Spread of GM crops trebles in one year

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THE GLOBAL area planted with genetically modified crops is growing at an explosive rate, almost trebling between 1997 and 1998, according to the world's leading survey of environmental trends.

It shot up to 28 million hectares last year, more than 15 times the 1996 level, according to Vital Signs, the annual data bulletin from the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. From a start only in 1994, the land covered by GM crops by last year was already nearly the size of the Philippines, making it one of the most remarkable agricultural phenomena the world has seen. The astonishing growth is likely to continue. "It stands to soar in the near future," the report says.

The growth is concentrated so far in just three countries, the United States, Argentina and Canada, where GM crops have not met the vociferous public opposition seen in Britain, other European states and countries such as India.

And it shows just how quickly and profoundly national agricultures can be transformed by the giant GM multinationals such as Monsanto, once they are given their head.

In the US, for example, where farmers began sowing genetically engineered crops in 1994, the report says that by last year more than a third of the soybean crop was genetically modified, as was nearly a quarter of the corn (maize) and 20 per cent of the cotton.

About 55 per cent of the Argentinian soybean crop was GM, as well as 45 per cent of the Canadian crop of rapeseed. These countries only began GM commercial plantings in 1996. The result is that GM foods have now "infiltrated the global food supply", Vital Signs says. "In the United States, where transgenic corn and soybeans show up as high fructose corn syrup or soybean oil in processed foods, an estimated 70 per cent of such foods already contain some genetically modified ingredients - though it is not labelled as such.

"Transgenic foods are likely on the shelves in many nations that do not even grow modified crops, as the United States is the source of roughly half of global corn and soybean exports as well as a large share of processed food exports."

Most of the crops involved have been genetically engineered to be specially tolerant of very powerful weedkillers such as Monsanto's Roundup. It was the destructive power of these herbicides that caused English Nature, the Government wildlife advisers, to seek a moratorium on commercial GM plantings in the UK. The fear is that they will destroy all wildlife in GM fields as well as the weeds.

The Worldwatch Institute is an independent US think-tank that specialises in annual assessments of the global environmental picture. It sources its GM crops figures to the Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops, published last year by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, based in Ithaca, New York state.

Roy Hattersley, Review, page 4