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Global Status and Distribution of
Commercial Transgenic Crops in 1997
By
Clive James
 
 
 
Keywords:  Genetic engineering; United States of America; China Peoples Republic; Canada; Argentina; Australia; Plant breeding; Disease/pest resistance; Herbicide/pesticide tolerance; Soya bean; Maize; Tobacco; Cotton; Rapeseed/Canola; Fruits and nuts.
Correct citation: James, C. (1998), "Global Status and Distribution of Commercial Transgenic Crops in 1997." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 35, p. 9-12.
 
The global area under transgenic crops has increased significantly this decade. Statistics for 1996 and 1997 give an indication of developments in transgenic crops and their adoption. Given its potential and notwithstanding the fact that the debate about its advantages and disadvantages is still ongoing, biotechnology will be a significant component of a global food security strategy.

A transgenic crop is a crop in which a gene from another organism has been incorporated by methods other than traditional breeding. Genetic engineering of crops has been a controversial subject since 1971, when the first genetically modified organisms were developed. With the commercialization of transgenic crops, biotechnology has attained a firm place in agriculture. This article gives an overview of the global use and development of commercial transgenic crops.

Distribution by country, crop and trait
While the first field trials of transgenic crops were conducted in the USA and France, the People’s Republic of China was the first country to commercialize transgenic crops in the early 1990s with the introduction of virus resistant tobacco. In 1994 the USA followed when the US company Calgene obtained approval to commercialize the genetically modified Flavr Savr delayed ripening tomato. From then onwards, the development and use of transgenic crops gained momentum. In 1997, the global area under transgenic crops was 12.8 million hectares - a 4.5 fold increase from the 2.8 million hectares in 1996 (see table 1). The largest increase in transgenic crops in 1997 occurred in the USA, followed by Argentina and Canada. The USA continued to be the principal grower of transgenic crops in 1997. China, in 1997, still retained its 1996 ranking as the country with the second largest area. On a global basis, the proportion of transgenic hectareage grown in industrial countries increased from 57 per cent in 1996 to 74 per cent in 1997. It decreased in developing countries from 43 per cent in 1996 to 25 per cent in 1997.
There were also significant changes in the absolute and relative area occupied by the 7 transgenic crops in 1996 and 1997 (see table 2). The relative areas occupied by the four transgenic traits were also significantly different in 1996 and 1997 (see table 3). Herbicide tolerance, the third ranking trait in 1996 moved to the top ranking position in 1997. Insect resistance was fairly stable, with virus resistance decreasing. Quality traits occupied less than 1 per cent in both 1996 and 1997.
The major changes in global share of transgenic crops were correlated with the following features:

The principal phenomena that influenced the change in absolute area of transgenic crops between 1996 and 1997 and the relative global share of different countries, crops and traits were: Collectively, these phenomena resulted in a global hectareage in 1997 that was 4.5 times higher than in 1996. In 1997, transgenic soya bean, maize, cotton and canola represented 85 per cent of the global transgenic area, of which around 75 per cent was grown in North America. Herbicide tolerant soya bean was the most dominant transgenic crop followed by insect resistant maize and herbicide tolerant canola.

Global area of transgenic crops in 1996 and 1997 by country 
(millions of hectares) 
Region 
1996 
1997
ha 
ha
%
    USA 
1.5 
52
8.1
64
    China 
1.1 
39
1.8
14
    Argentina 
0.1 
4
1.4
11
    Canada 
0.1 
4
1.3
10
    Australia 
<0.1   
1
0.1
<1
    Mexico 
<0.1  
1
<0.1 
<1
total  
2.8 
100 
12.8 
100 
rounded figures
Source: James, 1997
 
Assessment of benefits from use of transgenic crops
Preliminary analyses indicate that there are significant and multiple benefits associated with the use of transgenic crops. This does not imply that the benefits are equally shared by the producing companies, farmers and consumers. Some examples of benefits are given here. Virus resistant tobacco in China increased leaf yield by 5 to 7 per cent with savings of 2 to 3 insecticide applications. Insect resistant cotton, with a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which confers resistance to selected insect pests, resulted in insecticide savings as high as US$ 140 to US$ 280 per hectare in the USA in 1996. 70 per cent of Bt cotton planted in 1996 required no insecticides for the targeted insect pests. This resulted in an average yield increase of 7 per cent. 50 per cent of the 32 million US maize hectareage is reported to be infested with European corn borer. The annual loss is estimated at US$ 1 billion. Borer-resistant Bt maize in the USA realized an average yield increase of 9 per cent in both 1996 and 1997. Benefits from the use of Bt maize in the USA were estimated at US$ 19 million in 1996 and US$ 190 million in 1997.
Herbicide tolerant soya bean in USA in 1996 resulted in 10 to 40 per cent less herbicide requirements, better control of weeds and soil moisture, improved yield dependability, no carry-over of herbicide residues and much more flexibility in agronomic management of the crop.
Herbicide tolerant canola in Canada in 1996 lowered herbicide requirements, increased yield by an average of 9 per cent, improved yield dependability, better soil moisture conservation, no carry-over of herbicide residues, more flexibility in agronomic management, plus a higher proportion of high grade canola.
Insect resistant Bt potatoes in USA in 1996 resulted in effective control of the Colorado beetle.
In general, transgenic crops have been well received in North America. A very high percentage of farmers who planted transgenic crops in 1996 chose to plant these again in 1997. Shortage of transgenic seed supplies reduced the potential area planted with transgenic crops in 1997.

Global area of transgenic crops in 1996 and 1997 by crop  
(millions of hectares)
Crop 
1996
1997
ha
%
ha
%
   tomato
0.1 
4
0.2 
1
   potato
<0.1  
<1 
<0.1   
<1 
   soya bean
0.5 
18 
5.1 
40 
   maize
0.3 
10 
3.2 
25 
   tobacco
1
35 
1.6 
13 
   cotton
0.8 
28 
1.4 
11 
   canola
0.1 
5
1.2 
10 
total
2.8 
100  
12.8  
100  
rounded figures
Source: James, 1997

Adoption of transgenic crops and status of the technology
The current generation of commercialized agronomic input traits, such as herbicide tolerance or insect and disease resistance, will continue to expand, according to initial indication for 1998. Output traits, that will improve the nutritional content of foods and feeds, are expected to become increasingly important. This will initially occur in the industrialized countries where there is a bigger consumer demand for specialized food products and will ultimately extend to the more advanced developing countries.
Adoption rates for transgenic crops such as soya bean, maize, canola, cotton, and potato are expected to increase, but will be subject to resolution of issues in relation to labelling, freedom of choice, use of antibiotic resistant markers, and other considerations. Public acceptance constraints, however, mainly apply to Europe. An increase in investments in agri-biotechnology R&D will have its effect on introduction of new transgenic crops. The lack of operational biosafety regulations in many developing countries currently precludes the critical step of field testing transgenic crops.

In North America, companies have developed different strategies to market their new transgenic seed. Most companies do this in exactly the same way as for traditional hybrids and varieties. In these cases the price of the improved transgenic seed has been determined taking into account the additional benefits that are conferred through the incorporation of transgenic traits. Other corporations, for example the US company Monsanto, charge a separate fee for the transgenic technology. In the USA, for the Bt traits, contracts between the vendors of the transgenic seed and farmers have been introduced. These contracts ensure the planting of a refuge crop (see also Monitor No. 29). The concept of a refuge crop is based on the assumption that the development of resistance in the pest is a likely event in any pest control programme. Including a refuge crop which is susceptible to the targeted pest reduces the pressure of the pest to develop resistance. This maximizes the durability of the Bt gene.
A review of products being tested in field trials confirms that the R&D pipeline is full of new transgenic products that are likely to be available in the near term. For example, products in field trials in China will probably expand the number of commercial transgenic crops there from 3 to more than 10. These include insect resistant cotton, maize, rice and soya bean; virus resistant papaya and sweet pepper; disease resistant potato, and tobacco and herbicide tolerant soya bean. Whereas single traits currently predominate, it is noteworthy that double traits have already been introduced in canola and are expected in several of the major crops in the near future.

Global investments and markets in agricultural biotechnology
Sales of agricultural biotechnology products in the USA were US$ 100 million in 1995, increased to US$ 304 million in 1996 and are expected to continue growing at 20 per cent per year (Ernst & Young 1995). It is estimated that of the US$10.8 billion total sales of biotechnology products in the United States in 1996, agriculture represented 3 per cent of total sales (Ernst & Young 1996). The global market for agricultural biotechnology was less than US$ 500 million in 1996, and is projected to increase to US$ 2 to 3 billion by the year 2000 and US$ 20 billion by 2010 (James 1997).
Whereas a high proportion of the R&D investments in agri-biotechnology are undertaken by the private sector, various public institutions and organizations that serve domestic and international interests are assigning higher priority to biotechnology. The World Bank has lent US$ 100 million in support of biotechnology, whilst the Rockefeller Foundation and bilateral agencies, including those in the USA, UK and the Netherlands, have invested US$ 200 million during the last decade (Brenner 1996). National research agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK, and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, have made significant investments in biotechnology. The research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) estimate that their biotechnology expenditures are currently US$ 22.4 million per year. US$ 10 million of this is spent on animal biotechnology and the balance of approximately US$ 12 million on crop biotechnology by a total of eight centres. However this is only a small figure compared to, for instance, the USA where the 1995 R&D expenditure on agricultural biotechnology products amounted to US$ 2 billion.

Global area of transgenic crops in 1996 and 1997 by trait  
(millions of hectares)
Trait 
1996
1997
ha
%
ha
%
   herbicide tolerance
0.6 
23 
6.9 
54 
   insect resistance
1.1 
37 
4.0 
31 
   virus resistance
1.1 
40 
1.8 
14 
   insect resistance & herbicide tolerance
-
<0.1 
<1 
 quality traits
<0.1  
<1
<0.1 
<1 
total
2.8 
100 
12.8 
100 
rounded figures
Source: James, 1997
 
Global food security
Global food demand is forecast to at least double, and possibly triple, by the year 2050 when the world population is expected to reach 10 billion people. The current population is estimated at around 5 billion people. In order to ensure increased nutrition for a growing population, it will be necessary to expand food production faster than population growth. Dietary changes that accompany increased affluence will result in food demand being larger than the projected increase in population. Estimates suggest that China alone will have to triple its grain imports from approximately 15 million tons in 1995 to 45 million tons in the year 2010. Other countries with large populations, such as India, will also become significant net importers of grain. Abiotic stresses and biotic stresses take a heavy toll of the 5 billion tons of food that is currently produced annually. For example, crop pests alone, for which biotechnology solutions are already available and being commercialized, reduce global food production by at least one-third, despite the fact that US$ 32 billion is spent annually on conventional pesticides.
The World Bank commissioned a panel of experts to assess the potential of crop bio-engineering. In their report (Kendall et al. 1997) the appropriate use of biotechnology is advocated. They concluded that "it is likely that efforts to improve the rice yield in Asia through biotechnology will result in a production increase of 10 to 25 per cent over the next ten years". Preliminary evidence for 1996 in the USA, for crops such as maize and soya bean, indicates that 10 to 25 per cent increases in yield for transgenic crops are feasible and realistic during the next decade.
It is now widely acknowledged that conventional technology alone will not allow food production to be doubled. Biotechnology will be one of the essential components of a global food security strategy. The data presented here provide early indications that early promises of biotechnology can be met in terms of increased productivity and in certain environmental benefits. The data are not intended to provide indications about socio-economic implications and North-South relationships. Most of the investments in biotechnology have been made by the private sector. There is an urgent need to build new partnerships between the global public and private sectors in agricultural research. This should maximize the use of global limited resources assigned to agricultural research and optimize the comparative advantages of the respective partners for the global benefit of society. Tomorrow’s world will be more of a global village where interdependence will be a prerequisite to success and survival. The North and the South and the public and private sectors will need to work together towards the critically important goal of global food security.
Clive James

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), P.O.Box 427 SAV, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. E-mail cjames@CandW.ky

Sources
C. Brenner (1996), Integrating Biotechnology in Agriculture: Incentives, Constraints and Country Experiences. OECD Development Centre, Paris, France: OECD.

Ernst and Young (1995), Biotech 96. Pursuing Sustainability. The Tenth Industry Annual Report. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Ernst and Young.

Ernst and Young (1996), Biotech 97. Alignment. The Eleventh Industry Annual Report. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Ernst and Young.

C. James (1997), Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1997. ISAAA Briefs No 5. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY, USA: ISAAA.

H.W Kendall, R. Beachy, T. Eisner, F. Gould, R. Herdt, P. Raven, J.S. Schell and M. S. Swaminathan. (1997), Bioengineering of Crops. Report of the World Bank Panel on Transgenic Crops. ESDS Monograph Series: 23. World Bank, Washington DC, USA: Worldbank.
 



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