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Report shows increased plantings of biotech crops

(Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul Elias, Associated Press, 01/13/04: Genetically engineered crop plantings increased 15 percent last year despite continued consumer resistance in Europe and elsewhere, according to a group that promotes use of the technology in poor countries.

Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew engineered crops on 167.2 million acres last year, compared to 145 million acres in 2002, according to a report released Tuesday by the industry-backed International Service for the Acquistion of Agri-Biotech Applications.

In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation.

"Farmers have made up their minds," said the group's founder and chairman Clive James. "They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages."

The most popular biotech crops contain bacterium genes that make the plants resistant to either insects or weed killers.

James and other biotechnology proponents argue that genetically modified plants will help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing nations by improving crop yields and cutting expenses through less use of pesticides.

Farmers in the Philippines grew nearly 50,000 acres of engineered corn in 2003, the first year altered crops were approved commercially there. India nearly doubled its genetically engineered cotton output last year to 247,000 acres and China raised 6.9 million acres of biotech cotton, a 33 percent increase over 2002. Argentina, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay, Romania, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico all grew genetically engineered crops last year, James said.

U.S. farmers grew 105.7 million acres of genetically engineered crops, mostly corn, soy and cotton.

But critics argue stable governments, improved transportation systems and education are more important to improving the developing nations' food production than biotechnology. They also argue that not enough is known about the impact of genetically modified crops on human health or the environment, and many groups are campaigning to slow the technology's spread.

Biotechnology has met the most resistance in Europe, where a five-year moratorium on new crops remains in place. Genetically modified products are viewed with deep suspicion in much of Europe, which has suffered through mad cow disease and other serious food scares in recent years.

A divided European Union failed last month to agree on lifting the ban, dragging out a dispute that Washington charges violates world trade rules and contributes to starvation in Africa.

The Bush administration, charging the ban is unscientific and hurts American exporters, started legal action in August at the World Trade Organization to get it lifted.

In the United States, residents of Mendocino County in Northern California are voting in March on a ballot measure that would ban genetically engineered plants and animals from the area. Similar campaigns are underway in Vermont, Hawaii and elsewhere.

Despite the continued opposition, James predicts that within five years, 10 million farmers in 25 countries will plant 247 million acres of genetically engineered food.

Some biotech critics, though, contend that James' forecast is overly optimistic, especially as it relates to the developing world. Soy, corn and cotton continue to be the most popular crops to engineer. None of those crops are widely grown on the African continent or throughout the developing world.

Those crops have limited benefits to many developing country farmers," said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Source: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/01/13/tech/main592965.shtml