Publications: ISAAA Briefs

No. 5 - 1997

Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1997

Clive James
Chair, ISAAA Board of Directors


Published by: The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Ithaca, New York 
Copyright: (1997) 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. 1997. Global Status of Transgenic Crops in 1997. ISAAA Briefs No. 5. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. pp. 31. 
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Executive Summary

List of Tables

List of Figures


Overview of Global Transgenic Crop Field Trials, 1986-1997

Number of Countries, Crops and Traits

Most Frequent Crops and Traits in the USA

Most Frequent Crops and Traits in Canada


Review of Transgenic Crop Products Currently Approved for Commercialization

Global Status and Distribution of Commercial Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997 

Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Country

Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Crop

Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Trait

Distribution of Transgenic Crops, by Crop/Trait


Assessment of Benefits from Use of Transgenic Crops

Virus Resistant Tobacco in China

Bt Cotton in USA in 1996

Herbicide Tolerant Soybean in USA in 1996

Bt Corn in USA in 1996 and 1997

Herbicide Tolerant Canola in Canada in 1996

Bt Potatoes in USA in 1996


The Future

Adoption of Transgenic Crops and Status of the Technology

Intellectual Property Rights

Public Perception and Acceptance of Biotechnology

Mergers and Alliances

Global Investments and Markets in Biotechnology

Global Food Security




 Executive Summary 

Transgenic Field Trials 1986-1997

During the twelve year period 1986 to 1997, approximately 25,000 transgenic crop field trials were conducted globally on more than 60 crops with 10 traits in 45 countries. Of this total of 25,000, 15,000 field trials (60 percent) were conducted during the first ten year period, 1986 to 1995, and 10,000 (40 percent) in the last two year period, 1996-1997. Seventy-two percent of all the transgenic crop field trials were conducted in the USA and Canada followed in descending order by Europe, Latin America and Asia, with the few conducted in Africa limited to South Africa. The most frequent crops featured in transgenic crop field trials during the period were corn, tomato, soybean, canola, potato, and cotton and the most frequent traits were herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, product quality and virus resistance. It is noteworthy that 25,000 transgenic crop trials were conducted without encountering any significant constraints that did not lend themselves for successful and responsible management during experimentation at the field level. This reflects well on regulators and experimenters who worked together effectively to conduct and manage 25,000 trials in a responsible manner and ensured that the results were communicated in a transparent mode and open for scrutiny and discussion by the scientific community and the lay public. The continued sharing of information from transgenic crop trials and their performance during commercial deployment is important and will contribute to a better understanding of transgenic crops and enhance public acceptance of products that can make a critical contribution to future global food security. As of year-end 1997, 48 transgenic crop products, involving 12 crops and 6 traits, were approved for commercialization in at least one country by 22 proprietors of technology, of which 20 were private sector corporations.


1996 Commercialized Transgenic Crops

The People’s Republic of China was the first country to commercialize transgenics in the early 1990s with the introduction of virus resistant tobacco, which was later followed by a virus resistant tomato. In 1994, Calgene obtained the first approval in the USA to commercialize a genetically modified food product, when the company marketed its Flavr Savr TM delayed ripening tomato. By 1996, approximately 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) of 7 principal transgenic crops were grown commercially on a significant area in the following 6 countries, listed in descending order of acreage: USA, China, Canada, Argentina, Australia and Mexico. In 1996, on a global basis, 57 percent of the transgenic crop area was grown in the industrial countries and 43 percent in the developing countries. USA grew most of the transgenic crop, equivalent to 3.6 million acres or 1.5 million hectares (51 percent), followed by China, 2.8 million acres or 1.1 million hectares (39 percent), with Canada and Argentina at the same level of 0.3 million acres or 0.1 million hectares (4 percent), and the balance in Australia (1 percent) and Mexico (1 percent). In 1996, the principal transgenic crop was tobacco which accounted for 35 percent (equivalent to 2.5 million acres or 1.0 million hectares) of the global area, followed by cotton (27 percent) on 1.9 million acres or 0.8 million hectares, and soybean 18 percent (1.25 million acres or 0.5 million hectares); the balance of 20 percent was made up of corn (10 percent), canola (5 percent), tomato (4 percent), with less than 1 percent of global transgenic area occupied by potatoes. By trait, virus resistance accounted for 40 percent of the transgenic acreage in 1996, followed by insect resistance - synonymous with insect-protected (37 percent), herbicide tolerance (23 percent), with quality traits accounting for less than 1 percent.

1997 Commercialized Transgenic Crops

In 1997, the global area of transgenics increased 4.5 fold from 7.0 million acres (2.8 million hectares) in 1996 to 31.5 million acres (12.8 million hectares) with 7 crops grown in 6 countries, as in 1996, with 48 transgenic crop products approved in at least one country. The countries listed in descending order of transgenic crop area were: USA, 20.1 million acres or 8.1 million hectares representing 64 percent of the global acreage, China with 4.5 million acres or 1.8 million hectares equivalent to 14 percent, Argentina with 3.5 million acres or 1.4 million hectares representing 11 percent of global acreage, Canada with 3.0 million acres or 1.3 million hectares representing 10 percent of global area and Australia (0.1million acres or <0.05 million hectares) and Mexico, <0.1 million acres or 0.03 million hectares, both representing less than 1 percent of the global transgenic crop area. On a global basis, the proportion of transgenic acreage grown in industrial countries increased from 57 percent in 1996 to 75 percent in 1997, and it decreased in developing countries from 43 percent in 1996 to 25 percent in 1997. The largest increase in transgenic crops in 1997 occurred in the USA (16.5 million acres or 6.7 million hectares) where the increase was more than fivefold (5.6) followed by Argentina (3.25 million acres or 1.3 million hectares) where there was a 13 fold increase, and Canada with an increase of 3.0 million acres or 1.3 million hectares, representing a 9.2 fold increase. USA continued to be the principal grower of transgenic crops in 1997 and its share of global acreage increased from 51 percent in 1996 to 64 percent in 1997, equivalent to 20.1 million acres or 8.1 million hectares. Whereas China, in 1997, still retained its 1996 ranking as the country with the second largest area, its percentage of global transgenic crop acreage decreased sharply from 39 percent in 1996 to 14 percent in 1997. Argentina’s transgenic crop acreage increased from 4 percent of global area in 1996 to 11 percent in 1997 and similarly in Canada from 4 percent to 10 percent. There were also significant changes in the absolute and relative area occupied by the 7 transgenic crops in 1996 and 1997. Transgenic soybean ranked first in 1997, accounting for 40 percent of global acreage, and replaced tobacco (13 percent in1997) which was the highest ranking crop in 1996 with 35 percent of the global area. Corn, which only ranked fourth in 1996 (10 percent of global area) moved up to second position in 1997 with 7.9 million acres or 3.2 million hectares, equivalent to 25 percent of the global transgenic area. The proportion of global acreage occupied by transgenic canola increased from 5 percent in 1996 to 10 percent in 1997, whereas the area of cotton decreased from 27 percent to 11 percent and similarly tomato from 4 percent to 1 percent. The relative areas occupied by the four transgenic traits were also significantly different in 1996 and 1997. Herbicide tolerance, the third ranking trait in 1996 and occupying 23 percent of the area, moved to the top ranking position in 1997 with 54 percent of the global area. Insect resistance was fairly stable with 37 percent in 1996 and 31 percent in 1997, with virus resistance decreasing sharply from 40 percent in 1996 to 14 percent in 1997; quality traits occupied less than 1 percent in both 1996 and 1997.


Major Changes 1996 to 1997

Considering the global share of transgenics for the respective countries, crops and traits, the major changes between 1996 and 1997 were correlated with the following features: growth in area of transgenics between 1996 and 1997 in the industrial countries was significant and almost 4 times greater than in developing countries (19.5 million acres versus 5.0 million acres, or 7.9 million hectares versus 2.0 million hectares); soybean and corn contributed 75 percent of the global growth in transgenics between 1996 and 1997; herbicide tolerance was responsible for 63 percent (15.4 million acres or 6.2 million hectares) of the global growth in transgenics between 1996 and 1997, with insect resistance contributing 30 percent and virus resistance only 7 percent. The principal phenomena that influenced the change in absolute area of transgenic crops between 1996 and 1997 and the relative global share of different countries, crops and traits were: firstly, the enormous increase in 1997 of herbicide tolerant soybean in the USA and to a lesser extent in Argentina; secondly, the significant increase in 1997 of insect resistant corn in North America; and thirdly, the large increase of herbicide tolerant canola in Canada in 1997. Collectively, these three phenomena resulted in a global acreage in 1997 that was 4.5 times higher than 1996, and the relative importance of transgenic tobacco and tomato in China, which was significant in 1996, decreased markedly in 1997 in a global context. In 1997, transgenic soybean, corn, cotton and canola represented 86 percent of the global transgenic area, of which 75 percent was grown in North America with herbicide tolerant soybean being the most dominant transgenic crop followed by insect resistant corn and herbicide tolerant canola.


Estimated Benefits from Transgenic Crops

More detailed information on the benefits associated with new transgenic crops will be available following a comprehensive analysis of 1997 data, when a substantial acreage of transgenics was planted globally. An initial assessment of the benefits from transgenic crops is reported here: virus resistant tobacco in China increased leaf yield by 5 to 7 percent and resulted in savings of 2 to 3 insecticide applications; insect resistant Bt cotton in the USA in 1996 resulted in insecticide savings, with 70 percent of Bt cotton planted in 1996 requiring no insecticides to control the targeted insect pests, and an average yield increase of 7 percent - this resulted in a net benefit of $ 33 per acre for a total national benefit of $ 60 million for the 1.8 million acres (730,000 hectares) of Bt cotton in the USA in 1996; borer-resistant Bt corn in USA produced an average yield increase of 9 percent in 1996 and 1997 - benefits from the use of Bt corn on 700,000 acres (285,000 hectares) in the USA in 1996 were estimated at $ 19 million and $ 190 million for the 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares) of Bt corn planted in 1997 - 50 percent of the 80 million corn acreage in the USA, equivalent to 40 million acres (16 million hectares) was reported to be infested with European corn borer, with an estimated annual loss of $ 1 billion; herbicide tolerant soybean in USA in 1996 resulted in 10 to 40 percent less herbicide requirements, improved yield dependability, no carry-over of herbicide residues, more flexibility in agronomic management and better control of weeds and soil moisture conservation; herbicide tolerant canola in Canada in 1996 lowered herbicide requirements, increased yield by an average of 9 percent, with no carry-over of herbicide residues, more flexibility in agronomic management, plus a higher proportion of #1 Grade canola, 85 percent versus 63 percent, as well as better soil and moisture conservation - benefits to Canada from the use of 300,000 acres of herbicide tolerant canola in 1996 were estimated to be $6 million; insect resistant Bt potatoes in USA in 1996 resulted in effective control of Colorado beetle, yield/quality benefits per acre of $ 14 and insecticide savings of $ 5, for a net benefit of $ 19 per acre that translated to a total benefit of $170,000 for the 9,000 acres (3,650 hectares) of Bt potatoes in the USA in 1996. Thus, at a national level in the USA in 1996, the total benefits for Bt cotton, corn and potato were $ 80 million, and $ 190 million for Bt corn alone in 1997; similarly at the national level the benefits from herbicide tolerant canola in Canada in 1996 were $ 6 million. In general, transgenic crops have been well received in North America, with a very high percentage of farmers who planted transgenic crops in 1996 electing to plant again in 1997; many transgenic products were unavailable to potential growers in North America in 1997 because of shortage of transgenic seed supplies, thus reducing the potential area planted to transgenic crops.


The Future - Biotechnology Investments and Global Markets

Global sales for agricultural biotechnology will continue to be modest compared with biotechnology-based pharmaceutical products. In the USA in 1995 revenues from agricultural biotechnology were estimated at $ 0.100 billion with R&D costs of $2 billion, whereas revenue for biotechnology-based pharmaceuticals was $ 7 billion with R&D costs of $ 8 billion; in 1996 revenues for agricultural biotechnology products in the USA increased to $ 304 million and to $ 8.6 billion for biotechnology-based pharmaceuticals. However, revenue from agri-biotech products is expected to increase significantly in the future as expansion of transgenic crops continues and as a shift occurs from the current generation of "input" agronomic traits to the next generation of "output" quality traits, which will result in improved and specialized nutritional food and feed products that will satisfy a high-value-added market; the recent $ 1.7 billion joint venture between DuPont and Pioneer is probably directed at this market. Biotechnology-driven acquisitions, mergers and alliances will continue to prevail in the seed and pesticide industry which has invested $ 8 billion in acquisitions in agri-biotechnology alone in the last few years, although the thrust in the future will change to vertical integration of food, feed and industrial products, and the current focus on genomics will catalyze new alliances. The future for transgenic crops looks promising, with crop areas in North America likely to increase significantly in 1998, deeper market penetration in Latin America and Australia, new products in China and the advent of commercial transgenic crops in Europe. The global market for transgenic crops is projected to increase from $ <0.5 billion in 1996, to $ 2 to $ 3 billion in 2000, to $ 6 billion in 2005, and to $ 20 billion in 2010. During the next decade an increase in productivity of 10 to 25 percent from transgenic crops is feasible and realistic and this will be a critical and significant contribution to global food security, more nutritious food and feed, and to a safer environment.

List of Table

Table 1 World Population and Growth Rates 1997
Table 2 45 Countries that have Conducted Transgenic Crop Field Trials from 1986 to 1997
Table 3 Global, USA, and Canada Transgenic Crop Field Trials, 1986-1995, and 1996 to 1997
Table 4 Transgenic Crop Field Trials in Canada 1990, 1995, 1997: 
Most Frequent Crops and Traits (expressed as percentage)
Table 5 Transgenic Crops Approved for Commercialization, listed by Technology Proprietor and Transgenic Crop, 1997
Table 6 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997
(millions of hectares/acres)
Table 7 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997:
Industrial and Developing Countries (millions of hectares/acres)
Table 8 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997:
By Country (millions of hectares/acres)
Table 9 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997: By Crop
(millions of hectares/acres)
Table 10 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997: By Trait
(millions of hectares/acres)
Table 11 Global Area of Transgenic Crops in 1996 and 1997: By Crop/Trait  (millions of hectares/acres)
Table 12 Estimated Economic Benefits Associated with Selected Bt Transgenic Crops in the USA, 1996 and 1997
Table 13 Traits already Commercialized in Field Trials, and under Development for Selected Crops, 1997
Table 14 Traits Already Commercialized, in Field Trials and under Development in China, 1997
Table 15 Traits Already Commercialized, in Field Trials and under Development in Australia, 1997
Table 16 Traits Already Commercialized, in Field Trials and under Development in Mexico, 1997
Table 17 Recent Agri-Biotechnology Acquisitions, Mergers and Alliances, 1997
Table 18 Sales and R&D Expenditures for Biotechnology Products in the United States, 1995 and 1996 ($ millions)

List of Figures

Figure 1 Number of Transgenic Crop Field Trial Sites in the USA, 1987 to 1997: 
Most Frequent Crops (expressed as percentage)
Figure 2 Number of Transgenic Crop Field Trial Sites in the USA, 1987 to 1997: 
Most Frequent Traits (expressed as percentage)
Figure 3 Number of Transgenic Crop Field Trial Sites Worldwide by Region, 1986 to 1997


Table 1A

List of 60 Transgenic Crops in Field Experiments Worldwide 1986 to 1997