updated 1/13/2004 3:20:29 PM ET 2004-01-13T20:20:29

Genetically engineered crop plantings increased 15 percent last year despite continued consumer resistance in Europe and elsewhere, according to a group that promotes use of the technology in poor countries.

Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew engineered crops on 167.2 million acres last year, compared to 145 million acres in 2002, according to a report released Tuesday by the industry-backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation.

“Farmers have made up their minds,” said the group’s founder and chairman Clive James. “They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages.”

18 percent of pie
In all, some 18 percent of the world’s 3.7 billion acres under food crop cultivation are biotech, the ISAAA says. The most popular such crops contain bacterium genes that make the plants resistant to either bugs or weed killers.

James and other biotechnology proponents argue that genetically modified plants will help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing nations by improving crop yields and cutting expenses through less use of pesticides.

Opponents argue that stable governments, improved transportation systems and education are more important to improving developing nations’ food production than biotechnology. Further, they argue that not enough is known about genetically modified crops’ impact on human health or the environment.

Farmers in the Philippines grew nearly 50,000 acres of engineered corn in 2003, the first year altered crops were approved commercially there. India nearly doubled its genetically engineered cotton output last year to 247,000 acres and China raised 6.9 million acres of biotech cotton, a 33 percent increase over 2002. Argentina, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay, Romania, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico all grew genetically engineered crops last year, James said.

U.S. farmers grew 105.7 million acres of genetically engineered crops, mostly corn, soy and cotton.

“I’m on board with genetically engineered crops because they reduce my use of chemicals, fuel and labor,” said Eric Freese a farmer in Dixon, Calif., near Sacramento. He hopes to increase his genetically engineered corn harvest from 600 acres last year to 1,000 acres this year.

But many groups are campaigning to slow the technology’s spread. In the northern California county of Mendocino, residents are voting in March on a ballot measure that would ban genetically engineered plants and animals there. Similar campaigns are afoot in Vermont, Hawaii and elsewhere.

European resistance
Biotechnology has met the most resistance in Europe, where a five-year moratorium on new crops remains in place. A divided European Union failed last month to agree on lifting the ban, dragging out a dispute that Washington charges violates world trade rules and contributes to starvation in Africa.

The Bush administration says the European ban is unscientific and hurts American exporters. It began legal action in August at the World Trade Organization to get it lifted.

Despite the continued opposition, James predicts that within five years, 10 million farmers in 25 countries will plant 247 million acres of genetically engineered food.

Some biotech critics, though, contend that James’ forecast is overly optimistic, especially as it relates to the developing world.

Soy, corn and cotton continue to be the most popular crops to engineer. None of those crops are widely grown on the African continent or throughout the developing world.

“Those crops have limited benefits to many developing country farmers,” said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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