The commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops increased globally in 2016 after declining the previous year, according to estimates from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

SciDev.Net reported that ISAAA’s “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM crops: 2016” estimated that 185.1 million hectares (457.4 million acres) of GM crops were planted worldwide in 2016, an increase of 5.5 million hectares from the 179.7 million hectares planted in 2015. The 2015 total was a decline from 2014 when the total global area under GM cultivation was 181.5 million hectares.

U.S. still GM crop leader

The data showed that five countries accounted for 91 percent of GM crops, led by the U.S. with 72.9 million hectares under cultivation. Brazil had 49.1 million hectares under cultivation, followed by Argentina (23.8 million hectares), Canada (11.6 million), and India (10.8 million).

About half of the global GM cultivation is soybean, the ISAAA reported, while corn, cotton, and canola are also widely planted. Genetically modified sugar beets, squash, potato, papaya, and aubergine are also growing in popularity, ISAAA said.

Challenges in developing countries

ISAAA, which is a non-profit group that promotes GM crop adoption, estimated that 2016’s total of new land under cultivation brought the accumulated area planted with GM crops to 2.1 billion hectares.

That represents an 110-fold increase in GM cultivation in 10 years, ISAAA said, making it “the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times,” and benefiting at least 18 million small farmers.

In the developing world where GM crop adoption would have the greatest impact on relieving rural poverty, however, expanding it has faced several challenges, the ISAAA said in its report.

A lack of capital to adopt GM crops among small farmers is one concern, the group explained, along with obstacles to effectively regulating their use.

ISAAA senior program officer Rhodora Aldemita told SciDev.Net that protests against GM crops have slowed their adoption in countries like India and the Philippines. In India, resistance from activists and state governments has limited GM crop cultivation to non-food products, mainly cotton.

In the Philippines, protests against genetically modified eggplant and rice have tied up development programs in court cases, while countries like Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Myanmar have yet to create regulations to allow commercial-scale GM crop farming.