Publications: ISAAA Briefs

No. 17 - 2000

Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 1999

Clive James
Chair, ISAAA Board of Directors


Published by: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Ithaca, New York 
Copyright: (2000) International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) 
Reproduction of this publication for educational or other noncommercial purposes is authorized without prior permission from the copyright holder, provided the source is properly acknowledged.
Reproduction for resale or other commercial purposes is prohibited without the prior written permission from the copyright holder.
Correct Citation: James, C. 2000. Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 1999. ISAAA Briefs No.17. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. 65 p.
ISBN: 1-892456-21-4
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Executive Summary

List of Tables

List of Figures

List of Abbreviations and Acronyms


1. Introduction 

2. Overview of Global Status and Distribution of Commercial Transgenic Crops, 1996 to 1999 

2.1 Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Country 

2.1.1 Countries Growing Transgenic Crops for the First Time in 1999 

2.2 Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Crop 

2.3 Distribution of Transgenic Crops, Trait 

2.4 Dominant Transgenic Crops in 1999 

2.5 Summary and Highlights of Significant Changes between 1998 and 1999 

3. Value of the Global Transgenic Seed Market, 1995-1999 

4. Developments in the Crop Biotechnology Industry 

4.1 Acquisitions, Alliances, Mergers, Spin-offs and Restructuring in the Agribiotechnology Industry 

4.2 Genomics 

5. Overview of the Commercial Seed Industry 

6. Status of Transgenic Crops in Selected Developing Countries of Asia 

6.1 Crop Biotechnology in China 

6.1.1 Bt Cotton in China 

6.2 The Cotton Crop in India and the Potential Benefits of Bt Cotton 

6.3 Potential Benefits of Bt Corn in the Philippines 

6.4 The Rockefeller Foundation International Rice Biotechnology Program 

6.5 Summary 

7. Future Biotechnology Traits 

7.1 Input Traits 

7.2 Output Traits 

8. Past Achievements and Future Potential of Plant Breeding, including Biotechnology, for Increasing Crop Productivity of the Major Staples: Wheat, Rice, and Maize 

8.1 Wheat Improvement 

8.1.1 Wheat Breeding in the UK 

8.1.2 CIMMYT/International Wheat Program 

8.2 Rice Improvement 

8.2.1 IRRI/International Rice Program 

8.3 Wheat and Rice 

8.4 Maize Improvement 

8.4.1 Maize Breeding in the USA 

8.5 Global Demand for Cereals in 2025 - The Plant Breeding Challenge 

9. Future Prospects for Transgenic Crops Acknowledgments 




Executive Summary

This publication is the fourth in a series of ISAAA Briefs, which characterize the global adoption of commercialized transgenic crops. A global database for the period 1996 to 1999 is presented and 1999 data is analyzed globally, and by country, crop, and trait. Data on the global status of transgenic crops are complemented with commentaries on relevant key topics including the value of the global transgenic seed market; a review of acquisitions, mergers, and alliances in the biotechnology industry including those related to genomics; an overview of the commercial seed industry: status of transgenic crops in selected developing countries of Asia; future traits in biotechnology; an assessment of the contribution of conventional and biotechnology applications to past and future plant breeding activities in the major staples of wheat, rice, and maize and the impact on global food security; and future prospects for transgenic crops in 2000 and beyond.

In the early 1990s many were very skeptical that transgenic crops, more familiarly known as genetically modified (GM) crops, could deliver improved products and make an impact in the near term at the farm level. There was even more skepticism regarding the appropriateness of transgenic crops for the developing world, particularly their ability to meet the needs of small resource-poor farmers. It is encouraging to witness that the early promises of crop biotechnology are meeting expectations of large and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries. In 1999, the global area of the four principal crops of soybean, canola, cotton, and corn totaled 273 million ha, of which 15%, equivalent to 39.9 million ha, was planted with transgenic varieties. These 39.9 million ha of transgenic crops grown globally are unprecedented, and equivalent to more than one and a half times the total land area of the United Kingdom; they comprise 30% of the 72 million ha of soybeans planted globally, 14% of the 25 million ha of canola, 10% of the 34 million ha of cotton, and 8% of the 140 million ha of corn. The fact that millions of farmers in 12 different industrial and developing countries around the world made independent decisions after evaluating the technology following their first plantings of transgenic crops in 1996, after which the area increased by an unprecedented multiple of more than 23-fold, speaks volumes for the confidence and trust farmers have placed in transgenic crops. In China alone, within a short period of 2 years, over 1.5 million small resource-poor farmers growing an average of 0.15 ha of Bt cotton, have embraced the technology after witnessing first hand in their own fields the significant and multiple benefits it can deliver.

Between 1996 and 1999, 12 countries, 8 industrial and 4 developing, have contributed to more than a 20-fold (23.5) increase in the global area of transgenic crops. Adoption rates for transgenic crops are unprecedented and are the highest for any new technologies by agricultural industry standards. High adoption rates reflect grower satisfaction with the products that offer significant benefits ranging from more convenient and flexible crop management, higher productivity and/or net returns/hectare, and a safer environment through decreased use of conventional pesticides, which collectively contribute to a more sustainable agriculture. The major changes in area and global share of transgenic crops for the respective countries, crops and traits, between 1998 and 1999 were related to the following factors:

  • In 1999, the global area of transgenic crops increased by 44%, or 12.1 million ha, to 39.9 million ha, from 27.8 million ha in 1998. Seven transgenic crops were grown commercially in 12 countries in 1999, three of which, Portugal, Romania, and Ukraine, grew transgenic crops for the first time.

  • The four principal countries that grew the majority of transgenic crops in 1999 were USA, 28.7 million ha (72% of the global area); Argentina, 6.7 million ha (17%); Canada, 4.0 million ha (10%); China, 0.3 million ha (1%); the balance was grown in Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, France, Portugal, Romania, and Ukraine.

  • Growth in area of transgenic crops between 1998 and 1999 in industrial countries continued to be significant and 3.5 times greater than in developing countries (9.4 million ha versus 2.7 million ha).

  • In terms of crops, soybean contributed the most (59%) to global growth of transgenic crops, equivalent to 7.1 million ha between 1998 and 1999, followed by corn at 23% (2.8 million ha), cotton at 10% (1.2 million ha), and canola at 8% (1 million ha).

  • There were three noteworthy developments in terms of traits; herbicide tolerance contributed the most (69% or 8.3 million ha) to global growth between 1998 and 1999; the stacked genes of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance in both corn and cotton contributed 21% equivalent to 2.6 million ha; and insect resistance increased by 1.2 million ha in 1999 representing 10% of global area growth.

  • Of the four major transgenic crops grown in 12 countries in 1999, the two principal crops of soybean and corn represented 54% and 28%, respectively, for a total of 82% of the global transgenic area, with the remaining 18% shared equally between cotton (9%) and canola (9%).

  • In 1999, herbicide-tolerant soybean was the most dominant transgenic crop (54% of global transgenic area, compared with 52% in 1998), followed by insect-resistant corn (19% compared with 24% in 1998), herbicide-tolerant canola (9%), Bt/ herbicide-tolerant corn (5%), herbicide- tolerant cotton (4%), herbicide-tolerant corn (4%), Bt cotton (3%), and Bt/herbicide- tolerant cotton (2%).

  • The four major factors that influenced the change in absolute area of transgenic crops between 1998 and 1999 and the relative global share of different countries, crops, and traits were: first, the substantial increase of 4.8 million ha in herbicide-tolerant soybean in the USA (from 10.2 million ha in 1998 to 15.0 million ha in 1999, equivalent to 50% of the 30.0 million ha US national soybean crop in 1999), coupled with an increase of 2.1 million ha in herbicide-tolerant soybean in Argentina (from 4.3 million ha in 1998 to an estimated 6.4 million ha in 1999, equivalent to approximately 90% of the 7.0 million ha of Argentina™s national soybean crop in 1999); second, the significant increase of 2.2 million ha of transgenic corn (insect- resistant, Bt/herbicide-tolerant, and herbicide-tolerant) in the USA from 8.1 million ha in 1998 to 10.3 million ha in 1999, equivalent to 33% of the 31.4 million ha of US national corn crop in 1999; third, the increase of 1.0 million ha of herbicide- tolerant canola in Canada from 2.4 million ha in 1998 to 3.4 million ha in 1999, equivalent to 62% of the 5.5 million ha of the Canadian canola crop in 1999; and fourth, the 1.0 million ha increase in transgenic cotton in the USA, from 2.2 million ha in 1998 to 3.2 million ha in 1999 (equivalent to 55% of the 5.9 million ha of the US national cotton crop in 1999). The 3.2 million ha of transgenic cotton in 1999 comprised 1.5 million ha of herbicide- tolerant cotton with the balance of 1.7 million ha equally divided between Bt cotton and cotton with the stacked gene of Bt/herbicide tolerance.

  • The combined effect of the above four factors resulted in a global area of transgenic crops in 1999 that was 12.1 million ha greater and 44% more than 1998; this is a significant year-on-year increase considering the high percentage of principal crops planted to transgenics in 1998. Commercialized transgenic crops were grown for the second year in two countries of the European Union (30,000 ha of Bt maize in Spain and 1,000 ha of Bt maize in France) with Portugal growing more than 1,000 ha of Bt maize for the first time in 1999. Two countries in Eastern Europe grew transgenic crops for the first time; Romania grew introductory areas of herbicide-tolerant soybean (14,250 ha) and planted <1,000 ha of Bt potatoes. Ukraine also grew Bt potatoes (<1,000 ha) for the first time. An unverified small area of Bt maize in Germany and an introductory area of herbicide-tolerant corn in Bulgaria were not included in the global database. 

The value of the global market for transgenic seed has grown rapidly from $1 million in 1995 to $152 million in 1996, $851 million in 1997, $1,959 million in 1998, and an estimated $2.7- 3 billion in 1999. Global area planted to transgenic crops is expected to continue to grow but will start to plateau in 2000 reflecting the unprecedented high adoption rates to date and the high percentage of principal crops already planted to transgenics in the USA, Argentina, and Canada. In 2000, Argentina is expected to modestly expand the area of transgenic crops, with Brazil, subject to regulatory approval and market demand, possibly growing transgenic crops officially for the first time. China is expected to expand its transgenic area of Bt cotton, with growth and diversification continuing in South Africa and Eastern European countries. India has transgenic Bt cotton that is ready for commercialization pending final approval by the Government of India. The major issues that will modulate adoption in 2000 will be public acceptance, which drives market demand, regulation, and commodity prices. These three issues and labeling of foods derived from genetically modified crops will continue to be dominant factors that will impact on commercial planting of transgenic crops and consumption of genetically modified derived foods in countries of the European Union. 

As expansion of transgenic crops continues, a shift will occur from the current generation of "input" agronomic traits to the next generation of "output" quality traits. This will result in improved and specialized nutritional food and feed products that will satisfy a high-value- added market, and will be a stimulus to de- commoditize grain and oil seed markets. This shift will significantly affect the value of the global transgenic crop market and also broaden the beneficiary profile from growers to processors and consumers. Food products derived from transgenic crops that are healthier and more nutritious could in turn have important implications for public acceptance, particularly in Europe where the debate about transgenic crops continues. 

The R&D pipeline is full of new and novel products with input and output traits that can be commercialized in the midterm. Plant breeding activities in the cereal staples - wheat, rice and maize - have made enormous contributions to global food security. It is critical that a combined strategy of conventional and biotechnology applications be adopted as the technology component of a global food security initiative that also addresses other critical issues including population control and improved distribution. With the adoption of such a strategy, society will continue to benefit from the vital contribution that plant breeding offers the global population and global cereal demands of 2025 can be met. Biotechnology can play a critical role in achieving food security in Asia  where 50% of the 1.3 billion poor people in the world reside. China assigns high priority and a strategic value to biotechnology and was the first country in the world to commercialize transgenic crops in the early 1990s. The experience of China, where more than 1.5 million small farmers benefit from Bt cotton, would be useful to share with other countries in the region. 

The pace of biotechnology-driven consolidations in industry, which is a concern to some, was slower in 1999 than in the previous 3 years, although there were many alliances in the area of plant genomics that will continue to be of pivotal importance. The large multinationals with investments in seeds, crop biotechnology, and crop protection have reviewed future plans. Some corporations have already initiated restructuring, and are planning spin-offs and mergers, which have resulted in more focus. This may affect the scope and scale of planned delivery of new products. It is critically important that the public sector and international development institutions in both industrial and developing countries invest in the new technologies to ensure equitable access and benefits from the enormous potential that transgenic crops offer in terms of increased productivity, more nutritious food, and global food security. Governments must implement regulatory programs that inspire public confidence and exert leadership in communicating information and knowledge on transgenic crops to the public, so that society is well informed and can engage in a dialog about the impact of the technology on the environment, food safety, sustainability, and global food security. The most compelling case for biotechnology is its potential contribution to global food security and the alleviation of hunger in the Third World where 24,000 people die every day from chronic malnutrition. It is vital that the public sector and the private sector forge partnerships that will allow the comparative advantages of both parties to be optimized to achieve the mutual objective of global food security. The value and importance of superior seed is evident irrespective of whether it incorporates conventional or biotechnology improvements, because superior seed is essential for producing improved crop varieties that are, and will continue to be, the most cost-effective, environmentally safe and sustainable way to ensure global food security in future. Superior seed, incorporating improved transgenic traits, can be a very powerful tool for alleviating poverty because not only can it contribute to the sustenance of the rural poor, but the value of superior seed is known, trusted and accepted by hundreds of millions of farmers throughout the world. 

List of Tables

Table 1 Global area of transgenic crops in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999
Table 2

Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, industrial and developing countries

Table 3 Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, by country
Table 4 Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, by crop
Table 5 Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, by trait
Table 6 Dominant transgenic crops, 1999
Table 7 Estimated value of global transgenic seed crop market, 1995-1999
Table 8 Listing of 26 selected biotechnology-driven acquisitions and alliances in 1999 of corporations involved in seeds, crop protection and life sciences
Table 8 Listing of 26 selected biotechnology-driven acquisitions and alliances in 1999 of corporations involved in seeds, crop protection and life sciences
Table 9

Agreements signed in 1999 involving plant genomics and Related technologies

Table 10

Estimated values of commercial markets for seed and planting materials from selected countries, 1998

Table 11

Status of transgenic crops approved for commercialization, large and small-scale trials in China, as of June 1999

Table 12

Transgenic crops approved for environmental release, field testing or commercialization in China, 1997 to June 1999, categorized by crop and trait

Table 13

Summary of Bt cotton trials conducted in India, 1998-1999

Table 14

Share (%) of world population and arable land

Table 15

Listing of selected potential transgenic crops for commercialization in the near to midterm, from 2000 onwards

Table 16

Major milestones in yields of CIMMYT spring wheats at Obregon, Mexico

Table 17

Area planted (%) to improved varieties of wheat

Table 18

Estimated benefits of post Green Revolution wheat released in developing countries between 1977 and 1990

Table 19

Area planted (%) to improved varieties of rice

Table 20

Global rice production

Table 21

Attributes of transgenic maize commercialized in 1996-1999

Table 22

Projected world demand for cereals

Table 23

Transgenic crop area as % of global area of principal crops, 1999

Table A1 1998 seed exports worldwide, by crop
Table A2 1998 export of seeds of major exporting countries

List of Figures

Figure 1 Global area of transgenic crops in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999
Figure 2

Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, industrial and developing countries

Figure 3 Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, by country
Figure 4 Global area of transgenic crops in 1998 and 1999, by crop