The international scene

The UK government's official adviser on GM, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), has said it would “be difficult and in some places impossible to guarantee” that any British food was GM-free if GM crops were commercially grown. In North America, farmers can no longer be certain the seed they plant does not contain GM genes.

In 2006, the global area of commercial GM crops was 102 million hectares — a 60-fold increase since 1996. The main GM crops grown were soybean, corn, cotton and canola.

In 2007, GM crop area grew by 12 percent to 114 million hectares. The number of countries planting GM crops increased to 23. In order of crops grown, these are USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, Philippines, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, France, Honduras, Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania and Poland.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to deliver the benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies to the poor in developing countries. According to ISAAA, the high adoption rate by farmers reflects the fact that biotech crops have consistently performed well and delivered significant economic, environmental, health and social benefits to both small and large farmers in developing and industrial countries.

The main traits in GM crop plants are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. In 2007, herbicide‑tolerant crops occupied 63% of the global biotech area, and insect‑resistant crops occupied 18%. Nine per cent of global GM crops were used for biofuel production in 2007. The potential over-use of food crops for biofuels in developing countries is becoming a concern, and many researchers are looking at developing biofuels from non-food sources.

 

In Australia, three crops are approved and can be grown commercially:

  • four pest-resistant cotton varieties: Ingard® and Bollgard®, and Roundup Ready Ingard® and Roundup Ready Bollgard®.
  • two herbicide tolerant canolas: Monsanto's Roundup Ready® canola and Bayer's InVigor® canola. However, apart from limited plantings in NSW and Victoria, they are not currently being grown because of bans imposed at the state government level.
  • five varieties of carnations in the Florigene Moondust and Moonshadow varieties, modified for flower colour and longer vase life.

A number of crops are undergoing field trials in Australia.

The European Union had an unofficial moratorium on the sale and growth of GM crops in place since 1998. This was lifted in May 2004.

In the European Union, food ingredients from varieties of GM soy, maize and oilseed rape have been approved for food use although very little is actually used. These include oils and syrups that contain ‘GM-derived’ material, and flours and starches.

In Britain, the first crop to be approved for growing was a maize plant genetically modified to resist the weedkiller glufosinate ammonium and used for animal feed. It was approved by the regulators in March 2004, but in April, the company announced that it was abandoning plans to launch the crop. They said it was not economically viable because of the uncertainty over issues such as compensation for contamination.

Some countries want to remain GM-free while others embrace GM. This makes for complex debates about what constitutes a GM food or ingredient and makes labelling difficult when these countries deal with each other in the global marketplace.