Benefits of global GM growth

Image of a canola plant

20-year milestone

The latest annual statistics regarding the global use of GM crops show that growers continue to reap the economic and environmental benefits of agricultural biotechnology, particularly in developing countries, after two decades of use.

Since 1996 when GM crops were planted on just 1.7 million hectares, they have now been planted across close to 200 million hectares of arable land worldwide. Growers in up to 28 countries have reaped more than US$150 billion (A$202 billion) in benefits from their use.

Following 19 years of consecutive growth, the global area of GM crops fell by one per cent in 2015 to 179.7 million hectares (Table 1) after peaking at 181.5 million hectares in 2014. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) attributes this decrease to low prices for commodity crops in 2015, and drought in South Africa.

Australian growers continue to embrace crop biotechnology, with a 21 per cent increase in GM crop plantings to about 658,000ha in 2015.

GM cotton varieties comprise almost 100 per cent of the national cotton crop, and Australia was the first country to conduct field trials of the latest GM cotton variety, Bollgard 3, across 30,000ha.

GM herbicide-tolerant canola increased by about 30 per cent to about 444,000ha in 2015, with the fastest rate of adoption occurring in Western Australia.

The US has been the global leader in GM crop uptake over the past two decades, and this has not changed, with several milestone events occurring there in 2015, including:

  • approval of three horticultural products – two GM potato varieties, one with lower levels of acrylamide (a potential carcinogen) and resistance to bruising, and the other resistant to late-blight; and a GM non-browning apple;
  • approval of the world’s first GM animal food product – a fast-growing GM salmon;
  • planting of the first genome-edited crop to be commercialised globally, SU Canola, which is a herbicide-tolerant variety; and
  • increased uptake of GM drought-tolerant maize, first planted across 50,000ha in 2013, to 810,000ha in 2015.

The four key commodities – soybeans, maize, cotton and canola – continue to dominate the GM crop landscape, with herbicide tolerance and pest resistance the dominant traits. Vietnam planted GM crops for the first time in 2015, growing GM maize.

ISAAA has identified three opportunities for GM crop growth in the near future:

  • although high rates of adoption in existing markets (between 90 and 100 per cent) leave little room for expansion, there is opportunity in newer markets for the uptake of crops such as GM maize – potentially in Asia (especially China) and Africa;
  • more than 85 potential new products are being tested through field trials, including a drought-tolerant maize, Golden Rice, fortified bananas and pest-resistant cowpeas; and
  • the use of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), a powerful genome-editing technology, could intensify crop productivity on the 1.5 billion hectares of global arable land, and make a vital contribution to global food security.
Table 1 Global area of biotech crops in 2015 by country
 Rank Country
Area (million hectares)**
Biotech crops
 1  US* 70.9 Maize, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, squash, potato
 2 Brazil* 44.2 Soybeans, maize, cotton
 3 Argentina* 24.5 Soybeans, maize, cotton
 4 India* 11.6 Cotton
 5 Canada* 11.0 Canola, maize, soybeans, sugar beet
 6 China* 3.7 Cotton, papaya, poplar
 7 Paraguay* 3.6 Soybeans, maize, cotton
 8 Pakistan* 2.9 Cotton
 9 South Africa*
2.3 Maize, soybeans, cotton
 10 Uruguay 1.4  Soybeans, maize
 11 Bolivia* 1.1  Soybeans
 12 Phillipines* 0.7  Maize
 13 Australia* 0.7  Cotton, canola
 14 Burkina Faso*
0.4  Cotton
 15 Myanmar* 0.3  Cotton
 16 Mexico* 0.1
 Cotton, soybeans
 17 Spain* 0.1

 Maize

 18 Colombia* 0.1  Cotton, maize
 19 Sudan* 0.1  Cotton
 20 Honduras <0.1  Maize
 21 Chile <0.1  Maize, soybeans, canola
 22 Portugal <0.1  Maize
 23 Vietnam <0.1  Maize
 24 Czech Republic
<0.1  Maize
 25 Slovakia <0.1  Maize
 26 Costa Rice
<0.1  Cotton, soybeans
 27 Bangladesh <0.1  Brinjal/eggplant
 28 Romania <0.1  Maize
 Total 179.7

* 19 biotech mega-countries growing 50,000 hectares or more of biotech crops
** Rounded off to the nearest hundred thousand.
SOURCE: Clive James, 2015

Tasmania's GM crop moratorium stays

Tasmania’s moratorium on GM organisms will continue, as implemented, until November 2019. A GMO monitoring program to continuously assess developments in gene technology and market changes undertaken by AgriGrowth Tasmania on behalf of the Tasmanian Government has found no need to change the existing moratorium.

GM mildew-resistant wheat

A mildew-resistant wheat variety developed using gene technology, but which does not retain any introduced genetic material at the end of the process, can be commercialised without going through the usual GM crop regulatory process, according to a ruling by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Calyxt developed ‘MLO_KO’ wheat with genetic sequences from bacteria and maize that remove a gene that suppresses the plant’s defences against powdery mildew. The wheat’s DNA is repaired during natural cellular processes and no foreign genetic material remains (see Is GM technology being superseded?).

The gene removed during the development process is involved in the plant’s biological processes but the mildew fungus also relies on it to ‘trick’ and penetrate the wheat crop, says Luc Mathis, the CEO of Calyxt.

Even without the gene, the wheat’s biology remains unaffected due to other genes that perform duplicate roles, he says.

The wheat is not expected to be commercialised until 2022, as Calyxt must first conduct trials to ensure the trait is reliable in the field. The trait will need to be incorporated into geographically suitable wheat varieties.

EU demand for Australian GM canola

Exports of Australia’s GM canola to Europe are expected to reach record levels this year, with 1.5 million tonnes of Australian canola sold into the EU this financial year, according to industry sources.

Australian Oilseeds Federation executive director Nick Goddard says most canola in Europe went into the biodiesel market and was not consumed, but byproducts such as canola meal had been traditionally harder to sell.

Lachstock Consulting’s Lachie Stevens says the price discount and GM food labelling was giving the Europeans an incentive to buy GM canola.

“Canola meal goes into the EU dairy industry and while it’s still mindful of GM inputs, the dairy industry is in a downturn and they are becoming more accepting of it,” he says.

More information:

Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia

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