There is little debate about the consensus top story from the past 20 years. Biotechnology has redefined the industry, changed the emphasis of leading companies, altered crop patterns, shifted the focus of research and development (R&D), caused a stir among lobbyists, and altered input decisions, to name just of few of its ripple effects.
In its 10-year history, the global biotech area has expanded by growth rates in the double digits every year. In that time, it has gone on to dominate several countries’ soybean fields, with nearly 100% penetration in the major South American markets of Brazil and Argentina, thanks to the Roundup Ready blockbuster. Biotech maize and cotton have also taken the industry by storm, in large part due to the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) trait. So successful has Bt cotton been in India that the country has now had back-to-back-to-back-to-back record cotton harvests after struggling for years with boll weevil infestations.
In the next few years, biotech crops are expected to maintain their growth. Looking further down the road and noting that some of the greatest beneficiaries of biotech are and will continue to be farmers in the world’s poorer countries, Dr. Clive James, chair of the board of directors for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), says, “The outlook for 2010 points to continued growth in the global acreage of biotech crops – up to 150 million hectares – with up to 15 million farmers or more growing the crops in up to 30 countries.”
Not all has been rosy for biotech’s meteoric rise. By so thoroughly dominating some areas, biotechnology has played a role in the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds, particularly in the case of glyphosate. There also has been a lobbyist effort, most strongly felt in the EU, to impose limits or outright bans of biotech crops by groups which consider them risky to the environment, to biodiversity, or to human health. This effort has only been emboldened by a number of cases where biotech crop products were discovered in markets where they should not have been. Additionally, international arguments over licensing fees and royalties, as well as illegal re-planting of seed and black market sales of biotech seed into nations which have not accepted them for commercialization, have raged in South America and in other markets.
Still, the promise of the science is vast, and more remarkable is the fact that it is still in its infancy. We are only now moving into what can be called the early second generation of the biotech movement, one which combines multiple traits “stacked” in one seed in order to provide greater benefit to the farmer.