Biotech crop acreage booms despite controversy

Thursday, January 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Global plantings of genetically engineered crops jumped nearly 20 percent last year despite resistance of consumers in Europe and elsewhere, according to a group that promotes use of the technology in poor countries.

Farmers grew an estimated 130 million acres of biotech crops in 2001, about 21 million more than the year before, according to a report issued Thursday by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

The United States and Argentina, where biotech soybeans are popular with farmers, accounted for 90 percent of the world's biotech acreage last year and most of the growth from 2000. But the report said China's farmers tripled their use of genetically engineered cotton to 3.7 million acres last year, nearly a third of their total crop.

``There was much speculation in 2000 that indeed the global area (of biotech crops) would decrease rather increase'' in 2001, said Clive James, a scientist who is chairman of ISAAA. The group is sponsored by foundations, biotech companies and U.S. and European government agencies.

He predicted a 10 percent increase in biotech acreage this year.

ISAAA assesses the needs of farmers for improved crops in poor countries and finds products developed through public and private research.

The most popular biotech crops contain bacterium genes that make the plants either resistant to bugs or weed killers. Farmers in China who used to spray their cotton crops as many as 15 times a year have started planting an insect-resistant variety known as Bt, for its added bacterium gene. The crop doesn't need to be treated more than twice, said James.

The popularity of Bt cotton in China indicates that genetically engineered crops will be accepted in other countries as they are approved by governments and made available to farmers, James said.

This year, India is expected to approve commercialization of its first cotton crop. The first Bt cotton was planted in Indonesia last year. Approval for biotech soybeans is pending in Brazil, which is a major exporter of soy.

Critics of biotech crops say there isn't enough known about their impact on human health or the environment. U.S. farmers have shunned biotech versions of sugarbeets, potatoes and sweet corn because major food companies said they wouldn't buy them.

However, two-thirds of last year's U.S. soybean crop was genetically engineered, compared to 54 percent the year before. Virtually all of the soybeans grown in Argentina last year were of biotech varieties.

The soybeans are immune to a powerful weed killer, known by the trade name Roundup. In some cases, one application of the herbicide is all that is needed for an entire growing season, farmers say. Fields seeded for conventionally bred varieties can require many sprayings with different types of chemicals.

Nearly 70 percent of the U.S. cotton crop last year and 26 percent of the corn was genetically engineered.

The United States grew 88 million acres of biotech crops last year, followed by Argentina with 29 million and Canada with 8 million, the report said. South Africa, Australia and seven other countries had very small amounts.