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New Markets for Biotech Technology Review

By Alexandra Stikeman
July/August 2001


Much of the push to commercialize the first generation of genetically engineered crops has come from large companies in the United States and Western Europe. But the next big producers of biotech crops could very well be nations in the developing world. While battles over genetically modified foods have slowed the technology's progress in Europe and North America, countries such as China and India are now gearing up to commercialize dozens of genetically modified plants in the next few years (see "Eating the Genes").

The first such plants hit the market in the mid-1990s, and last year 13 nations allowed them to be grown commercially. Of those, five are in the developing world: Argentina, China, Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay. In fact, China and Argentina now rank among the top four growers, alongside the United States and Canada, in number of hectares planted.

And the adoption of the technology is spreading fastest in some of the world's poorer countries, according to a report by the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Between 1999 and 2000 (the most recent year for which data were available), the amount of genetically modified crops planted in the world increased by 4.3 million hectares. While industrial nations—mainly the United States and Canada—still produce three-quarters of the world's biotech crops, 84 percent of the 4.3-million-hectare increase occurred in developing countries. That boost came mainly from Argentina, China and South Africa. Canada, on the other hand, decreased its biotech crop hectarage by 25 percent.

Governments and nonprofit research centers in a number of developing countries are investing in their own genetically modified plants, in the hope of protecting crops from droughts, floods and insects and of getting higher yields out of plants such as rice and cassava that are staples in local diets. "With more than a billion people in India, the government came to the conclusion that it cannot afford to not develop biotech crops," says Claude Fauquet, who heads a training program for international scientists at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO.

To date, China is the only developing nation to have engineered its own genetically modified crop—insect-resistant cotton—and brought seeds to market. The country has more than 80 state-funded institutions focused on agricultural genetic engineering. Though China's investment pales in comparison to that of the large agricultural firms, the Chinese government spent roughly $12 million annually on biotech crops in recent years. Similarly, the governments of India and Brazil continue to funnel millions of dollars toward plant biotechnology. All in all, it "dispels the notion that all of the biotech research so far has been going on in developed countries and is all in the private sector," says C. S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

But there are potential roadblocks ahead. Some developing nations, concerned that agricultural exports could be negatively affected by existing or future bans on plant biotech in Europe and elsewhere, are putting the brakes on research. For instance, Thailand, the world's number one exporter of rice, has placed a moratorium on field trials. Other countries have plenty of homegrown resistance to genetic engineering. Mexico, for one, has instituted a field-test moratorium in response to local environmental groups that oppose biotech crops, according to Luis Herrera-Estrella of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato, Mexico. His center is still awaiting government approval of its virus-resistant potato, which is ready to be marketed. But Prakash, for one, believes the hesitance is only temporary. "When the international hysteria over biotech crops settles down, a lot of these countries will come forward," predicts Prakash. "You're going to see huge increases [in genetically modified crops] in these countries."

Alexandra Stikeman is an associate editor at Technology Review.