Boy, were they wrong. All the naysayers and gloom-and-doomers who said biotech crops would never succeed are now dining on heaping helpings of crow.

Not since the herbicide revolution of the 1970s have farmers so rapidly embraced a new technology. And despite all the fuss in Europe and a few other countries over “Frankenfoods,” biotech crops are pretty much a non-issue with most of the general public. If the crops weren't finding markets and being used, you can bet farmers wouldn't be growing them.

The 2003 crop season marked the seventh consecutive year that biotech crop acreage worldwide grew by double digits — 15 percent last year, for a global total of 167.2 million acres. The United States had by far the majority of the biotech acres, 105.7 million; it and five other countries (Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, Canada, and China) planted 99 percent of the acreage worldwide.

During the eight-year period 1996 to 2003, global acreage of transgenic crops increased 40-fold.

Almost one-third of the global biotech crop area was in developing countries, thus debunking opponents' contention that resource-poor farmers couldn't afford the cost of participating in the new technology. An estimated 7 million farmers in 18 countries of the developing world planted the crops in 2003.

“Farmers have made up their minds: They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental, and social advantages, says Clive James, chairman of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Biotech soybeans continue to lead in acreage planted globally, increasing 13 percent last year to 102.2 million acres — 55 percent of the crop worldwide. The biggest increase, though, was for biotech corn/maize, up 25 percent to 38.3 million acres. Canola had the second largest increase, 20 percent, and cotton was third with 6 percent.

“Despite the ongoing debate in the European Union, there is cautious optimism that the global area of biotech crops and the number of farmers planting them will continue to grow in 2004 and beyond,” James says.

U.S. soybean farmer Ray Bardole puts it succinctly: “Current biotech crops are to agriculture what the Model T Ford is to modern transportation — we're only beginning to see the benefits.”

During the eight-year period 1996-2003, herbicide tolerance has consistently been the dominant trait in transgenic crops, followed by insect resistance. In 2003, herbicide-tolerant crops comprised 73 percent of the worldwide total, with 18 percent planted to Bt crops. Stacked genes for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance in both cotton and corn continued to increase, account for 8 percent of the combined acreage.

The global market value of genetically modified crops in 2003 is estimated at $4.5 billion to $4.75 billion, up from $4 billion in 2002. For 2005, the global market value is projected at $5 billion or more.

“The experience of those eight years shows biotech crops have “met the expectations of millions of large and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries,” says an ISAAA report.

“The adoption of this technology is nothing short of phenomenal,” says Linda Thrane, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information. “The more people know, the more they support biotechnology.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com