The Gene Scene: Global expansion in GM crops

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The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is a joint initiative of Ausbiotech, CropLife Australia, the GRDC and the National Farmers’ Federation. ABCA has been established to help shape a new era for Australian agriculture by encouraging informed debate on biotechnology through the dissemination of credible, balanced, science-based information. Through the creation and sharing of research and knowledge, ABCA’s work aims to place biotechnology and gene technology into context as another invaluable innovation for Australian agriculture, ensuring that science guides public policy for the future of farming.

GM crop area still rising

More than 18 million growers in 27 countries planted GM crops across 175.2 million hectares in 2013, which is a three per cent increase from 2012, according to the latest annual figures released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Sixty per cent of the world’s population lives in the 27 countries planting GM crops. The five dominant countries were the US (70 million hectares or 40 per cent of the global total), Brazil (40 million hectares), Argentina (24 million hectares), India (11 million hectares) and Canada (11 million hectares).

GM crops with more than one genetic modification, so-called ‘stacked traits’ (for example herbicide tolerance and insect resistance) covered 27 per cent of the global area. Of particular significance in 2013 were the first commercial plantings of drought-tolerant GM maize in the US.

Crops dominating the global GM area in 2013 were soybeans, maize, cotton and canola. Sugar beet, lucerne, papaya and squash in the US and papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet pepper in China were also part of the global GM area.

According to the ISAAA: “The most compelling and credible testimony to biotech [GM] crops is that during the 18-year period from 1996 to 2013, millions of farmers in 30 countries worldwide made more than 100 million independent decisions to plant and replant an accumulated hectarage of more than 1.6 billion hectares … There is one principal and overwhelming reason that underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in biotechnology – biotech crops deliver substantial, and sustainable, socioeconomic and environmental benefits.”

The ISAAA predicts that growth in the global area will plateau for the principal GM crops in mature GM crop markets, where adoption rates were sustained at 90 per cent or more. There are several new growth opportunities in the pipeline, including the following.

  • A GM phytase maize, which confers increased phosphate uptake in animals and is reported to increase the efficiency of meat production. In 2009, this GM maize was approved for biosafety in China where it is expected to be planted in the near future. China grows more than 35 million hectares of conventional maize a year to feed its 500 million pigs and 13 billion chickens, ducks and other poultry.
  • Indonesia and Vietnam have field tested herbicide-tolerant/insect-resistant maize, which they are likely to commercialise in the near future.
  • Golden Rice, which is genetically modified to help increase dietary vitamin A, is due to be released to growers in the Philippines by 2016. Bangladesh has also assigned high priority to Golden Rice.
  • In the Americas, increased adoption of GM drought-tolerant maize, and the transfer of this technology to selected countries in Africa, is expected to be important, and so too is the adoption of a virus-resistant bean developed in Brazil.

Gene technology developments in Africa

Ghana has become the latest country to implement a regulatory regime for GM crops. The country’s Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Joe Oteng-Adjei, said that Ghana plans to increase adoption of GM crop technology to help improve agricultural production and income for growers. 

In passing the Biosafety and Biotechnology Law, Dr Oteng-Adjei said Ghana had no option but to adopt GM crop innovations to enhance agricultural production through scientific methods, and that “there was therefore the need to put in place the necessary infrastructure to begin its [GMO] commercialisation in the country”. Insect-resistant cotton and cowpea varieties are the most advanced GM crops in Ghana. Cowpeas are a staple food in sub-Saharan Africa and are mostly grown in West Africa, covering more than seven million hectares; however, yield losses up to 80 per cent due to pests and diseases are common.

Researchers from CSIRO Plant Industry, including the GRDC’s Seed of Light award winner Dr TJ Higgins, are part of a global project to improve cowpea production in Africa through the use of gene technology.

One of the main pests in cowpea is the legume pod borer. These borers deposit eggs on the flowers of the cowpea, and when the larvae emerge they damage the plant, reducing yields. The use of insecticides is not considered a viable option for resource-poor, small-scale growers in Africa.

Approached by the Network for the Genetic Improvement of Cowpeas for Africa and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, Australian researchers assisted in controlling this pest by inserting a gene from the soil bacterium – Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – into the cowpea. The Bt gene causes the plant to produce a protein that is toxic to certain insects, including the pod borer.

“This is a great example of global partnerships delivering new crop technologies and sharing knowledge with resource-poor growers in Africa,” Dr Higgins says.

The Australian team has developed several pod-borer-resistant cowpea lines and field trials have been carried out in Ghana, Puerto Rico, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, with these lines providing full protection over several years. The next phase of the research is focused on transferring the trait into grower-preferred lines to evaluate their acceptability and suitability for local environments.

“The GM insect-resistant cowpea now needs to move through the regulatory process in each country it will be grown in before it can be made available to growers,” Dr Higgins says.

In 2013, three African countries planted GM crops. South Africa planted cotton, maize and soybeans, and Sudan and Burkina Faso planted cotton.

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