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Why Are Biotech Crops Growing Like Weeds?

The people who are designing, marketing and selling biotech crops must be doing something right.

Despite fierce opposition to so-called Frankenfoods in Europe, which in turn has discouraged farmers in Africa from planting genetically-modified seeds, biotech acreage under cultivation around the world grew to 134 million hectares last year, up 7 percent over 2008.

Roughly 14 million farmers planted biotech crops, up from about 13.3 million a year ago, and nearly 90 percent were small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries, according to a pro-biotech nonprofit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotech Applications or ISAAA.

Growth is especially robust in poor countries, as the chart below shows.


What this says is that farmers, when given a choice between biotech and conventional crops, are opting for biotech. And after listening to a presentation the other day from Clive James, the chairman and founder of ISAAA, it's clear to me that the growth is going to continue.

In a landmark decision last fall, China issued biosafety certificates for biotech insect-resistant rice and phytase corn. Phytase is an additive, widely used in animal feed, that increases phosphorus absorption and helps animals grow faster. Origin Agritech (NASDAQ: SEED), a Beijing-based company that developed the phytase corn, says it will save farmers money and reduce phosphate pollution caused by animal waste and excessive fertilizer use. While commercial use of these biotech crops is several years away, these three facts -- rice is the world's most important food crop, corn is the most important feed crop and China is the biggest market -- leave little doubt biotech crop acreage will continue to grow.

Few topics in the world of business and sustainability are more controversial than biotech foods. I'm reluctant to wade into the debate for a couple of reasons. First, I'm not an expert on farming nor on the human health issues raised by biotech's critics. Second, I'm conducting a series of interviews about sustainable agriculture for Monsanto's website, Produce More Conserve More, for which I'm being paid. I agreed to do so only after talking about biotech with people I respect -- among them, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Glenn Prickett of The Nature Conservancy and Stewart Brand -- all of whom say that they think biotech foods are essential if we are going to feed the world's growing population while limiting the environmental footprint of farming. In his book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart wrote:

I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.

Strong words, no? In response, GM Watch, an anti-biotech website, called Stewart an "ageing hippie technophile" who "has never been short on hubris." That's name-calling, not argument. Others whose work I respect, including Andrew Kimbrell and Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, argue that genetically-engineered foods should not be commercialized until "they have been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment." Of course, it's not easy to prove that something is safe. The Center for Food Safety also wants foods containing biotech ingredients to be labeled. Still another critic of biotech who has my ear is my daughter Sarah, who funds grassroots organizations in Africa as a senior program officer for the American Jewish World Service. Maybe I'll invite her to do a guest post.

This posting isn't about the controversy. It's about what's happening on the ground, literally. Farmers are voting for biotech, and they are doing so with their livelihoods at stake. This suggests that, at the very least, biotech crops deliver meaningful benefits to farmers -- they enable them to save money, or work less, or improve their productivity.

The U.S. remains by far the No. 1 producer of biotech crops, followed by Brazil and Argentina, with every other country lagging well behind. (The top 15 countries are listed below. Yes, I know the chart is hard to read but you can also find the list in this press release.) China was one of 16 developing countries that grew biotech crops in 2009, according to ISAAA, and nearly half the biotech acreage is in the developing world.

{related_content}"This puts to rest the idea that biotech crops can only benefits larger farms in developed countries," James said during a conference call with reporters.

South Africa and Burkina Faso, where cotton is a major export, led African countries in adoption of biotech. Burkina Faso's biotech cotton now accounts for 29 percent of the country's cotton-growing land. Of course, there's less controversy surrounding biotech cotton since it is a fiber and not a food crop. Japan, meanwhile, is growing biotech roses and carnations. Who knew?

Now, without knowing the context in which farmers are turning to biotech, it would be a mistake to read too much into this data. Individual farmers are influenced by government policy, the inducements of NGOs (like the pro-biotech Gates Foundation) and the information they have (or don't have) available.

I'm looking forward to learning more about biotech agriculture. It's possible that we may regret this global-scale experiment that we embarked upon less than 15 years ago. But the market seems to be telling us that biotech crops are a good idea. Then again, we've all learned lately that markets are not infallible. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Jams_123.

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