The cultivated area worldwide with transgenic varieties grew by 1.9% in 2023 compared to the previous year, reaching a total of 206.3 million hectares. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs, official designation) are currently grown in 23 countries, with the most common varieties being corn, soybean, cotton, rapeseed, and sugar beet, which have incorporated genes from other species to increase tolerance to specific herbicides and resistance to certain lepidopteran and coleopteran insect pests.

The cultivation of genetically modified crops began commercially between 1994 and 1996, after over a decade of experimentation and pilot tests. The rate of growth in the area occupied by these modified varieties remained constant for almost two decades, but in the last ten years, official statistics – as a global average – show a stagnation or moderate growth. The development and cultivation of genetically modified plant varieties has sparked, from its beginnings, a strong debate between proponents (including manufacturers of these varieties and some sectors of scientists and farmers) and opponents (a large part of environmental groups and some scientific and farming sectors).

For more than two decades, the European Union has maintained regulations in the sector focused on ensuring that GMOs that producers and manufacturers want to make available to farmers meet all safety guarantees for the environment, other crops (non-modified), and human health. In practice, the current regulations have led to the fact that only one variety of GMO, maize MON810, has been commercially cultivated in the EU to date.

Spain has been the EU country with the largest agricultural area dedicated to the cultivation of the MON810 variety for the past two decades, followed by Portugal. The highest number of crops with this transgenic corn created by Monsanto was recorded in Spain in 2013, with a total estimate of 136,962.45 hectares, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture. In Catalonia, in that same year of 2013, the figure reached 33,995.95 hectares cultivated with transgenic corn.

The area planted with MON810 has decreased in Spain (and also in Portugal) almost constantly over the last 10 years. In 2022, a total of 67,620.05 hectares were planted with this variety of corn in Spain (15,890.42 ha in Catalonia), while in 2023, the area decreased to 46,327.42 ha in Spain as a whole (10,024.63 ha in Catalonia).

Carles Vicente, responsible for Organization of the agricultural union of Catalonia Unió de Pagesos, explains that the transgenic variety MON810 “was well received in some agricultural areas where significant damage is caused to crops by the corn borer pests, a lepidopteran whose caterpillars damage the ears and stems of this vegetable”. However, the seeds of this transgenic variety “are more expensive than similar traditional ones and, in some cases, do not achieve as positive results -against the pest- as promised by their manufacturers,” Carles Vicente explains in statements to La Vanguardia.

Over the years and with accumulated experience, many farmers in regions like Urgell have managed to adapt planting periods and cultivation methods to reduce the impact of the corn borer pest without the need to buy and plant the transgenic variety, concludes the representative of Unió de Pagesos. “If they can achieve the same results by planning their crops well with normal corn, why would they plant a more expensive transgenic corn?” rhetorically asks Carles Vicente.

The Antama Foundation (Foundation for the Application of New Technologies in Agriculture, the Environment, and Food) considers the assessment of data “on a global scale to be positive.” “If we go back to 1996, when the planting of genetically modified varieties began in the US, the cultivated area has only continued to grow, reaching over 206 million hectares in 2023,” details Soledad de Juan Arechederra, managing director of the Antama Foundation.

“In the European Union, where genetically modified crops have been hindered from the start by ideological issues, only Spain and Portugal currently dedicate part of their land to genetically modified crops, specifically to a type of corn, which is the only one authorized for planting,” says Soledad de Juan. “In Spain, since 1996, the growth of land dedicated to GMO corn has exponentially increased until the year 2013, when it reached nearly 137,000 hectares; from that moment on, as a result of drought and other factors, the land area progressively decreased until 2023, reaching just over 46,000 hectares,” points out the managing director of the Antama Foundation.

Luis Ferreirim, head of the Agriculture Campaign at Greenpeace Spain, instead points out that the decrease in genetically modified corn crops in Spain and Portugal is due to two main reasons: “On one hand, the false promises of yields and benefits from seeds that are more expensive, and on the other hand, the rejection of transgenic crops by the public.” “A couple of decades ago, it was said that transgenic corn would soon constitute half of the corn grown, but current figures indicate that it is instead on the path to disappearance. I estimate that by 2030, this variety will no longer be cultivated in Spain,” predicts the environmental spokesperson.

The cultivation of this transgenic variety “is declining due to economic, agricultural, and social reasons,” “in general, MON810 is an example that transgenic crops, besides being a problem for the environment and health, are unnecessary,” Ferreirim stated in comments to this newspaper.

“Some of its defenders claimed that GMOs would end world hunger, while the reality is that the vast majority of genetically modified crops are used to produce animal feed, and the only big beneficiaries are the manufacturers,” concludes Luis Ferreirim.