellow maize used for livestock feed.

Kenya is edging closer to realising the potential of Bt maize under confined field trials but has also made promising progress with Bt cotton, and with transgenic cassava and sweet potato. The Permanent Secretary of Kenya's Ministry of Science and Technology, Prof Crispus Kiamba says of the report: "The global hectarage and number of farmers planting biotechnology crops is expected to increase as the first generation of biotechnology crops is more widely adopted and the second generation of new applications for both input and output traits becomes available."

Future directions

During the second decade of biotech crops, the commercialisation of biotech rice alone could drive adoption of biotech crops well beyond the conservative estimate of 20 million farmers up to 80 million farmers. Biofuels will also be a major growth driver. Biotech crops will be used to increase efficiency and meet added demand for alternative energy, through the supply of cellulose-based ethanol derived from energy crops . Furthermore, biotech crops with drought-tolerant traits are expected to reach the market within the next five years, unlocking substantial production opportunities in drier climates.

*From the report: 'Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops: 2006'

Written by: Zablon Odhiambo

Date published: March 2007


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