Farms seen via satellite / NASA Earth Observatory

For the past two decades, the number of genetically-modified crops has been steadily skyrocketing around the globe. Until 2015, when the number saw its first recorded drop. What’s going on?

The numbers come from a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications looking at the span of data for worldwide biotech crops since 1996, when they first began keeping records.


From 1996 onwards, the growth is huge and steady, climbing from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to just over 180 million hectares in 2014. But in 2015, something odd happened. Not only did the huge jumps in growth suddenly stop, the rate actually also dipped slightly by 1 percent.

The report pins most of the responsibility for that on a similar dip in global crop prices that year, which did happen. But there’s also another reason at play. Check out this chart of the world’s top GMO planters—and look closely at just what they’re growing:

Setting aside the question of what is and isn’t a GMO, you can still clearly see that there are three crops that dominate the chart, particularly among the heaviest growers: corn, soybeans, and cotton.


Now, look at this USDA chart of those same three crops in the United States and their shift toward biotech over the last decade and a half:


For all three, they had been shifting so rapidly toward more GMOs over the last 15 years that, by 2015, almost all corn, cotton, or soybeans planted in the US were genetically modified.

So why the dip? It wasn’t an issue of public opinion, or regulation, or (only) cost. The dip in 2015 didn’t mean that people turned away from biotech crops that year. Instead, for these three crops, it was the exact opposite. They had already taken up so much of the market that there simply wasn’t any more left for them to scoop up.


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