Even as some U.S. consumers reject foods containing ingredients from genetically modified plants, farmers continue to embrace the technology. In 2013, crops grown from seed engineered to withstand weed killers, kill pests or resist diseases made up 11.7% of fields planted worldwide, a report released Thursday says.
Last year, farmers planted 12 million more acres of plants genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant, pest resistant or able to stand up to diseases than in 2012, said Clive James, with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. The non-profit tracks biotech crops and is based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The United States leads the world in genetically modified (GM) plantings. Commodity crops genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant or pest resistant are the norm in U.S. fields.
In 2013, they included 93% of all soybeans, 90% of all feed corn and 90% of all cotton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In general, choosing GM seed is "an economic decision for farmers," said Mark Watne, a corn, soy and wheat farmer in Minot, N.D. "If you give them a tool to battle weeds at a reasonable cost, they adopt it," he said.
Other biotech crops, grown in much smaller amounts, include alfalfa, canola, papaya, sweet corn and summer squash, USDA figures show.
Because so many U.S. farmers are already planting GM crops, the U.S. proportion globally is not rising, James said. Today, the main growth in GM plantings is in South America, followed by Asia and Africa, the ISAAA report said. The top planters of GM crops after the United States are Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada.
For the second year in a row, farmers in developing countries planted more genetically engineered corps than farmers in the developed world, James said.
Small farmers have been quick to adopt GM crops, said James. "We've had 18 years of continuous growth, 12 of those at double digit. If the technology doesn't work for farmers, they're the first to reject it."
While some countries embrace the new technology, others do not. GM crops are hotly debated in the European Union, where public sentiment is broadly against them. Some feel they're unnatural, some feel they're potentially dangerous to consume, and some fear their effects on the environment.
In the United States, tens of millions of dollars have been spent in the past 11 years on initiatives seeking to require the labeling of GM ingredients. None have been enacted.
They include Oregon in 2003, California in 2013 and Washington state in 2013. The Washington initiative was the state's most expensive, with anti-labeling groups spending $22 million to defeat the measure.
Labeling advocates plan to try again in Oregon in November. A new measure has been placed on the state's ballot for November 2014, said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, a national coalition working to require labeling of foods containing GM ingredients.
"It's not a referendum on the technology. It's a referendum on choices," Faber said. "People want to know more about their food, and they don't want industry to limit the choices they make for their families."
Whether Americans actually want labeling depends on how the question is asked, said William Hallman, who directs the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The institute did a large survey of American attitudes towards GM foods in November.
When asked what information should be included on food labels that isn't already there, only 7% said they wanted GM ingredients to be labeled. When given a list of possible information to include on food labels, 59% included GM ingredients. When asked if GM ingredients should be labeled, 73% said yes.
"So which is it?" said Hallman. "Is it 7% or 59% or 73%? It depends on how you ask the question."
A commonly used figure is that 70% of all processed foods in a typical supermarket contain GM ingredients. But that's misleading, said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
Ingredients such as oil from soybeans, sugar from sugar beets and high-fructose corn syrup from corn are highly purified and contain no GM DNA or proteins from the original plant. "Chemically, they are identical to those products made from non-GM plants," Jaffee said.
By putting the adjective "GM" in front of "corn," you're "suggesting that it's somehow different from corn. But if it's biologically and chemically the same, is it different?"
The distinction is one farmers are well aware of, said Watne, who is the present of the North Dakota Farmers Union.
There has been pushback among farmers about growing GM wheat "because as a food that's a little more pure and whole," it doesn't get refined quite as much. "So it doesn't lose its identity," Watne said.
2013 Countries with the largest percentage of genetically engineered crops:
United States 42%
Source International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
Top U.S. genetically engineered crops in 2013
93% of all soybeans
90% of all feed corn
90% of all cotton
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture