It’s (mostly) a global juggernaut, but mind the gaps
It’s been 19 years since the first biotech crop was commercially planted and sold, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) feel rather ubiquitous—at least in the U.S. Biotech adoption has proved pervasive for U.S. farmers, with 93% in corn, 94% in soybeans and 96% in cotton.
Yet elsewhere across the globe, the reception hasn’t been quite so warm.
The most recent jarring reminder of this came during a stretch from November 2013 to December 2014, when China rejected shipments of corn containing the MIR 162 trait from Syngenta (Agrisure Viptera). Although this corn is now cleared for Chinese delivery, the fallout continues with pending class-action lawsuits.
Duane Martin, product lead for commercial traits at Syngenta, says the approval process with China for MIR 162 was initiated in 2010 but took more than twice as long as expected.
The process was frustrating, Martin says, but what’s more troubling is that it could happen again.
“The industry has realized this is not an Agrisure issue—it’s industry-wide,” he says. “There are other trait suppliers who could find themselves in this same situation.”
International groups are working overtime to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, however.
“There are a lot of dynamics at play,” says Denise Dewar, executive director, plant biotechnology at CropLife International. “That’s the hot spot we’re in right now. How do we respect the Chinese government’s processes without limiting innovation?”
By other criteria, China is way ahead of some countries. As of 2014, China was one of a handful of countries that grows biotech and grants imports. Many countries still do neither, including parts of western Asia, eastern Europe and most of Africa.
North and South America lead the way in biotech grain production. Europe, despite many of its nations refusing to grow biotech crops, is the No. 1 importer of biotech grain.
When countries begin growing biotech crops, it is often a game-changer for those nations, Dewar says. If the trait works, adoption tends to be fast.
“Anywhere the technology has been introduced, farmers have really run with it,” she says.
Dewar points to India as one example. The country approved Bt cotton in 2002. A few years later, yields dramatically rose. Today, the country has moved from a net importer of cotton to one of the world’s largest exporters.
Another trend to watch, she adds, is more governmental scientists are developing biotech crops for their country’s farmers. Bt eggplant in Bangladesh is one example, she says.
Bangladesh is a poor country with 150 million people, and eggplant helps fuel the nation’s populace. With a short 100-day approval process, Bt eggplant was in farmer fields in early 2014. Bangladesh is now researching and testing biotech potatoes, cotton and rice.
“More individual countries will see an agronomic need and deploy a specific technology to benefit their own people,” Dewar says.
Meanwhile, in Africa, “pro-poor” crops, such as pest-resistant cowpeas and fortified bananas in research trials, could someday take root on African farms. Vietnam approved Bt corn imports earlier this year.
Some days it marches, and some days it stumbles, but global biotech adoption moves forward.
Global Adoption of GM Crops
As of 2014, GMOs are grown, imported and/or used in 70 countries. Each country has a rigorous certification process that involves safety and environmental review.