Figure 1: Global area of biotech crops Despite a steady increase in global plantings of transgenic crops from 1996, when they were first introduced, the global percentage of land under GM crops remains relatively small. Figure 1 shows global plantings. Genetically modified crops account for only 4 per cent of total global cultivation (WHO 2005).

Global plantings of GM crops jumped by 20 per cent in 2004; this was the second largest yearly increase since commercial plantings began in 1996 (James 2004). In that year, land under GM crops rose to 81 million ha. For the first time, the hectarage growth in GM crop areas was higher in developing countries than in developed ones, developing countries accounting for slightly more than one-third of the world’s GM crop area. (James 2004). Land under GM crops is expected to continue increasing as the sector grows in India and China and new countries introduce GM crops (James 2004). In 2004, soybean accounted for 60 per cent of all GM crops, maize for 23 per cent and cotton for 11 per cent. In the near future, GM maize is projected to have the highest growth rate as more beneficial traits become available and are approved (James 2004).

In 2004, there were 8.25 million farmers involved in GM crop production in 17 countries (James 2004). Although 90 per cent of these farmers were from developing countries, only one of these countries, South Africa, was in Africa. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) predicts that by the end of the decade, up to 15 million farmers will grow GM crops on 150 million ha in up to 30 countries (James 2004). The global biotech crop market was worth US$4 700 million in 2004, and is projected to rise to US$5 000 million in 2005 (James 2004).

Figure 2: Biotech crop countries and mega-countries* 2004 As shown in Figure 2, there are 14 countries growing over 50 000 ha of GM crops. In 2004, Paraguay, Spain, Mexico and the Philippines joined this group. However, global production is dominated by five countries. The USA with 59 per cent of global sowings has the largest share of total land under GMO production. It is followed by Argentina with 20 per cent, Canada and Brazil with 6 per cent each, and China with 5 per cent of land under GM crops globally.

Box 2: GM crops in Egypt

Crops under field trials:

  • Cucumber
  • Maize (Zea mays)
  • Maize
  • Melon
  • Musk melon
  • Squash
  • Potato (Solanum tuberosum)
  • Cantaloupe
  • Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum)
  • Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum)
  • Wheat

Crops approaching commercialization:

  • Potato – Resistance to infestation by potato tuber moth
  • Squash – Resistance to a major viral pathogen
  • Maize – Resistance to stem borers
  • Cotton – Resistance to certain insects

Source: Mansour 2005

In Africa, the use of GMO technology and its products is still in its infancy. South Africa is the only African country that is commercially producing GM crops. However, Egypt is approaching commercialization of four GM crops; these are potatoes, squash, yellow and white maize, and cotton (Mansour 2005).

In South Africa, under the Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997, three transgenic crops – insect or herbicide resistant cotton, maize and soybean – have been approved for commercialization (Department of Health undated). GM crop plantings are growing: in 2004 South Africa had 500 000 ha under GM crops (James 2004) and growth continued in white maize used for food and yellow maize used for feed; soybean plantings increased from 35 per cent adoption rate in 2003 to 50 per cent in 2004, whilst Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton stabilized with about 85 per cent of producers adopting it (James 2004).

Box 3: Bt cotton in South Africa

Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a toxin producing bacterium found naturally in soils. Scientist have isolated genes responsible for the production of this bacterium and inserted it through genetic modification into cotton and maize to increase pest resistance.

Smallholder farmers in the Makitini Flats, South Africa have been growing it since 1997. By 2003 it was estimated that about 75 per cent of South Africa’s cotton was Bt cotton (Pschorn-Strauss 2005). In the initial period, smallholder Bt cotton appeared to be very successful. The higher cost of Bt cotton seed was offset by lower chemical use and yield increases of between 20-40 per cent (Glover 2003). However, from about 2003, there was a rapid decline in the area under Bt cotton. In the period 2003-04, only 35 700 ha of cotton was planted, amounting to an 80 per cent reduction since 2000. This is ascribed to low world prices and droughts: in 2004-05 the area planted was 21 700 ha, an extraordinary 40 per cent drop in area planted with cotton in one year (Pschorn-Strauss 2005). Reportedly, 90 per cent of smallholders who planted Bt cotton are in debt; the total debt among small-scale cotton farmers in northern KwaZulu-Natal was estimated at over US$3 million in 2004 (Pschorn-Strauss).

Sources: Glover 2003, Pschorn-Strauss 2005