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World planting of biotech crops up in 2002, says one group, while another disputes the numbers and their meaning

(Monday, Jan. 20, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- An Australian organization has criticized the following report in which the ISAAA found increased plantings of transgenic crops worldwide.

GEORGETOWN, Grand Cayman, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Planting of biotech crops spread at a double-digit rate for the sixth consecutive year in 2002, an international agriculture group said on Wednesday.

Planting grew 12 percent last year and the global market value of genetically modified crops rose to about $4.25 billion, up from $3.8 billion in 2001, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which promotes GM crops, said in an announcement.

The figures could heat up the debate over the safety of biotech crops, which has grown into a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union.

All told, 16 countries are producing GM versions of corn, cotton, canola and soybeans engineered with a variety of special traits, such as increased productivity and resistance to pests.

Moreover, more than 20 percent of the world's acreage for those four key crops is now planted with biotech seeds, according to the agricultural group.

The gains come despite resistance in Europe and other regions to biotech crops, which are plants whose gene sequence has been spliced with that of other species. Critics say they have not been proven safe and could harm the environment.

The United States is increasingly chaffing under European restrictions on imports, and U.S. farmers say they have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of sales to Europe.

Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said he favored filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union, alleging the EU is illegally maintaining a 4-year moratorium on approvals of new biotech products.

Clive James, chairman of the agriculture group, said widespread consumption of biotech crops in the United States and elsewhere since their introduction in 1996 was evidence that health fears about biotech foods are unfounded. And he said annual growth in plantings of biotech crops will continue.

He projected the global value of the GM crop market would hit $5 billion by 2005.

"An increasing number of countries have confidence in this technology," James said from his Grand Cayman office. "We have an increasing body of evidence to show that... this is acceptable."

But critics of biotech crops said pressure from producers like Monsanto Co. and the U.S. government is forcing some nations into accepting them even as public concern grows.

"There is a lot of pressure on Third World countries to just accept this," said Anuradha Mittal, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in California. "But resistance is growing around the world."

Still, last year, more than 5.5 million farmers planted GM crops on 58.7 million hectares, or 145 million acres, up 12 percent from 2001, according to the agriculture group.

Along with the United States, which accounts for about 66 percent of the world's total GM crop area, Argentina, Canada, and China produced biotech crops last year. China, in particular, saw significant growth, showing a 40 percent increase in farm fields growing Bt cotton, a crop engineered to protect itself from insects. The increase marked the first time that the Bt cotton area in China exceeded more than half of the national cotton area.

Three countries joined the list last year of those growing GM crops as India and Colombia grew Bt cotton for the first time, and Honduras became the first country in Central America to grow Bt corn.

GM soybeans are the most popular of the biotech crops, accounting for 62 percent of the world's GM-crop planted area, with corn second at 21 percent.

and now, in a Jan. 20 Dow Jones story via Agnet, comes the GeneEthics Network criticism.

Canberra- Bob Phelps, director of the Australian community based group GeneEthics Network, was cited as saying Monday that a critical analysis of a report by what he described as "industry promoter" International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications, issued last week on the global proliferation of genetically modified crops shows the industry has stalled, adding, "Despite seven years of production, this isn't a global industry as the ISAAA's own figures show," as 99% of commercial GM crops have been planted in only four countries. GM crops are under 5% of global broadacre agriculture, so they haven't taken the world by storm."

Phelps was commenting after ISAAA said in its annual report issued Jan. 15 that farmers around the world planted 145 million acres of biotech corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and other crops in 2002, up 12% or 15 million acres from 2001.

ISAAA's annual report also told of continuing rapid growth in implementing the technology, which started serious commercial production in 1996.

Led by the U.S., biotech crops now make up 58 million hectares globally and are a fifth of total worldwide output of key crops like soybeans, corn and cotton, ISAAA said.

Globally, six million farmers in 16 countries planted biotech crops last year, it said.

ISAAA is a nonprofit group that receives funding from a wide variety of interests, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto Co., Cargill Inc., the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.N.