Biotech crops, on the heels of a robust 2008 and bolstered by increased political will to meet food demands, are poised for a second wave of strong adoption that will drive sustained global growth through the end of the second decade of commercialization 2006 to 2015, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

An additional 1.3 million farmers planted 10.7 million new hectares of biotech crops in three new countries in 2008, according to the ISAAA brief Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2008. ISAAA has been tracking global biotech crop adoption trends since 1996.

In its annual study, ISAAA found that 13.3 million farmers in a record 25 countries planted 125 million hectares of biotech crops last year, the sixth largest growth spurt in 13 years of reporting. The 2 billionth cumulative acre of biotech crops also was planted in 2008, just three years after the first billionth acre, a milestone which required a decade to reach.

Most notably, in 2008 biotech farming began in the African nations of Egypt and Burkina Faso. Africa is considered the "final frontier" for biotech crops as it has perhaps the greatest need and most to gain. In 2008, Egypt planted 700 hectares of Bt maize and Burkina Faso planted 8,500 hectares of Bt cotton. They join South Africa, which since 1998 has benefited from biotech cotton, maize and soybean.

"Future growth prospects are encouraging," said Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA and author of the report. "The positive experiences in these new regional footholds in south, north and west Africa will help lead the way for neighboring countries to learn by example. Additionally, political leaders globally are increasingly viewing biotech enhanced crops as a key part of the solution to critical social issues of food security and sustainability."

For example, G-8 leaders in 2008 for the first time recognized the significance of biotech crops and called to "accelerate research and development and increase access to new agricultural technologies to boost agriculture production; we will promote science-based risk analysis, including on the contribution of seed varieties developed through biotechnology."

The European Union also has acknowledged that biotech crops "can play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food crises."

In China, Premier Wen Jiabao has said "to solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM." As a result, China has committed an additional US $3.5 billion over 12 years for continued research and development. Biotech rice alone, already developed and field tested in China, has the potential to increase food availability and net income by about $100 per hectare for approximately 440 million people in the country.

"Biotech crops make two important contributions to global food security," James said. "First, they increase yields, which increase food availability and supply. Second, they reduce production costs, which will also ultimately help reduce food prices. With 9.2 billion people to be fed by 2050, biotechnology plays a crucial role in helping satisfy the growing demand."

Further, biotechnology is beginning to identify solutions to the growing challenges with drought being seen in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Drought is the single largest constraint to increased productivity. For example, Argentina currently faces a drought so severe that farmers have made a loss on their wheat crop. Drought-tolerant crops, maize in particular, are an emerging reality with seeds expected to be commercialized in the United States by 2012 or sooner and by 2017 for Africa.

By the end of the second decade of commercialization in 2015, ISAAA predicts that four billion accumulated acres will have been planted. Further, 200 million hectares of biotech crops annually will be planted in a total of 40 countries.

The report is entirely funded by two European philanthropic organizations: a philanthropic unit within Ibercaja, one of the largest Spanish banks headquartered in the maize growing region of Spain; and the Bussolera-Branca Foundation from Italy, which supports the open-sharing of knowledge on biotech crops to aid decision-making by global society.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is a not-for-profit organization with an international network of centers designed to contribute to the alleviation of hunger and poverty by sharing knowledge and crop biotechnology applications. Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA, has lived and/or worked for the past 25 years in the developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa, devoting his efforts to agricultural research and development issues with a focus on crop biotechnology and global food security.