Sowings of genetically modified (GMO) crops rose to 81 million hectares in 2004 in the second-largest yearly increase since commercial GMO crop growing began in 1996, said ISAAA, an industry-backed group promoting biotech as a way to halt hunger.
"By the end of the decade, ISAAA predicts up to 15 million farmers will grow biotech crops on 150 million hectares in up to 30 countries," ISAAA said, adding that 8.25 million farmers were involved in GMO crop sowings in 2004 across 17 countries.
The two countries with the largest share of GMO sowings were again the United States, which saw significant increases in its field areas of GMO maize and soybeans, and then Argentina.
The US share of the global sowings total was 59 percent, while Argentina's was 20 percent. Canada tied with Brazil with six percent, and China -- which ISAAA said was likely to approve cultivation of a GMO rice variety this year -- had five percent.
There were also more biotech "mega-countries" growing at least 50,000 hectares of GMO crops last year, as Paraguay, Spain, Mexico and the Philippines joined this group.
Biotech foods tend to inspire extremes of opinion and there is a longstanding transatlantic division over the GMO issue.
In the United States, at least 70 percent of supermarket foods contain GMOs and most consumers shrug off claims from green groups that these products may be harmful.
But in Europe, they are often seen as "Frankenstein Foods" and shunned by an overwhelming number of consumers.
POTENTIAL FOR MAIZE, COTTON
For the first time, the hectarage growth in biotech crop areas was higher in developing than in industrial countries, the ISAAA report said. Developing countries now accounted for slightly more than one-third of the world's GMO crop area.
Soybeans took up the lion's share of sowings at 60 percent of the total. Maize had 23 percent and cotton 11 percent.
GMO maize had the highest growth potential for the future after last year's growth rate for plantings rose by 25 percent.
"Biotech maize is projected to have the highest percentage growth rate for the near term as maize demand increases and as more beneficial traits become available and approved," it said.
More land would be devoted to growing biotech cotton in 2005 and beyond as India and China increased their GMO areas and new countries introduced the crop for the first time, it said.
ISAAA said the global biotech crop market was worth $4.7 billion for 2004, and would rise to $5 billion this year.