Worldwide plantings of biotech crops increased by 7%, or 22 million acres, in 2009 despite a decline in usage in Europe, according to an industry report released recently.

Led by U.S. producers, 14 million farmers in 25 countries around the world planted biotech crops on 330 million acres last year, up from 13.3 million farmers and 308 million acres in 2008, according to the report by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Acreage expanded for biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola, with the appeal of biotech crops to farmers growing in part due to the stacking of multiple different genetic traits in the seeds aimed at better yields, improved herbicide tolerance and insect protection, the ISAAA says.

ISAAA Chairman Clive James says the growth of biotech crops around the world is helping meet the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing global population. "When we look at the challenges we have today ... we are talking about needing to double food production and to do it sustainably," James says.

The U.S. accounted for 48% of the world’s biotech crop plantings with 158 million acres.

However, according to the ISAAA, 13 million of the 14 million farmers growing biotech crops worldwide were small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Growth of biotech crop plantings in 2009 was also substantially higher in developing nations at 13%, or 17.3 million acres, compared to just 3%, or 4.8 million acres, in industrialized countries.

As a result, 46% of the area planted to biotech crops in 2009 was in developing nations. That acreage is mainly in five large developing countries: Brazil, Argentina, India, China and South Africa, the ISAAA says.

Brazil surpassed Argentina as the second-largest grower of biotech crops globally in 2009. Brazil’s biotech crop acreage grew an impressive 13.8 million acres, or 35%, to 52.9 million acres last year, the highest absolute growth for any country, the ISAAA says.

Tuesday’s report identified biotech rice and the drought-tolerant trait as the two most important drivers globally for future biotech crop adoption.

China’s issuance of biosafety certificates for insect-resistant rice in November 2009 was a "landmark decision that should spur faster development of biotech rice and other biotech crops in other developing countries, the ISAAA says. Meanwhile, drought-tolerant corn is expected to be deployed in the U.S. in 2012 and sub-Saharan Africa in 2017.

There continues to be strong resistance to biotech crops in Europe. Six European Union (EU) countries planted 234,127 acres of biotech crops in 2009, down from seven countries and 266,173 acres in 2008, as Germany discontinued its plantings. Spain planted 80% of all the Bt corn in the EU in 2009 and maintained its record adoption rate of 22% from the previous year.

Nonetheless, the ISSSA expresses "cautious optimism" that global adoption of biotech crops will double during the second decade of commercialization (2006-2015) as predicted by the group in 2005.

ISAAA predicts 20 million farmers in 40 countries will be growing biotech crops on 494 million acres by 2015.

Editor’s note: Richard Brock, Corn & Soybean Digest's marketing editor, is president of Brock Associates, a farm market advisory firm, and publisher of The Brock Report.