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Developing countries are playing an important role in the expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops, and are set to play an increasingly important role both in growing and researching the plants in the next ten years, says a report from the Council for Biotechnology Information.

The Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology 2004 report shows that over the past decade, the fastest growth of GM crops has been in developing countries.

Globally, planting of GM crops has increased at an annual rate of 15 per cent since they were first introduced in the mid-1990s, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). If this rate were sustained, the global market would reach US$210 billion by 2014, nearly a five-fold increase from its current US$44 billion value.

In its report, the Council for Biotechnology argues that developing nations stand to benefit most from this growth. It says the gross domestic product of poor nations adopting GM crops could increase by as much as two per cent by 2014.

Prabhu Pingali and Terri Raney of the FAO's Agricultural and Development Economics Division, told SciDev.Net that sustaining the 15 per cent growth rate would depend on the development of new crops meeting the needs of developing nations, and on ensuring such countries can access and adopt them.

Soybean, maize, cotton and canola currently make up the majority of the GM crop market. But the research community is working on several other crops, including rice, and traits such as drought- and salinity- tolerance that could be very useful to farmers in the developing world.

"The biggest question, however, is whether these solutions will receive regulatory approval and consumer acceptance," say Pingali and Raney.

Many developing nations are producing GM crops even though they have yet to adopt formal legislation to regulate their production and commercialisation.

For instance, the Brazilian senate approved a bill in October that would legalise planting GM crops (see Brazilian Senate approves biosafety law), even though GM soybean, maize and cotton are already being planted in parts of the country.

Other developing nations are hesitant to adopt GM crops for fear that such a move would limit their capacity to export to the European Union, where some member states remain hesitant to fully adopt GM crops.

According to Council for Biotechnology Information's report, nearly one-third of the global area planted with GM crops is in developing nations and a similar proportion of the global GM crop market is held by those nations.

Argentina, Brazil and China are among the leading five producers of GM crops, alongside the United States and Canada.

The report says "there is reason to expect China to emerge as an influential force in plant biotechnology in years to come". Already, it leads the global production of GM canola and cotton, and the government has invested several hundred million dollars in research on agricultural biotechnology.

The study also says Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa show potential for future commercial adoption of GM crops and for increased research in the sector.

Prabhu Pingali is director of the FAO's Agricultural and Development Economics Division and Terri Raney edited the organisation's State of Food and Agriculture 2003/2004 report. 

Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.

Link to full Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004 (PDF)

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