Ten years later: ISAAA reviews biotechnology and its future

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Biotechnology Genetic engineering

The next decade is set to see a global doubling in biotech crop
availability, as countries become increasingly less skeptical of
the technology after witnessing its benefits over the past ten
years, according to the International Service for the Acquisition
of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

With last year marking the tenth anniversary of the commercialization of biotech crops globally, chair of the ISAAA board of directors Clive James this week presented a review of the past decade of biotechnology, together with an examination of its future prospects.

Speaking at the World Grains Summit - a forum and exhibition designed to examine the latest developments in grain-based science and technology - James said that by 2015 it is estimated that the number of countries growing biotech crops will "at least double",​ from 21 in 2005 to around 40.

The number of biotech farmers around the world are forecast to increase from 8.5m to 20m, while the global area planted with genetically modified crops will increase from 222m acres to 500m acres.

And these, he said, are "conservative estimates".

According to the ISAAA, a non-profit organization designed to promote biotechnology in developing countries, interest in and acceptance of biotechnology is rapidly increasing as countries become increasingly convinced of its benefits on an environmental and economic level.

"What we're seeing is an impetus which has changed completely. Countries see how other countries have benefited, and they're thinking 'why not us too?'"​ said James.

Most growth in biotechnology during the next ten years is expected to occur in key developing countries of Asia, led by China and India, as well as in Pakistan and Vietnam. This shows a marked global expansion from the previous decade's focus on the Americas.

Brazil also has an enormous potential to grow to be the leading GM crop producer in Latin America, while the number of biotech countries in Africa is expected to increase "modestly"​ beyond the current South African monopoly. European Union countries - traditionally more skeptical of the technology - are expected to see a "slow to modest"​ growth.

One indication that the world is warming to biotechnology is the rate at which global interest has been increasing. The ISAAA sends out 250,000 e-mails per month to interested subscribers across the globe, and the figure is growing at 2,000 per month.

And its latest annual report reached around 500m individuals through extensive media coverage, according to James. Some 95 percent of the articles published were positive or neutral, he said, which shows a huge shift in perception since 1988, when around 90 percent of articles were negative.

But the spread of biotechnology will not occur without challenges, he added.

"When we first started, we asked 'what are the risks?' We now have a very solid database that is both consistent and compelling in favor of biotechnology. But we need to continue with responsible and efficient stewardship."

"We need improved communication with society and we need to take knowledge-based decisions regarding biotechnology crops."

Regulation is also an issue that needs to be addressed, according to James, who said that this needs to be simplified.

"The bar is set too high for developing countries. With the solid knowledge base that we have, we should be able to reduce regulation and still be responsible,"​ he said.

In a review of the industry's development over the past decade, James examined how biotechnology has delivered on the promises made at the outset.

These promises included an improved productivity and income, with yields during the period reporting an increase of 5-40 percent, and total biotech crop production in 2005 reaching a value of $50bn.

Another impact of genetically modified agriculture has been the protection of biodiversity, said James, since doubling crop production on the same area of land has played a significant role in saving forests.

Another environmental impact has been a reduction in the need for "external inputs",​ such as pesticides, and the conservation of soil and water, which paves the way to sustainability.

Biotechnology has also contributed to a stability of yield, with promising progress having been made with drought tolerance.

A final impact highlighted by James is the social benefit achieved - the alleviation of poverty - with an improved environment and health and time saving technology leading to more affordable food, feed and fiber.

"What we see today is just the very small tip of the iceberg,"​ said James, who cautioned that a global approach to biotechnology must be based on facts and knowledge, not on an attempt to market fear.

"If you say no to this technology, you're saying no to the whole iceberg. Be careful about the decision you take and its consequences,"​ he told an audience of scientists and food manufacturers.

"The biggest pollutant in the world today is poverty. The potential we have in the second decade to address this pollutant is huge. Biotechnology transcends a much deeper issue if you look at what addressing poverty means in terms of peace."

"The greatest risk associated with this technology is not to use it,"​ he concluded.

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