December 9, 2004

Biotech Crops Said on Rise Around World

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Biotech crops are flourishing in the United States, but they're also taking root across the globe, accounting for about $44 billion in crops in five leading countries, according to a report Wednesday by an industry group.

Argentina has planted $8.9 billion worth of genetically engineered soybeans and corn. In China, biotech cotton is worth $3.9 billion. There are $2 billion in genetically altered canola, corn and soybeans growing in Canada, and Brazil has biotech soybeans worth $1.6 billion.

The United States eclipses them all with its nearly $28 billion in biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.

The report, by a University of Minnesota researcher for the industry's Council for Biotechnology Information, anticipates that growth of these gene-altered crops will soar, particularly in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa.

"What I'm suggesting is that we are probably at the threshold of a much larger and more extensive adoption of plant biotechnology," said C. Ford Runge, director of Minnesota's Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy. "You can conclude there are many more crops in the pipeline than the four major ones that I mention."

The study found that more than half of the world's soybeans are now biotech varieties. Thirty percent of all cotton comes from biotech seeds, and 15 percent of corn and canola are genetically engineered, the study said.

Traditional plant breeding requires growing generation after generation of plants to develop a specific trait, such as corn that resists insects or potatoes that bruise less easily. Genetic engineering is like a high-tech shortcut; scientists transfer certain traits by attaching genes from one organism to another.

Even in Europe, where fears run high about the safety of gene-altered food, there has been substantial research and development of new crops. However, activity slowed dramatically in 1999, after the European Union placed a moratorium on biotech crops. Officials agreed to resume approvals earlier this year, but a political stalemate remains.

The study asserts that the EU can slow the global spread of biotech crops but cannot halt it. The study found that eight other countries are producing significant amounts of biotech crops. They are South Africa, Mexico, Australia, India, Romania, Spain, Philippines and Uruguay.

Greenhouse experiments and other research and development has been done in 63 countries, Runge found.

Activity isn't limited to traditional row crops. Many biotech vegetables and fruits - such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, sweet peppers, papaya, melon, banana and apples - are in various phases of research or approval. And researchers in many countries are working on biotech tobacco, coffee, peanuts, mustard, cocoa and other crops.

In the United States, a recent report raised concerns about whether state governments have the legal and financial tools they need to oversee the fast-growing industry. The study by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology looked at 17 states working with federal officials to oversee biotech crops.


On the Net:

Report: http://www.apec.umn.edu/faculty/frunge/globalbiotech04.pdf

Council for Biotechnology Information: http://www.whybiotech.com/