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[BEIJING] The planting of genetically modified crops has surged, particularly in developing countries, because of the global food crisis, according to a report.

The number of countries growing GM crops has increased from six in 1996, the first year of commercialisation, to 25 in 2009, says the latest annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (ISAAA), released in Beijing last month (23 February).

Around 134 million hectares worldwide are now planted with GM crops.

The United States tops the list of countries growing GM crops, followed by Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay and South Africa. Almost half of global GM crops are now planted in 16 developing countries, involving 13 million small farmers. ISAAA predicts that the number of biotech farmers will reach 20 million or more by 2015.

"This strong adoption puts to rest the idea that [GM] crops can only benefit larger farmers and industrialised countries," said Huang Dafang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute.

Burkina Faso's GM cotton area increased from 8,500 hectares to 115,000 hectares — almost a third of the country's total cotton area — from 1996 to 2009.

"It is unwise to say no to GM technology considering the food crisis the world faces," Clive James, chair of ISAAA, told SciDev.Net.

"The most promising technological strategy at this time for increasing global food, feed and fibre productivity is to combine the best of the old and the best of the new, by integrating the best of conventional crop technology and the best of crop biotechnology applications including novel traits," he said.  

But non-governmental organisation Friends of the Earth questioned whether GM crops have been as successful as ISAAA portrays.

In a report released on the same day, it said that GM crops occupy less than three per cent of global agricultural land and that more than 99 per cent of the crops are grown for animal feed and agrofuels rather than food.

"There is still not a single commercial GM crop with increased yield, drought-tolerance, salt-tolerance, enhanced nutrition or other beneficial traits long promised by biotech companies," said the report, pointing out that "99 per cent of biotech agriculture consists of four crops with just two traits, herbicide-tolerance and/or insect-resistance".

It said that India has placed a moratorium on the planting of its first GM food crop due to widespread concerns on its health, environmental and socio-economic impact (see India says no — for now — to first GM vegetable).

Link to executive summary of ISAAA report

Link to Friends of the Earth report [860kB]