Biotech Crop Harvest Comes Amid Discord
SAN FRANCISCO Farmers around the globe planting genetically engineered crops enjoyed another bumper harvest last year even as political and financial pressure mounted from skeptical consumers in Europe and pockets of the United States, an industry-supported group said Wednesday.
Eight million farmers in 17 countries grew engineered crops on 200 million acres last year, a 20 percent increase over the 167 million acres in 2003, according to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. The report was paid for by two philanthropic groups, including the Rockefeller Foundation.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation.
"The technology is probably poised to enter a new era of growth," said the group's founder and chairman, Clive James. The group promotes use of the technology in poor countries.
James estimated that the number of biotech crop acreage could double by 2010, spurred on by China's expected approval to grow genetically engineered rice as soon as this year.
The most popular biotechnology crops contain bacteria genes that make the plants resistant to either bugs or weed killers.
James and other biotechnology proponents argue that genetically modified plants will help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing nations by improving crop yields and cutting expenses through less use of pesticides.
Edwin Paraluman, a farmer in the Philippines who joined James on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, said the planting of genetically engineered corn last year yielded him 40 percent more crop than usual.
"The benefits for the small farmer are great," Paraluman said.
Farmers in the Philippines grew nearly 250,000 acres of engineered corn in 2004, the second year altered crops were approved commercially there. Corn, soy, canola and cotton accounted for nearly all commercially available biotech crops.
The three biggest biotech crop producers in 2004 were the United States, Argentina and Canada, where nearly all the country's canola is genetically engineered. The other countries cultivating biotech crops were, in order of output: Brazil, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico and Spain.
The 118 million acres grown in the United States in 2004 represents an 11 percent increase over 2003's 106 million acres. Soy and corn were the dominant crops.
The continued growth of biotech crops and the group's rosy outlook for the technology comes amid often fierce resistance in Europe and in parts of the United States from consumers worried about how the crops may affect people's health and the environment.
The European Union ended a six-year moratorium on new genetically modified foods in May, despite widespread public concern about such products. Still, consumer skepticism runs high in Europe and few --if any -- biotech crops are expected to reach market there in the near future.
Last year, biotechnology titan Monsanto Co. of St. Louis announced it was shelving plans to commercialize genetically engineered wheat because of widespread public resistance.
Last week, anti-biotechnology crusaders in California's Sonoma County said they gathered enough voter signatures to qualify a measure on the local ballot that if passed would ban the growing of biotech crops there for 10 years. Three other Northern California counties already ban such crops while similar measures were defeated in three other counties in November, underscoring consumer uncertainty.
"It's going both ways at the same time," said activist Dave Henson, who led the signature-gathering campaign in Sonoma.
Source: Associated Press