International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications

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The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) is funded by Northern developers of GMOs, with the aim of helping developing countries in the South take up GM technology.

Funders past and present include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred, the BBSRC, USDA, and USAID.[1][2]

ISAAA's multi-million dollar budget is matched by high-profile board members, past and present, such as: Monsanto's Robert Fraley, Wally Beversdorf of Syngenta, and Gabrielle Persley, Executive Director of AusBiotech Alliance and advisor to the World Bank. ISAAA has no representatives, however, from farmer organizations in areas like Africa.

One of ISAAA's goals is to 'facilitate a knowledge-based, better informed public debate.' To help it achieve its aim ISAAA has three 'Knowledge Centers' - the 'AmeriCenter' based at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; the 'SEAsiaCenter' in Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines; and the 'AfriCenter' in Nairobi, Kenya. Florence Wambugu headed ISAAA's Africa office before establishing her own biotech advocacy organisation - Africa Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International.

Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies says that in Africa the ISAAA has 'spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech NGOs, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum and African Biotechnology Trust. Pro-biotech Western aid agencies have joined with these organizations to quietly conduct one-sided conferences at up-scale venues around the continent, such as Kenya's Windsor Golf and Country Club, aimed to swing high-level officials in favor of GM. But critics charge these forums are facades for large corporations. The NGOs consist of a website and a few staff, they charge.'[3]

In a report on ISAAA's activities in Asia, GRAIN concluded that its role was one of 'promoting corporate profit in the name of the poor'.[4]

ISAAA's chairman is Clive James. ISAAA's annual reports on the global uptake of GMOs, 'Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops', commissioned by the biotech industry and conducted by James, are widely reported in the media. However, there are serious question marks over the accuracy of their claims as regards the extent of the uptake of GM crops around the world and the supposed benefits experienced by producers. Many claims are made purely on the basis of producer estimates and some have been shown to be contrary to the findings of properly controlled scientific studies.

Aaron deGrassi provides an example of how questionable ISAAA figures are in relation to GM cotton farming in South Africa: 'ISAAA implies that small farmers have been using the technology on a hundred thousand hectares. Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe - an industry coalition - suggests 5,000 ha of "smallholder cotton." The survey team suggests 3,000 ha.'[5] In other words ISAAA's figures are 20 times higher than even those claimed by a biotech industry source.

It is also possible to compare some of the figures in previous ISAAA's Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops with scientific research findings. For instance, in the 1998 Global Review a figure of 12% was given by American farmers for GM soy yield improvements. However, a review of the results of over 8,200 university-based controlled varietal trials in 1998 showed an almost 7% average yield reduction in the case of the GM soy, ie the diametric opposite.[6]

ISAAA's report on GM crop production in 2008 exaggerated the GM crop area for the European Union by a factor of four. For Romania, ISAAA's figures were more than 150 times the area grown as reported by Monsanto, and in Poland ISAAA's figures were 143 times larger.[7]

2009: ISAAA figures show reduced GM crops in 7 countries

The following analysis is from GM Freeze.

The report on 2009 from the ISAAA again claims GM crop expansion around the world[8] but its data reveal that seven out of 25 countries had reduced GM cultivation areas in 2009 and another remained static. The data from the industry-funded group reveals that no new countries grew GM crops during this period.

The combined area of all GM crops in 2009 covered just 2.7% of all agricultural land.[9] Very little of this production went directly to feed people, as most went into animal feed (GM maize, soy and canola), industrial scale biofuels (GM maize, soy and canola) or to produce cotton.

The expansion of GM maize in Brazil alone accounted for over 60% of the 9 million hectares increase in GM cultivation area in 2009. In seven other countries the area under GM crops actually fell in 2009 (compared with 2008), including two of what ISAAA describe as "mega" countries:

  • China's GM cultivation area was down 3%;
  • Paraguay’s GM cultivation area was down 19%.

The only other country with significant growth in area was India, where Bt cotton cultivation expanded. However the biotech industry received a major setback recently when the Indian government placed a moratorium on the approval of GM Bt brinjal (aubergine) for commercial production pending further scientific assessment on safety and cross pollination. The decision followed months of mass protests throughout the country.[10]

Globally the same six countries continue to dominate GM cropping: US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and China grew nearly 95% of all GM crops, while the remaining production area in 20 other countries remains low. One crop, GM herbicide tolerant soybeans (mostly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready), accounted for 52% of all GM crops. In all, GM soybeans, maize, cotton and canola accounted for over 99% of all plantings, demonstrating that no new GM crops have been adopted on any scale since GM crops were first grown commercially.

The US grew the highest number of different types of GM. However, deregulation of GM herbicide tolerant alfalfa and GM sugar beet have both been suspended by US courts because of the failure of the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the crops.[11][12]

The ISAAA report fails to assess weed resistance to glyphosate, which has become a major problem in GM herbicide tolerant crops in North and South America.[13] More weed killers are being used to combat this problem, and in the US the total of amount of herbicide used each year has increased since GMHT crops were introduced in 1996.[14]

In Europe, the majority of GM maize (the only crop approved for cultivation) was again grown in Spain, but there was a 4% fall in the area grown in 2009. Figures given by ISAAA for the EU reveal that the area fell in five out of seven of the principal maize growing regions in Spain in 2009[15] – a decline that began in some regions in 2004.

Elsewhere in Europe the area of GM maize fell for the second year in a row:

  • Germany's GM cultivation (where a ban was introduced in 2009) was down 100%;
  • The Czech Republic's GM cultivation was down 31%;
  • Romania's GM cultivation was down 57%;
  • Slovakia's GM cultivation was down 54%.

The area in Poland under GM remained static in 2009. Five other EU countries have banned the cultivation of Monsanto's GM maize.[16]

Recently published figures reveal the extent to which GM crops are being converted to biofuels rather than used to feed people. In 2008 12.2 million hectares of GM crops in the US were used for biofuels (19.5% of total US GM area and 10% of the global GM area).[17] The majority of this was from the conversion of maize into bio-ethanol. GM maize and soya production in Latin America is also being used to produce biofuels, but detailed data are not available.

Africa remains an unreceptive area for GM crops with only three countries growing any. ISAAA claim a large increase in Bt cotton area in Burkina Faso. However, the Bt cotton seed price in Burkino Faso is reported by NGOs to exceed the total input costs of non-GM cotton farmers in other parts of West Africa[18] by more than a third. A recent study of GM Bt cotton crops presented strong evidence that many poorer farmers had "been bypassed altogether" and were not benefiting from using GM seed.[19]

The percentage of smaller farmers growing GM crops remains very low at 2.75% of the 513 million[20] around the world. Via Campesina – the global network representing small and peasant farmers – has rejected GM crops.[21]

More concerns over the reliability of ISAAA's figures

According to a 2010 Friends of the Earth report (emphasis added by Powerbase editors):

The evidence provided to back up ISAAA’s claims is weak, and there are questions concerning the accuracy of their data and conclusions. For example, ISAAA’s 2008 Draft Status Report typically makes much of small areas of GM crops being planted in some of the 25 countries listed as growing GM crops. Yet a closer analysis of the data reveals that little progress is really being made outside the six countries that grow the majority of GM crops; and in some areas the expansion process has come to a standstill.
For example, ISAAA inflates its figures by recording very small areas of GM crop production (in the low hundreds of hectares in some countries) as <0.1 million ha. ISAAA also double counts ‘stacked trait’ crops (meaning that if a crop contains two genetically modified traits, the “actual area” will be considered to be double that planted). With the exception of the US, ISAAA (and others) generally have to rely on industrial seed sales data to estimate how many hectares have actually been planted with GM crops.[22]




  1. Donor Support Groups, ISAAA website, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  2. Donor Support Groups (Past and Current), ISAAA website, version placed in web archive 17 May 2008, accessed in web archive 24 Feb 2010. Screengrab of ISAAA complete donors list, ISAAA website, version placed in web archive 17 May 2008 here. Screengrab of detail of ISAAA complete donors list (part 1), ISAAA website, version placed in web archive 17 May 2008 here. Screengrab of detail of ISAAA complete donors list (part 2), ISAAA website, version placed in web archive 17 May 2008 here.
  3. Aaron deGrassi, Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa; an assessment of current evidence, Third World Network-Africa, June 24, 2003, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  4. "ISAAA in Asia -- Promoting Corporate Profit in the Name of the Poor," October, 2000, GRAIN.
  5. Aaron deGrassi, Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa; an assessment of current evidence, Third World Network-Africa, June 24, 2003, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  6. Jonathan Matthews, False reports and the smears of men, GM-FREE magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4, accessed 11 March 2010
  7. "Industry GM Crop Figures Massaged," January, 2009, GM Freeze.
  8. ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Ag-biotech Applications), Brief No 41, Global status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops 2009
  9. According to ISAAA GM crops occupied 134 million hectares in 2009. This is out of total area of agricultural land of over 4.9 billion hectares (source: FAO).
  10. Dean Nelson, India drops GM food plans, The Telegraph, 9 Feb 2010, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  11. GEERTSON SEED FARMS and others vs Mike Johanns, USDA, and others UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT, No. 07-16458, D.C. No. CV-06-01075-CRB, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  13. See, for example, VanGessel, MJ. “Glyphosate-resistant horseweed from Delaware”. Weed Science. (2001) 49: pp703-705; Valverde B and Gressel J. Dealing with Evolution and Spread of Sorghum halepense glyphosate resistances and spread in Argentina. A Consultancy report to SENASA. (2006); Mississippi State University Extension Service, undated. Herbicide Resistance: Prevention and Detection; Gunsolus, JL. Herbicide Resistant Weeds. University of Minnesota Extension Service, 2008; Chaudhry, O. “Herbicide Resistance and Weed-Resistance Management”. 2008
  14. Charles Benbrook, Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use: The First Thirteen Years, November 2009, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  15. See table 36 of ISAAA report. In some areas the appeal of GM crops started to wane several years ago – in Madrid the area has fallen by 90% since a peak in 2004, and in Castilla-La-Mancha by 62% in the same period.
  16. As at Feb 2010, France, Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg have banned Monsanto’s Bt maize MON810 because of health and environmental concerns.
  17. GM Crops: Top Ten Facts and Figures, Checkbiotech article, October 8, 2009. Sources: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA); International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies; International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
  18. GMO workshop statement, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 13-16 April 2004
  19. Glover, D, 2009. Underlying promise: Agricultural Biotechnology’s Pro-Poor Narrative Ten Years on. STEPS Centre, University of Sussex.
  20. Von Braum, J, 2008. Poverty, Climate Change, Rising Food Prices and Small farmers. Presentation to the International Fund for Agricultural Development Rome, April 2008
  21. Towards a Common Agriculture and Food Policy 2013 within a food sovereignty framework, Via Campesina, 18 February 2010, accessed 24 Feb 2010
  22. "Accuracy of ISAAA data", in Who Benefits from GM Crops? Friends of the Earth, 2010, p. 2, accessed 14 Mar 2010