Good News, Bad News on Food Biotech

Last year, global biotech crop acreage increased more than 13 percent from 2005. By year-end 2006, 10.3 million farmers in 22 countries were growing biotech crops on 252 million acres, according to a new study by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). That’s good news. But the better news is that farmers in less developed countries are among the biggest beneficiaries. More than 9.3 million resource-poor farmers in 11 countries grew biotech crops last year, often on plots of just three to four acres. Closer to home, the USDA reports that 2006 biotech crop acreage in the United States increased by 9.6 percent over 2005.

The bad news, of course, is that there are nearly 3.5 billion acres of global cropland, making biotech’s share just seven percent of the total. That’s about double the total of just five years ago. And the technology has spread rapidly since its commercial introduction in 1995. But, a technology this beneficial should have gained ground much more rapidly. The worse news is that bad public policy — and not technological limitations — is primarily to blame. Some countries ban all biotech crops, and others have had bans during biotech’s 11-year commercial history. But, even in countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Argentina, where biotechnology has been eagerly embraced by farmers, scientifically groundless regulation has made it prohibitively expensive to develop, test, and get government approval for all but variants of the biggest commodity crops. Perhaps the increasingly positive experience with crop biotechnology around the world will one day soften extremist opposition and create a better regulatory climate? One can only hope.