HONOLULU – Last year set records for the growth of genetically engineered crops, as more farmers in Europe and the developing world embraced biotechnology, an industry-supported group reported Wednesday.
Yet anti-biotech activists and other observers still complain that the industry isn't helping alleviate world hunger as it has long promised. None of the commercially available genetically engineered crops last year were nutritionally enhanced. Much of the output is for animal feed.
Some 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew engineered crops on 222 million acres last year, an 11 percent increase over 2004, according to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
Nearly 8 million of those people were considered subsistence farmers, the report concluded.
The report was paid for by two philanthropic groups, the Rockefeller Foundation and Italy's Fondazione Bussolera Branca.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation. Now genetically engineered crops are grown throughout the Americas, China and India. Last year the technology began to be used in Iran.
"The technology has been very important for us," said Jose Manuel Pomar, who joined a conference call announcing the report and said his 250 acres of corn in Spain were saved from a deadly pest because of biotechnology.
Many papaya farmers in Hawaii, which supplies 90 percent of the United States' supply, credit biotechnology with saving the industry from a ruinous virus 10 years ago.
However, opponents note that no new or innovative genetically engineered crops have been introduced in the last decade. Much of the worldwide growth last year was attributed to soybeans genetically engineered to resist weed killer and corn spliced with bacteria genes to resist bugs, traits that directly benefit farmers, not consumers.
So far, no one has introduced crops with added nutrients and other attributes that could fight hunger in the developing world, as the biotech industry often promises. What's more, few biotech versions of crops such as rice that are widely consumed in poor countries have been distributed on a large scale. The four most popular biotech crops are soy, corn, cotton and canola.
"While the acreage continues to grow, it's driven by technology that was developed 10 years ago," said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It would be nice to see others in the food chain aside from farmers benefit."
Clive James, author of the report and founder of the group behind the study, said he expects more diverse biotech crops to hit the market in the next three to five years, including drought-tolerant corn and rice engineered to resist pests.
"Rice is the most important food crop in the world," he said, noting that Iran recently approved commercialization of biotech rice, grown on about 100,000 acres. Some 250 million farmers grow rice, and it's a staple for more than 1.3 billion of the world's poorest people.
China could disrupt the global market if it decides to commercialize genetically engineered rice. The country is experimenting, but Chinese government officials have given mixed signals when — or if — the world's most populous country plans to grow biotech rice on a larger scale.
The three biggest biotech crop producers in 2004 were the United States, Argentina and Brazil, which struck a deal last year with biotech behemoth Monsanto Inc. to officially allow genetically modified soy to be grown there. Nearly all the soy grown in the U.S. and Argentina is genetically engineered. Soy is a key ingredient in many packaged foods.
The 124 million acres grown in the U.S. in 2005 represents a 5 percent increase over 2004. Soy and corn were the dominant crops, and the United States accounted for 55 percent of all biotech crops grown last year.
James said most of the growth was spurred by Monsanto and other biotech companies' research and marketing efforts rather than governments and nonprofit entities.
The continued growth of biotech crops comes as the United States and the European Union await a resolution by the World Trade Organization over most of Europe's de facto ban on genetically engineered U.S. crops.
Many Europeans are so skeptical of genetically engineered crops that analysts say even a WTO ruling in favor of the U.S. will not significantly open the biotech market there. So farmers dependent on the European market, including many in Africa and even in the United States, will continue to shun biotechnology, James conceded during the teleconference.
Still, he argued that genetically modified plants will help alleviate poverty in developing nations by improving crop yields and cutting expenses through less use of pesticides.
"Biotechnology has helped alleviate 7.7 million subsistence farmers from abject poverty," James said. "It's a contribution, not a solution to the alleviation of poverty."