Despite ongoing controversy over the use of genetically modified crops, the amount of land under cultivation by GM crops grew considerably in 2001, reports the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a group that promotes use of the technology in poor countries.

The area of land under cultivation with GM crops soared 19% to 52.6m hectares or 130m acres in 2001, with five and a half million farmers now actively using the technology. Three quarters of these farmers are in developing countries.

ISAAA chairman Clive James called the growth in GM technology “unprecedented” in the history of world farming. He is quoted as saying that it exceeded the enthusiasm with which US farmers adopted hybrid wheat in the 20th century to create the “bread-basket” of the Mid-west.

Four countries currently dominate the GM technology landscape. The US grows 68% of GM crops, Argentina 22%, Canada 6% and China 3%.

On a crop-by-crop basis, soybean still takes the lion’s share of GM acreage at 63%, followed by corn with 19% and cotton with 13%. The report singled out Chinese cotton as the boom crop, as cultivation increased threefold to 3.7m acres to account for nearly a third of the total crop. James indicated that India might well move towards adopting GM technology to support its world-leading cotton industry.

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However, the debate about the safety of GM crops continues, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has expressed concern about the speed of adoption of the technology.

James admitted that there had been intense speculation that the global area under cultivation by GM crops would shrink in 2001, but this proved unfounded.