Low Prices Do What Activists Couldn't: Stop Spread of GMO Crops

  • Genetically engineered crops fell for the first time last year
  • Commodities downturn cut all corn and cotton plantings in U.S.

Plantings of genetically modified crops fell for the first time last year as a commodity slump did what decades of activism couldn’t: slow the spread of biotech foods.

About 179.7 million hectares (444 million acres) of so-called GMO crops were grown last year, down 1 percent from a record in 2014, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications said in a report Wednesday. North America led the decline.

Low commodity prices prompted U.S. farmers to plant less corn and cotton, two of the most frequently engineered crops. Biotech plantings fell 3 percent in the U.S., the largest market for GMO seeds, which are produced by companies such as Monsanto Co. Cultivation also declined in Canada and Europe, where some nations opted to ban the planting of such crops last year.

“Most of the big biotech growing countries had crop hectare reductions because of low crop prices globally,” said Randy Hautea, ISAAA global coordinator. “The knock-on effect, of course, is a reduction in the GMO hectares.”

Aside from low commodity prices, which have cut U.S. farmer incomes in half, biotech plantings also face challenges from a rapidly growing organic food industry and a Vermont food law that will require labeling products that contain GMOs starting in July.

GMO crops, which contain genes from other species that typically allow plants to fend off insects or tolerate weed killers, account for about a third of commercial seed sales and have a global market of $15.3 billion, according to the ISAAA. The group is funded by governments, foundations and companies including Monsanto, the largest developer of the seeds.

Brazilian Soybeans

Brazil, the second-biggest market for biotech seeds, led growth last year with the addition of 2 million hectares, as twice as much land was planted with new soybeans engineered to kill insects and tolerate herbicides, the ISAAA said. Argentina, the third-biggest GMO grower, added 0.2 million hectares.

The total number of countries planting engineered crops held steady at 28 last year, the report said.

Plantings fell 5.2 percent in Canada, the fifth-biggest market.

In Europe, which accounts for less than 1 percent of biotech crop cultivation, five countries led by Spain planted about 116,870 hectares of insect-resistant corn, down 18 percent from the previous year. The drop is partly because of “onerous reporting” requirements, according to the ISAAA.

In October, 19 of the 28 European Union countries opted to ban planting of GMO crops, although nations that currently use the technology didn’t sign onto the move.

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